Opinion: There should be more buzz about bees

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Quebec is the most progressive province in addressing bee-toxic pesticides, and yet this leadership is not reflected in its curriculum guidelines.

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May 20 marks World Bee Day. Wild, native bees are barely noticed, but they work away like undercover agents in our fields, gardens, forests and parks. There are more than 850 species of wild, native bees recognized in Canada, 20,000 worldwide, and new species are still being discovered.

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Bees are essential to our well-being and that of the planet’s biodiversity.

Scientists tell us that between 70 to 80 per cent of flowering plant species worldwide depend on pollinators, especially wild bees, and they estimate that one in three mouthfuls of food depend on these pollination services. However, unlike honeybees, who have their loyal beekeepers, there is limited information on the population and health status of wild, native bees.

If the public knew more about these fascinating creatures and the important role they play in pollinating food crops and native plants, would we do a better job of protecting them?

Despite the importance of wild bees, even what little we know is barely represented in today’s largely out-of-date school curriculum.

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In a new partnership, Friends of the Earth and Green Teacher are taking on the task of educating teachers and students (and their parents) about the importance of wild, native bees. Canadians’ interest in “saving the bees” was kicked into high gear in Canada in 2014 with reports of massive bee kills from exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides. We wondered, are the education systems across Canada part of the effort to save the bees?

We conducted a review of science curriculum in each province and territory.  The results were not promising.

First, how dated are science curriculums for the youngest, most impressionable students? Very.

Quebec is one of four jurisdictions (the others are the Northwest Territories, Ontario and Saskatchewan) that published their elementary science curriculums more than 10 years ago. Three provinces — Alberta, Manitoba and New Brunswick — have mandatory science curricula for elementary schools that are more than 20 years old.

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So, what about high school?  Not much better.

We assessed high school curricula using 2017 as the benchmark, based on data reported in Germany and then Costa Rica suggesting a state of catastrophic insect population collapse. Causes include, but are not limited to, habitat loss, chronic exposure to pesticides through modern industrialized agriculture and climate change, all important stressors on wild, native bees.

Newfoundland updated its biology curriculum in 2020. But all other jurisdictions had curriculums created prior to 2017.

Quebec is the most progressive province in addressing bee-toxic pesticides, and yet this leadership is not reflected in its curriculum guidelines. Montreal is the first city in North America to ban the sale of more than 100 pesticides products for domestic use, including for gardens and yards. This, too, should be reflected in what students learn about protecting wildlife, such as safeguarding Quebec’s 365 wild, native bees.

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Any current teaching about the significance of insect decline, including bees, depends on individual, dedicated teachers and is not universally taught.

In 2021, UNESCO declared environmental education must be a core curriculum component worldwide by 2025. In the lead-up to the Berlin Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO published a survey of curriculum frameworks in close to 50 countries and reported that only 19 per cent speak of biodiversity. We used this finding as the final benchmark for our review of Canadian science curriculums.

In the 12 Canadian jurisdictions we were able to assess, all provinces and territories mention biodiversity in some fashion for high schools — good news, at last.

Science education is key to understanding important facets of biodiversity such as the role of insects and, in particular, wild, native bees.

To save the bees, all Canadians, young and older, also need to learn about the links between healthy populations of wild, native bees and healthy crops and native plants.

Beatrice Olivastri is CEO of Friends of the EarthIan Shanahan is general editor of Green Teacher.

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