With winter fast approaching, now comes the time to reflect on the year gone by and prepare for 2017. Although most institutions find themselves abuzz with plans for wrapping up the year and charting progress, ecologists find themselves faced with a quite literal lack of buzz.

In this month’s Lecture Me! series organized by the Experiential Education Office, Dr. Stephen Scharper, an associate professor at UTM’s Department of Anthropology and the School of the Environment at U of T’s St. George campus, spoke about the declining condition of our bee populations, and the role of Laudato si’ (Pope Francis’ second papal letter sent to bishops within the Roman Catholic Church) in progress being made towards changing our approach to ecology.

In his talk titled, “Falling in Love with the Earth: Pope Francis, Bees, and the Quest for an Integral Ecology,” and subtitled, “Bee Friendly: Laudato si’ and the prospect of a Bee positive ecology,” Scharper describes how in 2013-2014, Ontario witnessed a 25 percent over-winter bee colony loss, the highest it has ever been.

The significance of this loss is most evident when you consider the economic value generated by bee populations. According to Scharper, in Canada, bee populations generate approximately $2 billion, while in the world, it has recently reached a value of up to $200 billion.

“The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, after reviewing 800 scientific studies, concluded that neonicotinoids are a key factor in the decline of bees,” says Scharper.

Neonicotinoids are a recent class of insecticides, sprayed on plants and vegetation that target the central nervous system found in insects, resulting in paralysis and death. These compounds remain in plants as the plant grows, and when bees ingest these neonicotinoids, they are unable to find their hives.

Similar to the effect of nicotine in cigarettes, Scharper points out that bees are becoming addicted to the toxic compound. “In Ontario, approximately 100 percent of corn seeds and 60 percent of soybeans sold are treated with neonicotinoids—so this is widespread, and now people are thinking this may not be such a good idea,” says Scharper.

“To me, it’s a question of not simply agriculture, not simply economics, and not simply science,” says Scharper, referring to the school of environment. “Part of what we look at are the underlying values and assumptions that determine the human approach to the non-human world.”

He uses the example of the widespread backlash against Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, written in opposition to the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). The book was published back when DDT was considered safe, but data was slowly emerging and showing that DDT buildup in the food chain was resulting in declining bald eagle populations, along with other birds.

“The book, titled symbolically on the thought of no bird sounds in spring time, may well be regarded as the basis of modern environmental legislature,” says Scharper, describing how the DDT story displays the dichotomous world views that are often characteristic of debates concerning environmental policies.

Scharper also discussed the importance of Pope Francis’ second encyclical, Laudato si’, subtitled, “On Care for Our Common Home”.

Scharper describes how the encyclical addresses issues on environmental degradation, consumerism, and irresponsible development. “Members of the Vatican have said that it was meant to influence the Paris document,” says Scharper, referring to the COP21 summit in Paris last year.

“The pope is also trying to relay the need for protection for our endangered species, including insects,” he adds.

“Oslo has built the first bumblebee highway. It’s a corridor through the city, with a pollen station every 200 m, with areas that indicate where there are bee-predating and pollinator-predating plants and species.”

Oslo’s highway was structured after studying factors such as insects’ migratory and feeding patterns, with efforts made by municipal and private institutions.

Scharper describes these efforts in the context of Pope Francis’s encyclical, and quotes the last line of Paragraph 68 within Laudato si’: “Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”