This article reports that exposure to systemic insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, and pesticides has been one of the main reasons behind the disappearance of bees.
Systemic insecticides known as neonicotinoids have become the fastest growing insecticides in the world. Two prominent examples, imidacloprid and clothianidin, are used as seed treatments in hundreds of crops. Virtually all of today’s genetically engineered Bt corn, for instance, is treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.
Bee colonies began disappearing in the United States shortly after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed these new insecticides on the market, and a debate has since been raging over whether or not these chemicals are indeed contributing to the serious honeybee die-offs that have been occurring around the world.
Now the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has released a report that may put the debate to rest, as they’ve ruled neonicotinoid insecticides are essentially “unacceptable” for many crops.
Is This the “Death Knell” for Neonicotinoids?
The European Commission asked EFSA to assess the risks associated with the use of three common neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – with particular focus on:
Their acute and chronic effects on bee colony survival and development
Their effects on bee larvae and bee behavior
The risks posed by sub-lethal doses of the three chemicals
One of the glaring issues that EFSA came across was a widespread lack of information, with scientists noting that in some cases gaps in data made it impossible to conduct an accurate risk assessment. Still, what they did find was “a number of risks posed to bees” by the three neonicotinoid insecticides.
The Authority found that when it comes to neonicotinoid exposure from residues in nectar and pollen in the flowers of treated plants:1
“…only uses on crops not attractive to honeybees were considered acceptable.”
As for exposure from dust produced during the sowing of treated seeds, the Authority ruled “a risk to honeybees was indicated or could not be excluded…” According to certain environmental groups, the ruling could be the “death knell” for neonicotinoid pesticides.2
Pesticides Also Linked to Honeybee Colony Failures
Exposure to pesticides has been associated with changes in bee behavior and reductions in colony queen production, both of which could have detrimental impacts on the life of the colony. Last year, the impact of pesticides on individual bee behavior, and its subsequent impact on the colony as a whole, was also revealed. Bees given access to two commonly used agricultural pesticides (neonicotinoid and pyrethroid) were adversely affected in numerous ways, including:3
Fewer adult worker bees emerged from larvae
A higher proportion of foragers failed to return to the nest
A higher death rate among worker bees
An increased likelihood of colony failure
The researchers said:
“Here we show that chronic exposure of bumble bees to two pesticides (neonicotinoid and pyrethroid) at concentrations that could approximate field-level exposure impairs natural foraging behavior and increases worker mortality leading to significant reductions in brood development and colony success.
We found that worker foraging performance, particularly pollen collecting efficiency, was significantly reduced with observed knock-on effects for forager recruitment, worker losses and overall worker productivity. Moreover, we provide evidence that combinatorial exposure to pesticides increases the propensity of colonies to fail.”
What Makes Neonicotinoid Pesticides so Toxic?
Neonicotinoid insecticides are known as systemic chemicals because they disrupt the central nervous system of insects, leading to paralysis and death. It’s been suggested that even sub-lethal doses of the insecticides may be negatively impacting bees.
Because neonicotinoids are water soluble and very pervasive, they get into the soil and groundwater where they can accumulate and remain for many years and generate long-term toxicity to the hive. They enter the vascular system of the plant and are carried to all parts of it, as well as to the pollen and nectar. Neonicotinoids affect insects’ central nervous systems in ways that are cumulative and irreversible. Even minute amounts can have profound effects over time.
One of the observed effects of these insecticides is weakening of the bee’s immune system. Forager bees bring pesticide-laden pollen back to the hive, where it’s consumed by all of the bees. Six months later, their immune systems fail, and they fall prey to secondary, seemingly “natural” bee infections, such as parasites, mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria. Pathogens such as Varroa mites, Nosema, fungal and bacterial infections, and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) are found in large amounts in honeybee hives on the verge of collapse.
In addition to immune dysfunction and opportunistic diseases, the honeybees also appear to suffer from neurological problems, disorientation, and impaired navigation. These effects have great consequence, as a bee can’t survive for more than 24 hours if she becomes disoriented and unable to find her way back to the hive.
Bayer Downplays EFSA’s “Death Knell” Report
Bayer, a leading manufacturer of the neonicotinoid pesticides at the heart of the debate, has gone on record stating EFSA’s report “did not alter existing risk assessments and warned against ‘over-interpretation of the precautionary principle.'”4 In other words, it sounds as though they’d rather farmers continue using their pesticides without question, even if there are major concerns that they’re decimating bee populations worldwide. Bayer also noted that they are ready to work with the European Commission to address any “perceived data gaps.”
In fact, Bayer plans to open the North American Bee Care Center by July 2013. The Center is intended to be a research hub as well as promote “the active promotion of bee-responsible use of Bayer products along with communication activities worldwide.”5
Of course, it’s highly unlikely that any forthcoming research from Bayer’s North American Bee Care Center will find pesticides at fault… already, a report funded by the chemical industry has come out stating that banning neonicotinoid pesticides would cost farmers more than $980 million in lost food production.6 Yet, if these chemicals truly are killing off bee colonies, we stand to lose much, much more than that…
Bees Pollinate 70 Percent of the World’s Food
There are about 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of food, globally. Of these, 71 are pollinated by bees.7 In the United States, a full one-third of the food supply depends on pollination from bees. Apple orchards, for instance, require one colony of bees per acre to be adequately pollinated. So if bee colonies continue to be devastated major food shortages could result. There is also concern that the pesticides could be impacting other pollinators as well, including bumblebees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and others, which could further impact the environment.
If honeybees disappear, so, too, will all of these other innovations and any new developments that may be honeybee-inspired in the future, such as these contributions to human health, including:
Playing an important role in human medicine; raw honey, which has potent anti-inflammatory and anti-infective properties, is being used for wound healing and treating coughs, while “stun” chemicals from bee stings are being looked at as an effective anesthetic for humans.
Propolis, the “caulk” honey bees use to patch holes in their hives, may slow the growth of prostate cancer and has powerful immune-modulating effects, along with potent antioxidant and anti-microbial action, and healing, analgesic, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Bee pollen, which is often referred to as a superfood because it contains a broad range of nutrients required by your body. About half of its protein is in the form of free amino acids that are ready to be used directly by your body and can therefore contribute significantly to your protein needs.
Honeybees have helped make scientific discoveries in many fields, including the aeronautics industry, which used the design of the six-sided honeycomb to help design aircraft wings; honeybee communication systems have even been adopted by computer programmers to help run Internet servers more efficiently.8
Do You Want to Get Involved to Help Protect Honeybees?
The documentary film Vanishing of the Bees recommends four actions you can take to help preserve our honeybees:
Support organic farmers and shop at local farmer’s markets as often as possible. You can “vote with your fork” three times a day. (When you buy organic, you are making a statement by saying “no” to GMOs and toxic pesticides!)
Cut the use of toxic chemicals in your house and on your lawn, and use only organic, all-natural forms of pest control.
Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant a garden. Lawns offer very little benefit for the environment. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide excellent natural honeybee habitats.
Become an amateur beekeeper. Having a hive in your garden requires only about an hour of your time per week, benefits your local ecosystem, and you can enjoy your own honey!
If you are interested in more information about bee preservation, the following organizations are a good place to start.
Pesticide Action Network Bee Campaign9
The Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees10
American Beekeeping Federation11
Help the Honey Bees12