Without honeybees, we may cease to be

They pollinate most of our favorite fruits -- and their extermination could set off a global food crisis

Published March 21, 2013 5:11PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet If you like almonds, then 2013 brought some bad news. Each year, honeybees from across the country make the trek to California, which grows 80 percent of the world’s almonds, to pollinate the almond crop. But bees have been dying in unusually large numbers for several years now, and this year appears worse than most.

The problems we face if we don’t have healthy populations of pollinators, particularly honeybees, extend beyond almonds. Three fourths of the top crops grown in the world require animals – mostly insects – for pollination. Odds are that most of your favorite fruits, nuts and melons are pollinated by honeybees.

Across the pond, the European Union has made major strides in shedding light on the role of certain pesticides in honeybee deaths. In fact, the European Commission has proposed a two-year ban on these pesticides. Meanwhile, at home, beekeepers remain frustrated that the U.S. government is not as forward-thinking. And, for another year, the saga of bee deaths continues.

The pesticides in question are called neonicotinoids. It’s a mouthful, but the root word is “nicotine,” because they are chemically similar to the addicting tobacco compound. The most common of these is a pesticide called imidacloprid. Two others are clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

New York beekeeper Jim Doan ended last year with about 700 hives. He began the year with 900. But those numbers hide larger losses. A beekeeper can increase his or her number of hives by splitting them. Doan did so, building up to 2,300 hives by mid-June.

For a beekeeper, splitting your hives means a certain amount of sacrifice, because two smaller hives replace each larger one, and you must let each hive build up its numbers and its honey before you harvest any yourself. “Now this will be the seventh year of extraordinarily high losses. Every year we're making up bees but at the sacrifice of not making honey. So both ways you've taken a beating and a loss,” says Doan.

From mid-June onward, Doan watched his bees die. By October 15, he had only 1,100 hives. More than half of the colonies that were alive only four months before were now dead. What happened?

One can piece together part of the story based on the bees’ locations and their food sources. Although Doan is a New Yorker, his bees take a Florida vacation each winter. They only reside in New York from April to September. While there, they first pollinate apricots, then cherries, pears, apples, and finally, squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins.

In Florida, the bees spend some time in oranges, but Doan also puts his bees in a non-agricultural area for part of the year “to help build them up and to watch them die again,” as he cynically puts it. “We're in [parts of ] Florida where there's no agriculture. And that's the only time our bees really look good. They look like bees… But it's frustrating.”

Doan, for his part, is certain he knows what killed his bees. “The problem is corn dust. And I say that without any hesitation in my voice.” He’s referring to the dust expelled as exhaust from the machinery used to plant corn. His state, New York, bans a pesticide called clothianidin, which many blame for bee deaths, but it comes into the state anyway on pre-treated corn seeds. A whopping 94 percentof all corn seeds in the U.S. are treated with neonicotinoids.

“We had 148 hives killed by clothianidin,” says Doan. “We were sitting in apples and they planted field corn nearby and we lost those hives.” He moved his bees away from those apple orchards, but the bees continued dying – this time from a different but related pesticide.

“In July, we had losses. I called the USDA. They took samples, and they came back with one of the highest levels of thiamethoxam in the nation at 39.6 parts per billion (ppb). And the only way you can get thiamethoxam in New York State – you can only get it from corn or from rosy aphid spray [on apples]." At the time, his bees were surrounded by cornfields, and the nearest apples were 30 miles away.

“Those 2,300 [hives] that fell to 1,100, that was almost certainly from thiamethoxam and clothianidin from field corn,” he continues. “CropLife [a pesticide lobby group] will tell you that it takes 80 ppb to kill a bee. My contention is that it doesn't take that much."

When first introduced, neonicotinoids were thought to be relatively “environmentally friendly” pesticides. Often they can be applied without spraying, by either treating seeds prior to planting or drenching the soil. The pesticides are taken up by and spread throughout the plants. Every part of the plant – including the pollen and nectar – contain pesticide residues. In theory, these chemicals will only poison “bad bugs" that eat the plants.

A new report published by the European Union’s European Environment Agency chronicles a similar story as it unfolded in France. Back in the 1990s, French beekeepers noticed their bees dying in unprecedented numbers and they connected it to a then-new pesticide used in sunflowers, imidacloprid.

Nailing down the science on how much imidacloprid it takes to kill a bee and how much imidacloprid bees are exposed to was not easy. First, the amounts of imidacloprid in pollen and nectar fell below Bayer’s detection limit of 10 ppb. A decade later, France’s Scientific and Technical Committee for the Multifactor Study of the Honeybee Colonies Decline (CST) validated findings that the pesticide showed up in the pollen of treated sunflowers and maize at the rates of 3.3 ppb and 3.5 ppb, respectively, and in the nectar of treated sunflowers at 1.9 ppb.

Second, as social insects, bees work together, sharing and storing food. A colony might gather nectar and pollen from a source at one time but store it and eat it several weeks later. Forager bees gather pollen but do not eat it. Nurse bees consume pollen to produce jelly as a food for larvae, and larvae eat pollen as well.

And last, the scientists did not always consider chronic or sublethal effects on the bees. For example, a one-time dose of imidacloprid might not kill a bee, but the same dose consumed over 10 days might. Or perhaps a certain dose will never kill a bee outright, but it impacts the bee’s navigation and flight skills so that the bee cannot return to its hive and dies from exposure.

Scientists also lack standardized ways to measure chronic and sublethal effects. Acute lethal effects of a chemical are measured by finding the “LD50,” the dosage required to kill 50 percent of whatever is being studied. But scientists looking for chronic and sublethal effects lacked a common standard to measure their findings.

As any beekeeper will tell you, it is very easy to design a study that “proves” a pesticide doesn’t harm bees. And whether by design or by accident, many studies – often ones funded by the pesticide’s maker, Bayer – concluded that high doses of imidacloprid were needed to cause any harm to honeybees.

In 2001, public scientists (i.e. not funded by Bayer) concluded that feeding bees syrup containing just 0.1 ppb for 10 days would kill 50 percent of them. The next year, Bayer announced that its own studies found “no negative effect can be observed on honeybee colonies” below 20 ppb. In other words, Bayer thinks bees can tolerate 200 times as much imidacloprid without dying (or suffering anyharmful effects) as public scientists found.

The new European report also reveals that Bayer attempted to influence public scientists working on this issue by threatening them with lawsuits or appealing to their superiors.

Even without definitive proof that imidacloprid was to blame for bee die-offs, France banned its use on sunflowers in 1999. Shortly thereafter, Bayer mounted a legal challenge to the ban. Other multinational seed producers like Monsanto and Pioneer weighed in on Bayer’s side. Bayer also sued representatives of beekeepers syndicates for “discrediting” their pesticide. Alas, Bayer lost every time.

By 2003, CST concluded that imidacloprid-treated corn and sunflower seed “poses significant risks for bees.” France’s ban only covered sunflowers (not corn), and the bees were still dying. The stated reason for banning it on only sunflowers was that corn does not make nectar. But corn produces pollen, and bees eat it. CST felt that corn pollen consumption by nurse bees and larvae was a possible explanation for continued bee troubles in France.

A major issue the European report addresses is the synergy between pesticides and diseases or parasites. Beekeepers on both sides of the Atlantic worry that even at sublethal doses, pesticides harm bees’ immune systems. With depressed immune systems, pathogens or parasites that might not otherwise kill bees now do. The report confirms that this is, in fact, the case.

The report concludes, “imidacloprid seems to be a substance particularly 'fit for the precautionary principle'.” It cites the chemicals’ ability to harm honeybees and wild bees at minute doses and its persistence in the soil for several years. Additionally, it notes that after Italy temporarily banned neonicotinoids in several crops, reports of high honeybee mortality decreased from 185 to two.

With Europe’s environmental agency thoroughly examining neonicotinoids’ role in bee die-offs and the European Commission recommending a ban on them, what is the US EPA doing? Allowing the use of a new, unregistered neonicotinoids called sulfoxaflor, and proposing a “conditional registration” for it. (Registration, in pesticide speak, means legalization. Conditional registration means, “Make money by selling it now, and perform the safety tests later.”)

Yup. That’s where we’re at. If you see a beekeeper who has literally torn his hair out, now you know why.

In addition to the role bees play in pollinating crops, they might also be a canary in the coal mine. Bees are more sensitive to environmental pollution than other insects, so – as the new European report puts it – “honeybee losses can be interpreted as an ‘alarm bell’ of harm to other entomofauna [bugs] and indirectly to plants, birds, and other species.”

Last week, the EPA held a Pollinator Summit, which it broadcast as a webinar. Presenters included pesticide makers Bayer and Syngenta, seed companies DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto, agricultural equipment manufacturers, and a corn farmer who spoke about the value of seed treatment with pesticides. A beekeeper spoke for 20 minutes.

The official presentation covered topics like how agribusiness plans to keep using neonicotinoids on seeds but reduce the amount of pesticide-contaminated dust spewed into the environment during planting. This is a nice step, of course, but the pesticide will still pulse through every cell in the plant, including the pollen. And it will enter the soil and remain there for years – except for the percent that seeps into the groundwater.

On the webinar’s online chat program, participants like beekeeper Tom Theobald spoke passionately about the government’s inadequate response to their problems. “We have had 265 minutes of corn planting, seed treatment, and mitigation, 20 minutes from a real working beekeeper, he wrote. “It is not the Environmental Mitigation Agency. Their responsibility is protection. They cannot continue to unleash dangerous chemicals on the environment and then come up with a bunch of shams they call mitigation. The beekeepers are out of time.”

Theobald’s beekeeping business has operated at a loss for several years now, and he expects it will this year, too. His honey crop this year was just 10 percent of what was considered normal before the bees began dying. After the webinar, he said of it, “I want to give the EPA some credit but they're making it awful hard for me. That summit wasn't a summit. It was a propagandizing opportunity for the chemical industry.”

He continued, saying, “What they've done is they've turned the environment into the experiment. The EPA has distorted its sense of its role to this sham they call mitigation. Just release it to the environment… and then purport to mitigate the damages. They're not mitigating the damages… Who's in the driver's seat here? This is horrible mismanagement of a regulatory agency.”

Although there’s little private citizens can do, beyond submitting comments to the EPA about these pesticides, contacting your representatives, and perhaps even getting your own beehive, you might be surprised to find out that these toxic pesticides are widely available for home use. Bayer sells imidacloprid in products sold for use on roses, flowers, shrubs, trees (even fruit and nut trees!), and lawns. Even the flea treatment Advantage sold for your pet contains it!

If you use a landscaping service or hire an arborist, they might have access to even more potent forms of these pesticides. Be sure you know what they are using – and remember that the bees are consuming any nectar or pollen produced by your plants, even if you think of those plants as non-edible.

By Jill Richardson

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