In recent years, you have most likely heard about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a mysterious and devastating loss of bee colonies in the U.S., Canada and Europe. The first reports of these unexplained and catastrophic bee deaths began in 2006. In the 2006-2007 season, CCD affected about 23% of commercial U.S. beekeepers, and some beekeepers lost 90% of their hives. Since then, CCD has showed no signs of slowing; substantial yearly losses of bees, 30 percent or higher, have become the norm.1,2
In 2007, some answers began to surface. Scientists began to identify viruses in U.S. bee colonies that had suffered CCD.1 Soon, it was known that healthy and CCD-stricken colonies were plagued with numerous viruses and parasitic microbes, and seemed to have impaired ability to produce proteins that protect against infection.2,3 Scientists then began to ask whether there was an environmental factor that was causing the bees to be vulnerable to viral attack.
In early 2012, two studies published in Science implicated a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.
In these studies, bees exposed to neonicotinoids exhibited a reduced growth rate, produced fewer queens, or had impaired navigation and food-gathering abilities; the scientists concluded that neonicotinoids, although the commonly encountered doses may not be directly lethal to bees, could contribute to CCD in an indirect way, by harming bees’ abilities to grow, return home to their hives or get adequate nutrition.4-6 Now that several additional studies have now found similar negative effects on bee behavior and cognition, evidence that neonicotinoids harm bees and are a major contributor to CCD has grown more convincing.7-9
Neonicotinoids began to be used in the 1990s, as less-toxic-to-humans alternatives to organochlorine and organophosphate pesticides. An important point about these pesticides is that they are usually used in a “systemic” manner; when crops are treated, the pesticides spread throughout all parts of the plant, including the nectar and pollen. Bees are exposed to these pesticides via many major commercial crops including canola, corn, cotton, sugar beet and sunflower; plus many vegetable and fruit crops.5,6,10
Bans on neonicotinoids in Europe; not in the U.S.
The pesticide industry and some scientists claim that the evidence against neonicotinoids is not yet conclusive, but it has been convincing enough for some agencies to propose bans on these pesticides as a safety measure. The European Food Safety Authority, for example, produced a report in January 2013 concluding that neonicotinoids pose unacceptable risks for bees and should not be applied to flowering crops. As a result, a 2-year suspension was proposed in the European Union, and was passed in late April – it will go into effect December 1.11,12 Currently, France and Germany have partial bans on neonicotinoid use.13
In March, a coalition of beekeepers and environmental interest groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that they have failed to protect bees and the crops they pollinate by rushing neoniconitnoids to market with inadequate review. The EPA has accelerated its schedule for reevaluating the safety neonicotinoids, however the review itself is scheduled to take another five years. The USDA and EPA released a joint report last week on U.S. honeybee health, stating that multiple factors contribute to bee colony declines, and that further research is required to determine the risks posed by pesticides. However, the report does acknowledge , “Laboratory tests on individual honey bees have shown that field-relevant, sublethal doses of some pesticides have effects on bee behavior and susceptibility to disease.”
What can we do?
This is a sincere emergency to our organic farming movement and to the global food supply, to lose the natural way flowering plants are pollinated. Bees are crucial for pollination of many crops such as apples, almonds, and citrus fruits. According to the U.N., about 70% of the crops that provide 90% of human food are pollinated by bees.14 We are dependent on bees, and they are disappearing rapidly. It is alarming to say the least.
Online petitions (sign here and/or here) have been started, aiming to urge the EPA to take action before 2018 and suspend neonicotinoid use on flowering crops frequented by bees as a safety precaution. You can also take action at home. Since wild bee populations are also declining, in part due to loss of habitat, you can help by providing bees with new habitats. You can plant a garden of vegetables and plenty of bee-friendly flowers, or even become a backyard beekeeper (find information and resources here and here). Additionally, by purchasing local and/or organic produce and eating primarily unrefined plant foods, you avoid monetarily supporting the largely genetically modified crops (corn, canola, sugar beets, etc.) that neonicotinoids are primarily used on.
Image credit - Flickr: blathlean
1. Grant B: Culprit of bee woes identified? 2007. The Scientist. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/25405/title/Culprit-of-bee-woes-identified-/. Accessed May 9, 2013.
2. Runckel C, Flenniken ML, Engel JC, et al: Temporal analysis of the honey bee microbiome reveals four novel viruses and seasonal prevalence of known viruses, Nosema, and Crithidia. PLoS One 2011;6:e20656.
3. Grant B: Bee calamity clarified. 2009. The Scientist. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/27605/title/Bee-calamity-clarified/. Accessed May 9, 2013.
4. Richards S: Pesticide Problems for Bees. 2012. The Scientist. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/31886/title/Pesticide-Problems-for-Bees/. Accessed May 9, 2013.
5. Henry M, Beguin M, Requier F, et al: A common pesticide decreases foraging success and survival in honey bees. Science 2012;336:348-350.
6. Whitehorn PR, O'Connor S, Wackers FL, et al: Neonicotinoid pesticide reduces bumble bee colony growth and queen production. Science 2012;336:351-352.
7. Gill RJ, Ramos-Rodriguez O, Raine NE: Combined pesticide exposure severely affects individual- and colony-level traits in bees. Nature 2012;491:105-108.
8. Williamson SM, Wright GA: Exposure to multiple cholinergic pesticides impairs olfactory learning and memory in honeybees. J Exp Biol 2013.
9. Palmer MJ, Moffat C, Saranzewa N, et al: Cholinergic pesticides cause mushroom body neuronal inactivation in honeybees. Nat Commun 2013;4:1634.
10. Grossman E: Bee protection: US in spotlight as EU bans pesticides. 2013. Guardian Environment Network. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/apr/30/bee-protection-us-eu-bans-pesticides. Accessed
11. Flores G: A Political Battle Over Pesticides. 2013. The Scientist. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/35058/title/A-Political-Battle-Over-Pesticides/. Accessed May 9, 2013.
12. Cossins D: Europe to Ban Neonicotinoids. 2013. The Scientist. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/35355/title/Europe-to-Ban-Neonicotinoids/. Accessed May 9, 2013.
13. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Colony Collapse Disorder: European Bans on Neonicotinoid Pesticides [http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/about/intheworks/ccd-european-ban.html]
14. Jolly D: Europe Bans Pesticides Thought Harmful to Bees. 2013. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/business/global/30iht-eubees30.html?_r=0. Accessed