Why honey bees are dying, why it matters and what we can do about it

by Terry B on May 25, 2014

Honey bees, vital to growing most of the fruits and vegetables we eat, are dying in huge numbers. Several studies point to one chemical killer. You can tell the EPA to do something about it.

Honeybee

For all its mechanized muscle and technological wizardry, agribusiness still needs bees. In fact, according to USDA, “one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.” Whole Foods is more direct in sharing this information—and in stating the problem at hand: “One of every three bites of food comes from plants pollinated by honeybees and other pollinators, and pollinator populations are facing massive declines.”

The problem is something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In the winter of 2005/2006, beekeepers began reporting losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives. This wasn’t a decrease of populations within hives, but entire hives of bees either dying or disappearing. Significant losses have continued, year after year. And as agricultural demand for bees has increased, so has the pressure on remaining hives. A new Harvard study is only the latest to point a finger at a widely used class of pesticides.

The pesticides in question are neonicotinoids, chemically similar to nicotine. According to Wikipedia, they are registered in more than 120 countries and, in 2008, represented 24% of the global market for insecticides. In a Mother Jones article last week, Tom Philpott reported that they are “widely used not only on big Midwestern crops like corn and soybeans but also on cotton, sorghum, sugar beets, apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, leafy greens, tomatoes, and potatoes. They’re even common in yard and landscaping products.” And therein lies the problem. They are really hard to avoid, and they represent a whole lot of money.

In the recently released Harvard study, half of the honey bee hives exposed to tiny amounts of neonicotinoids vanished. In earlier studies in which bees were exposed to sublethal doses, the chemicals significantly affected bees’ ability to find their way back to their hives. So whether the bees were killed outright or not, the effect was the same: the hives collapsed.

The Sierra Club reports that in the past several months, “four separate studies have added substantial weight to the growing body of evidence showing that widespread use of neonicotinoids—like imidacloprid and clothianidin—is linked to Colony Collapse Disorder. One study found that colonies exposed to neonicotinoids produced 85 percent fewer queens, meaning the creation of 85 percent fewer hives! United States Department of Agriculture bee expert Jeffery Pettis rightly calls the findings ‘alarming.’”

What does this mean to us? Last year, a Whole Foods store in Rhode Island demonstrated what life without bees would look like in their produce department. They removed all produce that comes from plants dependent on honeybees and other pollinators—237 of the 453 products normally available. Among the foods gone from the shelves were apples, onions, carrots, avocados, lemons, limes, cauliflowers, broccoli, kale, melons, cucumbers, mustard greens and zucchini. Imagine cooking without any of these. Imagine eating without them. The photos below will help:

whole-foods-bees-releasephoto

But with all the mounting evidence against neonicotinoids, the government refuses to acknowledge any smoking gun. On its website, USDA maintains “Despite a number of claims in the general and scientific media, a cause or causes of CCD have not been identified by researchers.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, which has the power to ban the use of neonicotinoids, isn’t, even though their websites notes that their European counterpart has done so. The EPA instead blandly says, “The EPA is not currently banning or severely restricting the use of the neonicotinoid pesticides. The neonicotinoid pesticides are currently being re-evaluated through registration review, the EPA’s periodic re-evaluation of registered pesticides to ensure they meet current health and safety standards.” In the Mother Jones article, Philpott says this review won’t be done until 2016 at the earliest.

Even with so very much at stake, government agencies are once again siding with big business—in this case the chemical behemoths Bayer AG, Syngenta AG and Dow Chemical Co., makers of most of the neonicotinoid-based pesticides on the market. As many beekeepers and scientists have asked the EPA to follow the lead of the European Union and ban the pesticide’s use, according to a recent article in Bloomberg, the companies “say neonicotinoids aren’t to blame for the bee deaths and have stepped up their own lobbying to counter calls for a ban as well as legislation now in Congress.”

Taking action to protect honey bee populations

In the face of this well financed lobbying effort, some groups are fighting back. In February, the City of Eugene, Oregon became the first community in the nation to specifically ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. The City Council unanimously passed the resolution. And in April, the Sierra Club launched a petition asking the EPA to ban its use. You can sign the petition here.

You can also write your senators and representative and ask them to take action to save our food supplies by protecting bees. Don’t know who they are? You can find them here. And you can contact Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak, who is also head of USDA. Here is the contact page.

Will all of this help? We can’t say for sure. But big businesses don’t like noise on sensitive issues like this. Neither do government agencies and officials. And the Internet has made making noise very, very easy. Make some noise. The bees and the food you save could be your own.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

John@Kitchen Riffs May 25, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Those are striking pictures. I knew bees were necessary to a lot of food production, but I didn’t realize the extent. This is really an important issue — thanks for the heads up.

Barbara Fazio May 25, 2014 at 8:26 pm

The pictures were worth 10,000 words. I appreciate you pushing this issue to the forefront. I will follow up. You’ve got me on talapia, and now on honey bees.

Jane Sueme May 26, 2014 at 11:09 pm

Thank you, Terry B for summarizing this and encouraging your readers to get involved. This has been an issue that honey beekeepers have been aware of for several years, but it’s an issue for all of us (who eat fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables, milk, ice cream, even beef.)

Terry B May 27, 2014 at 10:43 am

Thanks, John and Barbara!

Jane! I had no idea you were in the beekeeping business. Very, very cool. Also, good luck to you regarding CCD.

randi May 27, 2014 at 11:40 am

This is scary.

richard May 31, 2014 at 10:57 am

The EPA won’t consider any cause for honey bee decline other than man made global warming. Global warming alarmists predict widespread crop failures and enormous increases in food prices. Collapsing honey bee populations due to neonicotinoids will be spun as global warming. The EPA’s overarching goal is total government control of energy.

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