Bee Deviled: Scientists No Longer Bumbling Over Cause Of Colony Collapse Disorder
Photo courtesy of Kyle Anderson Photography
Bee Deviled: Scientists No Longer Bumbling Over Cause Of Colony Collapse Disorder
Posted: 09/19/2012 12:14 pm
Though worldwide bee health has been on the decline since the 1990s, it
wasn't until the fall of 2006 that beekeepers nationwide began noticing
millions of bees vanishing from their hives. This syndrome, named colony
collapse disorder, or CCD, is characterized by the disappearance of
adult honey bees from the hive, leaving the newborns to fend for
If you're not a huge fan of the bee, why should this matter to you?
Well, if you like to eat food, you should be concerned. Besides
gathering nectar to produce honey, bees pollinate agricultural crops,
home gardens, orchards and wildlife habitat. As they travel from blossom
to blossom in search of nectar, pollen sticks to their furry body and
is transferred to another flowering blossom enabling it to swell into a
ripened fruit. It's estimated that about one-third of the human diet is
derived from insect-pollinated plants and three-quarters of all plants
on the planet depend on insects or animals for pollination.
Most scientists now agree that the main causes of colony collapse
disorder are nutritional stress, pathogens (mites, viruses and fungus),
and pesticides. Two recent studies published in Science strengthen the
case that a relatively new class of systemic insecticides entitled
'neonicotinoid pesticides' are indeed key drivers behind recent
Not knowing how to even pronounce the word neonicotinoid,I decided to
contact Pesticide Action Network, North America, (www.panna.org) where
trained agronomists, chemists, ecologists and analysts track and
translate science, making it publicly accessible to the rest of us. I
spoke with Heather Pilactic, Panna's Co-Director, about the recent bee
die-offs and what consumers can do to support the struggling beekeepers.
According to PANNA's reading of the latest science, these new studies
show that pesticides do play a significant role in honeybee deaths. How
large a role?
How big a role neonics, or any other bee-toxic pesticides play in CCD
and pollinator decline really depends on the situation. The relative
contribution of each of these three main causes will vary with location,
timing, exposure levels, genetic vulnerability of a hive, etc.in ways
that defy meaningful quantification. But the really short answer is
What we do know is that pesticides are absolutely driving bee losses in a
number of different ways: Increased herbicide use (driven by RoundUp
Ready GE crops) is killing off habitat that bees rely on for nutrition.
As for older pesticides, foliar (spray) applications of any number of
pesticides while bees are foraging, is still common practice.
Bees are especially vulnerable to many insecticides: when you spray when
and where they are eating, they die. New science out of the University
of Pennsylvania's bee team shows that adjuvants, or "inert" ingredients
that make up the bulk of a pesticide product formulation are impacting
bee health as well.
A new class of fungicides -- once rarely used on corn -- have since 2006
been widely promoted as yield boosters. What little we have studied
about the effects of fungicides on bees points to their synergistic
effects when combined with neonics (as they often are): they increase
the bee-toxicity of the latter up to 1,141-fold. The chemistry of yet
another new class of fungicides indicates that they have insecticidal
effects. Emerging science further points to fungicides as killing off
important bee "gut" microbiota -- such as the bacteria that bees rely
upon to turn pollen into bee bread, or the friendly bacteria that combat
That's depressing enough but there's more. (Hang in there, pilgrim.) What's all the talk we hear about neonicotinoid pesticides?
Neonicotinoids, covers at least 142 million acres of U.S. countryside,
much of it corn -- on which bees rely heavily for protein. As systemics,
these insecticides course through plants' vascular systems to be
expressed in pollen, nectar and guttation droplets. This class also
happens to be very long-lasting, so they are accumulating in the soil,
and saturating the environment in ways we have yet to quantify.
The most widely used of these neonicotinoids (imidacloprid,
clothianidin, thiamethoxam) are known to be highly acutely toxic to
bees, and have a variety of sub-lethal effects ranging from
disorientation to memory, immunity and reproductive impairment. These
pesticides are clearly making bees sick, and dead -- but so do a lot of
other pesticides. What makes these neonicotinoids suspect is that they
are known to be highly toxic to bees, pervasive, long-lasting and
relatively new. Perhaps coincidentally, the emergence of CCD in the U.S.
roughly coincides with the 5-fold increase of the level of neonics used
on corn seed: seed companies began marketing seeds treated with a 5X
level of neonicotinoids (1.25 mg/seed vs. .25) in 2004.
The peril of the bees is sounding an alarm warning us of environmental
degradation but we're be too busy texting, facebooking and watching
reality TV to notice. What are they trying to tell us with all that
buzzing and disappearing?
Bees are an indicator species. They signal the well being of our broader
environment, so their message is important. It is also one that I
believe we are capable of receiving. Our generation, and our children's
generation face overwhelming environmental issues. How do we process
climate change? Water and food shortages? Biodiversity collapse? In a
sense, the escape to virtual worlds is understandable. But I think of
saving the bees as one of those graspable, manageable things that we can
accomplish -- and that when we do accomplish it, the effects will
ripple and magnify. If we stop poisoning bees, they will thrive and the
world we live in will be more resilient as a result.
Why are you picking on Bayer's clothianidin? Doesn't Bayer make chewable baby aspirin?
Bayer's clothianidin -- which is one of the most toxic substances to
bees that we know of -- remains on the market, in our view, illegally.
There is no valid field study supporting its registration. The backstory
is long and sordid, and we're still on the case. What it comes down to
is that EPA has long been using this little-known loophole called
"conditional registration" to speed pesticides to market with little or
no safety data in hand. According to the Natural Resources Defense
Council, of the 16,000 current product registrations: 11,000 (68
percent) have been conditionally registered -- that's 2/3 getting an
essentially free pass to market.
So the Environmental Protection Agency tests for safety after the
product has been on the market? That's reassuring... I need to go hide
under my bed.
Registrants (such as Bayer) are then supposed to submit safety data
according to defined criteria on a set deadline. What they do instead is
delay, deliberately ignore certain criteria, or otherwise game the
system to avoid real oversight. In the case of clothianidin, the field
study they submitted was so poorly done as to be laughable -- it had no
control and was on the wrong crop (canola instead of corn). EPA
originally accepted it, then downgraded it and then neglected to close
Sounds like the pesticide industry has the EPA by the balls . . .What
can the public do to help shift policy decisions that can help bees,
beekeepers and people who like to eat safe food?
Our food system has always been a political arrangement in one form or
another. What's heartening about the last 5 years or so is that the
conversation is widening because folks are realizing that this is a
political issue much more so than a lifestyle one. More people are
seeing themselves as stakeholders in a rigged food system, and doing
something about it. And that's a good thing! That's democracy.
So the MAN is still calling the shots? That's getting so old!
It is true that corporations and wealthy people have too much power in
government -- but that won't change unless ordinary people engage the
political process. Members of Congress truly are motivated by speaking
with constituents who have a story to tell and know their issue.
Decision makers still read the local papers, especially opinion pages.
Get in the habit of writing letters to the editor, or OpEds. Or, get in
the habit of making one phone call a week on one issue or another;
before you know it, you'll be getting meetings with decision makers.
Nobody can do everything, but we can all choose one thing and do it. For
my money, I say, "get informed and get in the ring." Go to our website
(www.panna.org) to get engaged, or pick another group working on this
issue. What matters is commitment.
What is the "Imminent Hazard" legal claim filed by beekeepers and environmental groups?
"Imminent hazard" is policy-speak for "emergency so pressing that EPA
has authority to take immediate action." Bees dying off en masse, year
after year, is an emergency by any meaning of the term, and we
petitioned EPA urging them to take action on this basis. Earlier this
month they declined to do so, sticking to their original 2018 timeline
for completing the analysis of neonic's impacts on bees (decisions and
implementation would stretch out further still).
Luckily, members of Congress are starting to pay attention. Senators
Gilibrand, Leahy, Whitehouse, and most recently, Markey, have all sent
letters to EPA essentially telling the Agency to hurry up.
Colony Collapse Disorder,
Thanks to: http://americankabuki.blogspot.com