Europe’s fight to save its bees
Last Monday, the European Union banned the most commonly used pesticide group in the world, the neonicotinoids – neonics for short. The ban is set for two years and may be extended.
This ruling was divided and contentious (15 of the 27 EU members voted for the ban, and 4 abstained). The product’s manufacturers, Bayer of Germany and the Swiss-based multinational, Syngenta, which sell more than a billion dollars’ worth of neonics in Europe every year, bitterly opposed it. Syngenta has threatened to sue individual EU ministers who published a report on the pesticides’ risks, according to the Observer.
The EU members took this radical step because their bees are dying – and neonics have been implicated as one contributing cause. The agro-chemical industry warned that the ban will cause huge losses to agriculture, and encouraged farmers to use even more-dangerous insect poisons, which were in vogue before the neonics were introduced in the 1990s.
Europe is invoking the precautionary principle better safe than sorry. Will the United States – which has an even higher economic stake in the health of its pollinators – follow Europe’s lead?
There is a precedent for this. In 2011, the EU prohibited the sale of any baby bottles containing the chemical bisphenol A, a suspected carcinogen. The United States recently followed suit.
The U.S. Agriculture Department issued a report last Thursday that points to a “complex set of stressors and pathogens,” including agro-chemicals, as likely suspects in recent bee die-offs. but it made no specific policy recommendations.
The bee business has been in a slow-motion tail spin for years. It is becoming ever harder to maintain healthy and viable hives. This is due in large part to the growing phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder This malady sounds like something straight out of Sherlock Holmes. Seemingly healthy colonies fly off en masse and never return to the home hive. Even their bodies are not recovered.
Bees are not just dying in Europe, of course, but in the United States – in record numbers. When almond season came to California early this spring, there were not enough bees to pollinate all the trees – an astonishing 40 percent to 50 percent of the hives these orchards depend on had died off over the winter. Almonds are a multibillion-dollar business in California, the state’s third-largest cash crop after marijuana and grapes. Some almond farmers were so desperate that they flew live bees into San Francisco International Airport from Sydney, Australia, in the belly of 747s. Almond prices, as you may have guessed, are expected to soar this year.
Almonds are not alone in requiring the services of commercially raised pollinators. Apples, cherries, watermelons, cantaloupes, avocados, cucumbers, squash, onions and more – fully one in three of every bite of food we eat comes from crops that require bees to be trucked in to pollinate them. But there are now not enough natural pollinators left to do the job.
The problem so far has been that there is more than one suspect. Scientists say that bees are dying due to a complex tangle of environmental stressors. Among the contributing factors, they believe, are wild habitat loss, climate change, bee parasites like the Varroa mite, monoculture agriculture (which deprives bees of a diverse and balanced diet), and the procedures of commercial beekeepers, who feed the bees a nutritionally depleted mix of corn syrup and imported Chinese pollen instead of the bees’ own honey.
But 30 scientific studies reportedly now also point to neonics as one leading culprit. Neonics, chemical cousins to nicotine, are a potent nerve poison for insects. They are known as systemic pesticides, which means they infiltrate all parts of the plant, the stem, the leaves, and, critically for bees, the nectar and the pollen, which the pollinators bring back to the hive. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. farmlands are doused with these pesticides every year.
The mounting evidence against the neonics includes a Harvard study that reproduced the symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in 15 of the 16 studied hives by exposing bees to a relatively low dose of the widely used insecticide imidacloprid over a 23-week period. The researchers postulated that bees are exposed to dangerous levels of the toxins in two ways: through nectar from plants, and through high-fructose corn syrup beekeepers use to feed their bees. Commercial corn seed in the U.S. is almost always coated with imidacloprid.
In another study by scientists at Purdue University, bees exposed to the neonics clothianidin and thiamethoxam either died, or exhibited uncoordinated movements, tremors and convulsions – all signs of acute insecticide poisoning. Yet another study undertaken by a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, Jeffrey Pettis, found that even extremely low levels of imidacloprid make bees more susceptible to infection by a variety of common pathogens.
When the neonics do not kill bees outright, they help compromise their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to a variety of chronic illnesses, including arguably CCD. The introduction of the neonics in the mid-1990s roughly correlates with the first large scale observations of Colony Collapse Disorder, which was officially named in 2006.
As with virtually all scientific hypotheses – especially when first introduced – this has not been universally accepted. Science, unlike the work of Holmes, does not advance by sudden, brilliant intuitions, but by a slow, often tedious gathering and weighing of the evidence – until the conclusions become watertight.
That is not yet the case with neonics. We do know that they weaken bees. But nobody can yet say for certain if these chemicals are the linchpin cause for CCD or just one gear in the machinery of bee-death that has been devastating hives worldwide.
A coalition of environment groups and beekeepers sued the EPA in March for its failure to protect pollinators from pesticide threats. The EPA, however, is in no hurry. It has said that it won’t finish its review of the impact of neonics until 2018. Whether our pollinators – or our food supply – can sustain another half a decade of toxic assault remains to be seen.
PHOTO (Insert A): A beekeeper takes care of his hives in a field of rapeseed outside Deveselu, about 230 km (145 miles) west of Bucharest, May 6, 2011. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti
PHOTO (Insert B): A queen bee (C) is seen among other bees in a honeycomb at a bee farm near the city of Probishtip, 140 km (87 miles) east of the capital Skopje June 8, 2010. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
PHOTO (Insert C): A honey bee feeds on a blossom in Utting at Lake Ammersee, around 30km (18.75 miles) south of Munich, March 29, 2007. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle