If it were a novel, people would criticize the plot for being too far-fetched – thriving colonies disappear overnight without leaving a trace, the bodies of the victims are never found. Only in this case, it’s not fiction: It’s what’s happening to fully a third of commercial beehives, over a million colonies every year. Seemingly healthy communities fly off never to return. The queen bee and mother of the hive is abandoned to starve and die.
Thousands of scientific sleuths have been on this case for the last 15 years trying to determine why our honey bees are disappearing in such alarming numbers. “This is the biggest general threat to our food supply,” according to Kevin Hackett, the national program leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s bee and pollination program.
Until recently, the evidence was inconclusive on the cause of the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) that threatens the future of beekeeping worldwide. But three new studies point an accusing finger at a culprit that many have suspected all along, a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
In the U.S. alone, these pesticides, produced primarily by the German chemical giant Bayer and known as “neonics” for short, coat a massive 142 million acres of corn, wheat, soy and cotton seeds. They are also a common ingredient in home gardening products.
Research published last month in the prestigious journal Science shows that neonics are absorbed by the plants’ vascular system and contaminate the pollen and nectar that bees encounter on their rounds. They are a nerve poison that disorient their insect victims and appear to damage the homing ability of bees, which may help to account for their mysterious failure to make it back to the hive.