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Pesticides Behind Bee Collapse Should Be Banned

Peter Lehner

Posted July 7, 2014 in Living Sustainably

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Neonics are particularly insidious pesticides, designed to seep through a plant from roots to pollen. They turn the whole plant into poison for any insect that nibbles on it—even helpful pollinators like bees. But the agriculture industry finds neonics cost-effective, and they’re less toxic to humans than another notorious class of pesticides, organophosphates, making these chemicals the most widely used insecticides in the world. The use of neonics has doubled in recent years.

A growing body of research, however, shows that neonics are a major culprit in the mysterious collapse of honeybee populations. Just 2.5 million commercial honeybee colonies remain today, down from 6 million in 1947. Native bumblebee species, also important pollinators, are likewise mysteriously disappearing from vast stretches of their traditional ranges—pesticides likely play a role in the decline of wild bees as well. Today, NRDC filed an emergency petition with the EPA requesting that the agency stop the use of bee-killing neonics and protect our vital pollinators from harm.

Stepping up to protect bees is more than a demonstration of good stewardship. Bees play a critical role in our food system. Of the 100 or so crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food supply, 71 are utterly dependent on bees for pollination. In the United States alone, these crops, including apples, broccoli, strawberries, and almonds, to name a few, are worth $15 billion annually. The cost of some of these foods is already rising as commercial honeybees are in increasingly short supply. Other important crops, such as pumpkins, depend on the particular buzz of a bumblebee for pollination—and these bees, wild and commercial, are also susceptible to the damaging effects of neonics.  

Science shows that neonics can not only kill bees outright, but that even low exposures—which happen when bees bring toxic pollen back to the hive, exposing the entire population—can have damaging effects. Neonics may suppress bees’ immunity to diseases, impair egg-laying, and make them disoriented, which hurts their ability to forage and find their way back to the hive. An international panel of scientists, reviewing the accumulated body of scientific research on neonics, recently concluded that these pesticides are a key cause of bee decline. The threat to agriculture and the environment, said one of the lead authors, is “equivalent to that posed by DDT.”

President Obama recently directed the EPA and the USDA to set up a Pollinator Task Force, charged with protecting and restoring bees, butterflies, and other pollinator species. It’s now up to the EPA to move quickly to save bees and protect our food system. Their current plan is to wait until 2019 to complete their evaluation. That’s not good enough. Bees are in a tailspin, and they need immediate relief. Too much damage has already been done.

The European Union recently voted to ban neonics for two years. This was a wise, considered move, based on the best information available. The United States should take similar precautions to save bees, instead of continuing to protect companies like Monsanto and Syngenta by delaying. Nor should the USDA and EPA follow the industry’s self-serving line of reasoning that honeybees can be protected by another chemical treatment, sold by the same companies that are causing them harm in the first place. Wild, native bees are not going to be helped by this tactic; in fact, these pollinators might have even more trouble bouncing back from a pesticide exposure, since their colonies tend to be small.

Here at NRDC, we’ve been doing our part by setting up our very own rooftop bee colony. My brother-in-law Charles Branch, a beekeeper in Westchester, helped get us started when New York City legalized beekeeping in 2010, and my colleagues here in the office are doing a fantastic job keeping our four hives of bees buzzing along.

NRDC activists are also lending bees a hand, sending more than 100,000 messages to the EPA urging the agency to step up for bees. You can voice your support and help protect these valuable pollinators at  SaveBeesNow.org.

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Comments

Tyler TemplemanJul 7 2014 11:30 PM

There's No logic in continuing to use a product if its threatening mankind's chance at survival.

justina owenJul 10 2014 02:15 AM

All I can say is that we should leave nature alone!

Jan ChoJul 10 2014 06:54 AM

Help save the bees

TrevorJul 10 2014 09:50 PM

I wrote to Bayer a company that sells neonics asking them if profit meant more than the survival of our bee's and this is their reply:

Thank you for your email regarding your concerns with the health of bees. We share a common concern for the health and protection of bees.

Bayer recognizes the importance of honey bees to agriculture and we remain fully committed to pollinator protection and to sustainable agricultural practices, including the use of innovative seed treatment applications.

Despite considerable media attention and claims of neonicotinoids as the likely cause of colony decline, most scientists and bee experts agree that declining bee health is a result of multiple factors, including parasites, diseases, nutrition, weather and hive management practices. Studies conducted in the U.S., Canada, Belgium, France and Germany all report that poor bee health correlates well with presence of Varroa mite and bee diseases, but not with exposure to agrochemicals.

Neonicotinoid insecticides represent an important advancement in agricultural technology that has helped Canadian farmers increase productivity and improve cost-competitiveness. These products provide clear performance and environmental advantages over the older insecticides they replaced.

While the loss of bees associated with agriculture is a concern, infrequent and accidental exposures are neither indicative nor representative of the general health of honey bee colonies. It is important to note that the vast majority of beekeepers in Canada – 99% of the nation’s approximately 7600 registered beekeepers – have not reported any adverse effects associated with the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments. Managed colony numbers in Ontario and Quebec have increased 40% and 80% respectively, since 2003, during the same decade that modern seed treatments came into use.

For more than 25 years, Bayer has been committed to environmental stewardship and the protection of beneficial insects and bees. As a leader in agriculture, we understand the value of pollinators to agriculture and have an inherent interest in helping find solutions to the problem of honey bee health. We believe the products we develop, market and steward represent the latest innovations in crop protection that have helped make Canadian agriculture productive and sustainable.

For more information on our bee care programs please visit our website at www.bayercropscience.ca/beecare.

Thank you once again for contacting Bayer.

Philip ThompsonJul 11 2014 03:26 PM

That letter pretty well says it all. Thanks for sharing that. Hopefully people can inform themselves from credible sources (other than blogs) and make their own informed opinions.

S SmithJul 11 2014 07:06 PM

Oh yeah, a response from a company who makes the very pesticides in question of threatening pollinators including bees is really going to reply, "Thank you for your concern but we don't care. We just want to make money." Try using legitimate non-biased scientific data to make the claim it is fine. I doubt Europe made the decision to base neonics based solely on blog comments ... in fact it was based on scientific data.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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