Where would we be without bees? This is no idle question. Bees are a primary pollinator of our food crops that account for one quarter of the American diet. That’s why persistent and increasing numbers of bee deaths are so worrisome.
Since 2006, waves of bee deaths have been reported around the world and, in the U.S., it’s estimated that we’re losing 30% of our honeybees population each year. As their numbers decline, the bees can’t generate enough heat to survive the winter and rear a brood in the spring. A survey of beekeepers this year showed a 45% loss of managed honeybee colonies during the winter 2012/2013. The loss among wild bees—bumble bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, squash bees, leafcutter bees, mining bees, mason bees and more—is simply not known.
While scientific studies are divided, there’s mounting evidence that the most widely used class of insecticide—neonicotinoids, neonics for short—may be a factor. Neonics are highly neurotoxic to insects. They work systemically; as they are absorbed into the plant’s tissue, the entire plant becomes involved, including pollen and nectar.
The manufacturers of neonics say that tests of these nicotine-like chemicals show they are not lethal to honeybees. But neonics are a toxin, and the subtle and cumulative consequences of widespread repeated use on bees, and on soil and water have not been thoroughly studied. Neither are the effects known on bees exposed during foraging to a combination of neonics and other pesticides, nor is there sufficient little data for their effect on wild bees, moths, hoverflies and other pollinators. Finally, it is also suspected that chronic neonic exposure weakens bees, making them more susceptible to parasites and pathogens. Meantime, production of neonics worldwide continues to increase.
Within the last several weeks, two incidents have happened that give one pause to reflect on the widespread use of neonics in agriculture, in landscaping and in backyard gardening.
In one incident, 37 million bees died in Elmwood, Ontario, Canada when a beekeeper lost 600 hives in his honey operation. Dave Schuit blamed it on neonics. “Once the corn started to get planted, our bees died by the millions,” he said. Neonic pesticides are often used to coat corn seed; the corn is planted by blowing the seeds into the air, and with them comes pesticide dust. An examination of the dead bees by Purdue University reportedly showed traces of two neonics: thiamethoxam and clothianidin.
In another incident, an estimated 50,000 bumble bees were found dead in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, OR after a landscaping company sprayed 55 linden trees with the pesticide Safari to combat aphids. (Aphids can be controlled without insecticides, including by spraying infested plants with soapy water.) A full scientific investigation, including whether the pesticide was used correctly, will have to be done to determine what happened. Meantime Oregon has placed a temporary ban on 18 pesticides containing the chemical dinotefuran, a neonicotinoid. [To see Oregon’s banned list, which includes backyard consumer products, visit: www.oregon.gov/ODA/PEST/docs/pdf/DinotefLimitList06272013.pdf]
In April, the European Union placed a precautionary suspension for two years on the use of three neonics: clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam.
Given the risk, we believe that the idea of a moratorium makes sense in the U.S. as well. Certainly more scientific studies are needed, and this will take time. Meanwhile, how many more bees will die while the evidence is being gathered and assessed? How many bee deaths are acceptable?
We believe the numbers of bee deaths (not to mention the unassessed risk to other pollinators and aquatic insects) is already too high to continue the use of this chemical in the absence of scientifically verified evidence that it is safe to use. We believe that a moratorium is needed while an expedited, independently verified scientific review is conducted.
What can you do to help honey bees?
With a little research on the Internet, local farmers and home gardeners can avoid using neonics.
Finally, if you’re a beekeeper (or a keen observer of bees and their behavior), we’d like to know how your hives survived last winter and what you’re seeing this summer.
[Editor’s note: Just as this week’s editorial, titled “Helping bees,” was going to press—calling for a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides—news came that two members of the U.S. House of Representatives had introduced legislation on July 16 to suspend specific uses of certain neonicotinoids.
The bill, titled “Save America’s Pollinators Act of 2013,” was written by Representatives John Conyers (D, MI) and Earl Blumenauer (D, OR). It would require the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend the registration of certain neonicotinoids—including imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, dinotafuran, and some other neonicotinoids—until the administrator has determined (based on an evaluation of peer-reviewed scientific evidence and a completed field study) that these insecticides will not cause unreasonable adverse effects on pollinators.
The bill would also require the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, in coordination with the EPA administrator, to regularly monitor the health and population status of native (wild) bees and identify the scope and likely causes of unusual native bee mortality.
The “Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2013” has been endorsed by the American Bird Conservancy, Beyond Pesticides, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice, Equal Exchange, Family Farm Defenders, Friends of the Earth, Food Democracy Now!, Food and Water Watch, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the National Cooperative Grocers Association, the Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network North America, the Sierra Club, and the Xerces Society.
For readers who support the idea of such a moratorium and who are looking for concrete steps they can take in favor of this legislation contact your representative in Washington, DC and ask him/her to co-sponsor this legislation.]