FEATURE – The beekeeping industry has faced a number of obstacles to healthy bee management, and for years, the world has been asking the question: What’s killing the honey bees? Now, after a four-year study, scientists believe they have solved the mystery.
Over the past two months, a series of studies appearing in scientific journals suggest that the culprit behind the death and decline of bees is widely-used pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics.
On June 24, a statement issued by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, a group of international scientists formed in response to concern around the impact of systemic pesticides on biodiversity and ecosystems – in connection with their analysis known as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment to be published in the peer-reviewed Journal “Environment Science and Pollution Research” – said it has found that there is clear evidence of harm sufficient to trigger regulatory action.
“Concern about the impact of systemic pesticides on a variety of beneficial species has been growing for the last 20 years but the science has not been considered conclusive until now,” the statement said.
One of the most detailed assessments of the insecticides to date, was released in a report in June by Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex. The four-year study also concluded that neonicotinoids, on which farmers spend $2.6 billion annually and apply routinely, are threatening the world’s food supplies.
Most people recognize honey bees for the sweet honey that they produce. However, honey is of only minor importance compared to the benefits afforded humans by honey bee pollination.
Honey bees are important pollinators of the nation’s crops. Pollen adheres to bees’ bodies when they visit flowers in search of nectar. As they travel from blooming crop to blooming crop, they transport the pollen to flowering blossoms, enabling them to swell into ripened fruit. Flowers that are adequately pollinated produce fruit, vegetables, or nuts. Higher fruit production per acre, larger fruit size, uniformly-shaped fruit, and an enhanced and better taste are all indications of successful pollination.
“The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century,” U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a 2011 United Nations report.
Of 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, Steiner said in the report, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.
“Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature,” Steiner said. “Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to seven billion people.”
Beekeepers around the United States have reported higher-than-usual colony losses since the fall of 2006. Some beekeepers have lost 50-90 percent of their colonies, often within a matter of weeks translating into thousands of dead colonies and millions of dead bees.
The bee decline, which is sometimes referred to as colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is a problem that has been threatening the beekeeping industry over the last eight years and has gained considerable national and international attention. By 2009, CCD had been reported in 36 states around the country, leaving beekeepers facing bankruptcy and farmers substantially losing crops.
In a country where honey bees contribute billions of dollars in added revenue to the agriculture industry, bee losses cannot be taken lightly.
The situation is so serious that on June 20, in a presidential memorandum President Obama announced plans for a “Pollinator Health Task Force” to help save bees from their mysterious decline.
The administration said:
Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.
Unlike other pesticides, which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, systemic pesticides are taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues – leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as pollen and nectar. They are increasingly used as a prophylactic to prevent pests rather than to treat a problem once it has occurred.
The metabolites of neonics and fipronil – the compounds which they break down into – are often as or more toxic than the active ingredients to non-target organisms. Environmental concentrations can build up, particularly in soil, over months or years, increasing their toxicity effects and making them more damaging to non-target species like bees.
According to the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, neonics are a nerve poison and the effects of exposure range from instant and lethal to chronic. Even long term exposure at low, or non-lethal, levels can be harmful. Chronic damage can include: impaired sense of smell or memory; reduced fecundity; altered feeding behavior and reduced food intake including reduced foraging in bees; altered tunneling behavior in earthworms; difficulty in flight and increased susceptibility to disease.
“The evidence is very clear,” Jean-Marc Bonmatin, of The National Center for Scientific Research, said. “We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT. Far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperiling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”
In its conclusion, the Task Force study said:
The authors strongly suggest that regulatory agencies apply more precautionary principles and further tighten regulations on neonicotinoids and fipronil and start planning for a global phase-out or at least start formulating plans for a strong reduction of the global scale of use.
- Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids impaired honey bees winterization before proceeding to colony collapse disorder
- Presidential Memorandum – Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators
- The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides
- Southern Utah bee season: Common concerns, safety tips and awareness
- Swarm of bees sends one to Mesa View Hospital
- Beekeeper en route to round up bees after accident on I-15 stops traffic
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