Bee populations are dwindling across the globe, putting one in three food crops like apples and almonds, which depend on pollination from bees, at serious risk.
In the US, beekeepers have reported annual losses of about 33 percent of their hives each year, a level of loss that the Agricultural Research Services reports could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry if it continues1 (and some beekeepers report much higher losses than this at upwards of 70 or, in some cases, 100 percent).
Despite the growing losses, the causes of the massive bee die-offs have yet to be firmly defined, although accumulating research is pointing to a cocktail of agricultural chemicals as a likely primary culprit.
New Study: Fungicides May Be Killing Bees
Systemic neonicotinoid pesticides have been increasingly blamed for bee deaths (and were implicated in a recent mass bee die-off of 25,000 bumblebees along with millions of bee deaths in Canada), prompting the European Union (EU) to ban them for two years.
Now, it appears measures that target single classes of pesticides, though a move in the right direction, may be falling short. In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers analyzed pollen from bee hives in seven major crops and found 35 different pesticides along with high fungicide loads.2 Each sample contained, on average, nine different pesticides and fungicides, although one contained 21 different chemicals.
Furthermore, when the pollen was fed to healthy bees, they had a significant decline in the ability to resist infection with the Nosema ceranae parasite, which has been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
What makes the research particularly unique is the concerning data on fungicides, which has so far been assumed to be safe for bees. While farmers are advised to avoid spraying pesticides when bees are present, for instance, fungicides contain no such warnings.
The researchers explained:
“While fungicides are typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees, we found an increased probability of Nosema infection in bees that consumed pollen with a higher fungicide load. Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees placed in an agricultural setting are exposed to.”
Also concerning, the researchers found that the bees in the study collected pollen almost exclusively from weeds and wildflowers, and this, too, was contaminated with pesticides even though they were not directly sprayed.
“It’s not clear whether the pesticides are drifting over to those plants but we need take a new look at agricultural spraying practices,” the study’s lead author told Quartz.3
US Bill Introduced to Take Neonicotinoids Off the Market
Following the June incident that killed 25,000 bumblebees, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) announced that they were restricting the use of 18 pesticide products containing dinotefuran, a type of neonicotinoid.
These chemicals are typically applied to seeds before planting, allowing the pesticide to be taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows. As a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant, and hence the danger to bees and other pollinating insects.
As mentioned, the EU has also banned these pesticides, beginning December 1, 2013, to study their involvement with large bee kills they, too, are experiencing.
To date, however, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to take action and has already been sued once by beekeepers and environmental groups for failing to protect bees from neonicotinoid pesticides.
They have also green-lighted another pesticide that is a close cousin to these toxic chemicals (sulfoxaflor) and, as a result, several beekeeping organizations and beekeepers have filed a legal action against the EPA for approving sulfoxaflor, which is considered by many to be a “fourth-generation neonicotinoid.
In the US, the tide may be turning, however, as just last month the “Save America’s Pollinators Act” was introduced. If passed, this bill, HR 2692, would require the EPA to pull neonicotinoid pesticides from the market until their safety is proven. Please contact your representative today to voice your support for this incredibly important issue.
US Almond Crops Are Already At Risk
We’re beginning to get a taste of what the world would be like without bees. This year, many of the 6,000 almond orchard owners in California simply could not find enough bees to pollinate their almond trees, at any price. This is alarming, considering that 80 percent of the world’s almonds come from California’s central valley, an 800,000-acre area of almond orchards that are 100 percent dependent on bees pollinating the trees. Surprisingly, almonds are the number one agricultural product in California.
Fortunately, unsurpassed efforts that included persuading beekeepers as far away as Florida to ship their bees cross country, delayed bloom, and unseasonably good weather thereafter allowed almond growers to dodge the bullet – this year – despite having fewer and weaker-than-ever hives…
This narrowly achieved success may lead some to reach the mistaken conclusion that beekeepers’ concerns are overblown, but don’t be fooled. One beekeeper went so far as to say he believes the beekeeper industry is doomed and cannot survive for more than another two to three years unless drastic changes are implemented immediately…
What Are Some of the Top Theories for Bee Die-Offs?
Environmental chemicals are a forerunner for what’s causing so many bees to die, but it’s likely that there are multiple factors at play here. Among the top proposed culprits include:
Pesticides, insecticides and fungicides – Neonicotinoids, such as Imidacloprid and Clothianidin, kills insects by attacking their nervous systems. These are known to get into pollen and nectar, and can damage beneficial insects such as bees.
Malnutrition/Nutritional deficiencies – Many beekeepers place the hives near fields of identical crops, which may result in malnutrition as the bees are only getting one type of nectar. Essentially, this theory is identical to that of human nutrition; we need a wide variety of nutrients from different foods.
If you keep eating the same limited range of foods, you can easily end up suffering from nutritional deficiencies. Poor nutrition suppresses immune function, making the bees far more susceptible to toxins from pesticides, viruses, fungi, or a combination of factors that ultimately kill them.
Viruses and fungi – There’s even the possibility that some new form of “AIDS-like” viral infection is affecting the bees.
Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) – Researchers have discovered that when a cellular phone is placed near a hive, the radiation generated by it (900-1,800 MHz) is enough to prevent bees from returning to them, according to a study conducted at Landau University several years ago.4
More recently, a study published in 2011 found that the presence of microwaves from cell phones have a dramatic effect on bees, causing them to become quite disturbed.5
Lack of natural foraging areas – Mass conversions of grasslands to corn and soy in the Midwest has dramatically reduced bees’ natural foraging areas.
Genetically modified (GM) crops – In 2007, a German study demonstrated that horizontal gene transfer appears to take place between the GM crop and the bees that feed on it.6 When bees were released in a field of genetically modified rapeseed, and then fed the pollen to younger bees, the scientists discovered the bacteria in the guts of the young ones mirrored the same genetic traits as ones found in the GM crop.
You Can Start Helping Bees Right in Your Own Backyard
The Pollinator Partnership has revealed many ways you can help the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations.7 Clearly major steps need to be taken on a national level to protect pollinators from toxic chemicals and other threats, and you can help in this regard by supporting the Save America’s Pollinators Act. Friends of the Earth has also launched the Bee-Action Campaign to tell stores to take bee-killing pesticides like neonicotinoids off of their shelves, and you can help by signing their petition now.
That said, you can even make a difference right in your own backyard:
Reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides
Plant a pollinator-friendly garden by choosing a variety of plants that will continue flowering from spring through fall; check out the Bee Smart Pollinator App for a database of nearly 1,000 pollinator-friendly plants
Choose plants native to your region and stick with old-fashioned varieties, which have the best blooms, fragrance and nectar/pollen for attracting and feeding pollinators
Install a bee house
Finally, if you would like to learn even more about the economic, political and ecological implications of the worldwide disappearance of the honeybee, check out the extremely informative documentary film Vanishing of the Bees.