Saving the bees from pesticides linked to Colony Collapse
This article was originally published in January 2015
Nearly a decade after Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) first was reported in the United States, honeybees still are dying. Some states reported more than 50 percent losses in 2014. Many beekeepers have had to leave the industry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) admits some studies have proved a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids are harmful to bees, but questions whether there’s enough proof to show neonics are the main culprit causing CCD. Scientists and public interest groups, however, feel it’s time to take action on the accumulating evidence. Some cities and nations are banning neonics and garden retailers across the country are feeling pressure not to sell them.
In a couple of months, as the flowers start coming up, PCC shoppers who are gardeners can do some simple things to help save the bees.
Modern agriculture calls for honeybees, but monocropping systems also demand pesticides. More than 5 billion pounds of weed killers, insecticides and fungicides were applied worldwide in 2013. Over the decades, the types of pesticides have changed.
Arsenic and lead-based pesticides were killing bees long before DDT first was used as a pesticide during World War II. DDT was found to be damaging to insects in 1946, but wasn’t banned for agricultural use until 1972. Organophosphates entered the market, followed by pyrethroids.
Neonicotinoid pesticides were developed in the 1980s. Gaucho (Imidacloprid) was the first neonic blamed for collapsing bee colonies in 1994 in France. Lab tests found Gaucho in the pollen of flowers. Beekeepers described bees as disoriented after foraging.
Accumulating CCD research
In 2004 U.S. beekeepers started reporting losses, just one year after the U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) registered a new neonic, Clothianidin. In 2006, when beekeepers reported 30 to 90 percent bee losses, scientists and beekeepers already suspected neonic pesticides.
A growing body of research shows that as pesticides in the hive increase, hive mortality increases.
After studying collapsed hives, in 2007 USDA scientists reported at least 50 different pesticides were in 98 percent of the comb and wax. The researchers also reported that these beehives were filled with more pathogens and viruses than non-collapsed hives.
Then came a landmark study by Harvard researchers in 2014. It points to neonics as the main cause of CCD. Researchers treated 12 bee colonies with sublethal levels of neonics and kept six control hives free of the pesticides. All 18 hives made it through summer but when winter came, the bees in six of the treated hives disappeared, leaving behind empty colonies — a trademark of CCD. None of the six control hives saw bees vanish.
It wasn’t the first study to show negative impacts of sublethal doses of neonics on bees. Earlier studies showed tiny doses of neonics affect bees’ ability to find their way back to their hives. A study in the journal Science found “field-realistic levels” of neonics resulted in diminished capacity for hives to produce new queens.
But the new Harvard study is exceptional because it simulated CCD, food policy writer Tom Philpott pointed out in Mother Jones. “Neonic-treated bees suddenly abandoned hives that had been healthy all summer, while untreated bees hung around and repopulated their hives.”
The abandoned hives were “striking and perplexing,” said the Harvard researchers, because honeybees normally don’t abandon hives during winter. The scientists went on to point to sublethal neonic exposure as resulting in “impairment of honeybee neurological functions, specifically memory, cognition or behavior.”
Another 2014 study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Pollution Research analyzed all the available literature on neonics and bees, 800 peer-reviewed reports. The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides — a group of global, independent scientists — found there is enough evidence of harm to bees and other pollinators to trigger regulatory action.
If bees continue to decline, our variety of foods could be in short supply. More than 130 fruits and vegetables depend on pollinators, mostly honeybees. Even self- and wind-pollinated crops get a boost from bees.
“The evidence is very clear,” says lead author Dr. Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the National Centre for Scientific Research in France. “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.”
Foreign and domestic policies
Europe is taking a cautionary approach to neonics. The European Commission voted to restrict use of neonicotinoids in 2013. The ban is only for two years and Syngenta (the world’s largest pesticide company) already has obtained emergency exemptions, allowing farmers to continue using neonics. Since neonics are persistent in soil, it’s uncertain what the future holds for bees in Europe.
Here in the United States, EPA reportedly knew clothianidin was toxic to bees before the pesticide’s release in 2003, but the manufacturer, Bayer, won approval after producing a study since criticized as flawed.
In June, President Obama issued a federal strategy to protect pollinators and called on EPA to assess the effect of neonics on bees within 180 days.
EPA announced recently it won’t release a regulatory decision on neonics until 2016. But another agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will ban neonics in wildlife refuges starting in 2016.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture says it is authorized to impose strict limitations on neonics, particularly given a new EPA report finding that the pesticides do little to boost soybean production.
Municipalities already are taking action. Eugene and Cannon Beach, Oregon; Orgunquit, Maine; Shorewood, Minnesota; and Spokane and Seattle all recently passed bans against use of neonicotinoids on city property. The Seattle City Council resolution also calls for a national moratorium on neonicotinoid pesticides and asks EPA to suspend registration of neonics.
Beekeepers and lawmakers on Vashon Island are talking about banning neonics. In Ontario, Canada, lawmakers moved to enforce stricter regulation.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in November $4 million in assistance to help farmers in the Midwest improve the health of honey bees. It reportedly will provide guidance about ways to reduce erosion, increase soil health, inhibit invasive species, and provide quality forage and habitat for bees and other pollinators.
It’s hard to imagine $4 million will make a difference, however, since Reuters reports neonicotinoids are used routinely on more than 100 million acres of U.S. corn, wheat, soy and cotton.
Meanwhile, consumers and environmentalists are taking matters into their own hands. The environmental group Friends of the Earth has targeted home improvement stores Lowe’s and Home Depot with petitions and protests, asking the retailers to eliminate products and plants treated with neonics. Friends of the Earth and Pesticide Research Institute in 2014 found 51 percent of common garden plants purchased at retailers, including Lowe’s, Walmart and Home Depot, contained neonics, with no warning to consumers.
Home Depot now says it’s requiring suppliers to label all plants treated with neonicotinoids. It also says it’s working with its suppliers to find alternative insecticides.
Protests outside Lowe’s stores across the United States and Canada in October haven’t yet had the same impact. Lowe’s says it will follow EPA’s guideline on pesticides.
Major bee die-offs
- In 2013, 50,000 bumblebees from 300 colonies were killed in a parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon, when Safari (dinotefuran), a neonic, was sprayed on Linden trees.
- In 2012, more than 50 Canadian beekeepers reported bees were killed by neonic-laden dust blown from pneumatic seed-planting machines.
- In 2013, the Ontario Beekeepers Association reported 37 million bees were found dead in Elmwood, Ontario, after seed-treated corn planting in the spring. Seventy-five percent of dead bees had significant levels of neonicotinoids.