Everyone knows that honey bees are responsible for much of the insect pollination of plants, especially crops.
During the last decade, scientists and beekeepers have been alarmed over the vast reduction in the honey bee population.
Many scientists are pointing fingers at GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) or GE (Genetically Engineered) crops since the seeds are often treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.
GMO crop seeds are imbued with pesticides designed to attack various high-risk pests that threaten crop production. In addition, herbicides are also engineered into the seeds in an effort to kill off nutrient robbing weeds.
Unfortunately, the weed control property is spawning super weeds that aren’t affected by the herbicide. Bees, not a pesticide targeted insect, seem to be susceptible to these insecticides.
On February 1, 2013, the European Commission (EU) called on all EU nations to “impose a two year suspension” on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. The EU is “the executive body of the European Union responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the Union’s treaties and day-to-day running of the EU”. (1)
The EU guidelines suspend the use of these bee-killing pesticides in the spray, granules and seed-treatment forms for corn, cereal crops, sunflowers, rapeseed and cotton.
Many scientists are hopeful that this action will bleed over into the US and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) will follow in the EUs footsteps to suspend the use of these nicotine chemical cousins.
Why Neonicotinoids Are Harmful
If you aren’t an organic gardener and haven’t stopped using pesticides in your own gardening, you may not understand the harm these man-made crop controls have on the environment, insects and humans. Besides the obvious insect killing properties each has, there’s also an accumulative property that can build in the soil, water and environment.
While neonicotinoid pesticides are based on the natural insecticide, nicotine, they are proving to be more harmful to the beneficial insects than first believed.
Neonicotinoids attack the central nervous system of insects by blocking a specific insect neuron pathway. The pesticide creates an “excitation of the nerves and eventual paralysis, which leads to death”. (2)
These pesticides are used against sucking insects and chewing insects, such as cutworms and beetles that create crop loss due to infestation.
Because the chemicals are designed specifically for these insects, the manufacturers’ claims that other beneficial insects aren’t harmed has been brought into question. In fact, many within the industry believe the pesticide is responsible for killing honey bee colonies. (2)
Colony Collapse Disorder
The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was given to the unusual disappearance of honey bee colonies in North America in 2006. The exact cause for the drastic decrease in the honey bee population was first believed to be from mites.
In 2007, it was believed that in addition to the mites, various insect diseases, malnutrition or even cell phone radiation might be attributing to the population decline. (2)
Soon, the scientific community turned to examine the common use of neonicotinoid to treat GMO seeds as a possible common cause. And, in March 2012, two separate studies were cited in the journal Science that concluded neonicotinoids interfered with the homing processes of bees. This disorientation prevents the bees from being able to locate their hives and they wonder off, neglecting the hive that eventually collapses.
Subsequently, the European Food Safety Authority cited other recent studies that demonstrated that neonicotinoid pesticides “pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored science upon which regulatory agencies’ claims of safety have relied is flawed and possibly deliberately deceptive”. (3)
The EFSA Pesticide Peer Review found three neonictoinoid insecticides, imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, to “pose an unacceptable hazard to honey bees”.
The review further stated that:
“A high acute risk to honey bees was identified from exposure via dust drift for the seed treatment uses in maize, oilseed rape and cereals. A high acute risk was also identified from exposure via residues in nectar and/or pollen for the uses in oilseed rape.” (4)
The UK Parliament took action in a formal inquiry to the insecticide manufacturer, German-based Bayer CropScience manufacturer about the “discrepancies in evidence they have submitted to an investigation”. (5)
In December 2012, The Guardian reported that, “Our inquiry has identified apparent flaws in the assessment of imidacloprid (a neonictoinoid insecticide),” said Joan Walley MP, chair of the environmental audit committee.
“Despite data from field trials showing the pesticide could linger in the environment at dangerous levels, imidacloprid was approved for use in the EU. We have asked chemical giant Bayer to return to Parliament to explain discrepancies in its evidence on the amount of time that imidacloprid remains in the environment. European regulators seem to have turned a blind eye to data on the danger that one of the world’s biggest selling pesticides could pose to bees and other pollinators.” Her words were strong and direct as she concluded, “Evidence seen by the committee raises serious questions about the integrity, transparency and effectiveness of EU pesticides regulation. Data available in the regulators’ own assessment report shows it could be 10 times more persistent in soils than the European safety limit.” (5)
Honey Bee Population Decline Affecting Crops
Many scientists believe the impact of fewer honey bees will be felt in the 2013 crops. According to the American Bee Journal this impact is already being felt by farmers.
The journal reported that California growers may not have enough honey bees to pollinate their crops. The crops grown in the state require 1.6 million bee colonies for pollination. The current bee population in California is only 500,000. (6)
Perhaps the most telling sign of how severe the problem was revealed in Bayer CropScience’s December 2012 announcement that it was breaking ground in February 2013 to build the North American Bee Care Center in the Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The company press release described the center as “ a gathering place for researchers, bee experts, students and other visitors to meet regularly with leading Bayer scientists. The Bayer Bee Care Center is dedicated to promoting and protecting bee health…”
This is Bayer’s second similar initiative. The first was its 2012 global Bayer Bee Care Center in Monheim, Germany. (7)
Taking action to stop and prevent a further decline in the honey bee population is important to every person on the planet.
Without honey bees to pollinate crops, the world could face an unprecedented global famine.
With nearly 30% to 50% of the world’s bee population gone in some regions, many experts worry that any measures taken to reverse the trend may be too late to stop the loss of food crops.
References & Image Credits:
(1) Wikipedia: European Commission
(2) University of Florida EDIS
(3) Wikipedia: Colony Collapse Disorder
(4) European Food Safety Authority
(5) The Guardian
(6) American Bee Journal
(7) Bayer CropScience
(8) Gawker Assets
(9) Wikipedia: Pollination
(10) Wikipedia: Honey Bee Takes Nectar