Nel's New Day

July 26, 2012

The Case of the Disappearing Bees

Bees are in danger, and Gretchen LeBush, a San Francisco researcher, wants to know how many of the native bee population exists. Three years ago, she started a program that asked volunteers to spend 15 minutes on one specific day to count native bees, like bumblebees. This year it’s August 11. Actually, volunteers can do this a few days before or after the target date because the counting has to be done on a sunny day. With the disappearance of the honey bees, LeBush is hoping that a healthy native bee population could help solve the problem of dying bees.

Bees are vital to pollinate our plants, but many people don’t know how important. Thirty percent of all crops and 90 percent of all wild plants depend on bee pollination to reproduce. Bees are vital to pollinate such crops as apples, squash, tomatoes, strawberries, almonds, and even chocolate.

Researchers know that during the past few years, honey bees have suffered from colony collapse syndrome. Starting in the early 1990s, 17-20 percent of the bee hives were lost every year until 2007 when a massive loss decreased the number of hives in some areas over 50 percent. The number of bee hives went from 4.5 million in 1980 to 2.44 in 2008. In determining the cause, people have guessed at a number of reasons: stress, urbanization, cell and cordless phones, mites, etc. One major reason is genetically engineered plants, new herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides; each new untested generation of chemicals worsens the problem.

Although real scientists have investigated the problem, chemical manufacturers employ their own scientists to refute factual information. These companies also purchase other businesses that could prevent this decline. Monsanto Co. , which develops genetically modified seeds, bought  Beeologics, biological research company that addresses the long-term well being of bees. Bayer CropScience, Sygenta, Dow Chemcial, Dupont, and others also lobby for the use of more chemicals to be used and for more genetically modified plants.

Neonicotinoids appeared at the same time as the honey bee decline. These nicotine-based pesticides, including the common imidachloprid, was supposed to be less toxic, but France and Italy have discovered differently and banned crop spraying with these pesticides. Germany has banned clothianidin because beekeepers found that it killed 50 to 60 percent of their bees. Even Slovenia has banned neonicotinoids. But the United States continues to approve its use.

It’s not as if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not known about the problems with these pesticides. Almost two years ago two EPA scientists, ecologist Joseph DeCant and chemist Michael Barrett, wrote an internal memo to the EPA’s insecticide risk management department expressing strong concerns that the pesticide is “highly toxic” to honeybees and warned their colleagues of “the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.”

Seven years earlier, the EPA gave Bayer only conditional approval of clothianidin for sale in 2003. That continued use started an ecological crisis that threatens the American agricultural system and the country’s food supply. Products that contain imidacloprid include Merit, Admire, Confidor, Connect, Evidence, Leverage, Muralla, Provado, Trimax, Premise and Winne. Imidacloprid was first patented in 1988, but it became much more popular in 2004 after the banning of diazinon, said beekeeper David Hackenberg. Bayer, which manufactures imidacloprid, claims that their product does direct kill the bees. Technically they may be correct, but, according to beekeepers observing the bees, the pesticide disorients the bees and causes them to disband.

Jerry Hayes of the Florida Department of Agriculture, found that imidachloprid causes bees to leave the colony and not return. He said that it “is highly unusual for a social insect to leave a queen and its brood or young behind.” The pesticide is designed to work that way. A method that imidachloprid uses to kill termites is that those feeding on the pesticide leave and can’t remember how to get home. Their immune systems also collapse.

A recent study published in the American Chemical Society’s journal of Environmental Science and Technology shows a strong link to the relationship between insecticides and mass die offs of honey bees. “Assessment of the Environmental Exposure of Honeybees to Particulate Matter Containing Neonicotinoid Insecticides Coming from Corn Coated Seeds” examined the technology used to plant the seeds and the use of neonicotinoid insecticides coated on corn seeds. Scientists determined the mass die offs may be caused by particles of the insecticide that reach the air when the drilling machines that are used for planting suck the seeds in and expel air, which contains the toxins. Researchers used different seeding methods and insecticide coatings, but all were found to kill bees that flew through the area.

Last March, Science magazine reported two studies about the devastation of bees. One explained that low levels of chemicals fog honeybee brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. Another study in that issue described how pesticides keep bumblebees from supplying their hives with enough food to produce new queens.

This past spring, 25 entomological, environmental and beekeeping groups filed a petition with the EPA contending the pesticide is an “imminent hazard” linked to honeybee colony collapse disorder. Yet, one week ago, with the information from studies showing the danger of the pesticide, the EPA denied this petition requesting emergency suspension of clothianidin, a neonicotinoid pesticide.

What happens with a sharp reduction in the number of bees? Reduced crop yields not only brings down the economy but also stops the exporting of food, resulting in famine. Shortage also moves high costs from rare metals to food to keep the precious substance for only the wealthy. A short term solution might be food rationing, but shortage of food causes hoarding and violence to obtain supplies which can result in death from starvation and killings. All this sounds dramatic, but the planet cannot afford to support 7 billion people without planning and care.

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