Bees are dying, and colonies are collapsing. The collapse of colonies is denominated as “colony collapse disorder” (CCD). Three studies conducted in 2012 identified the killer as a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) won’t take any action that diminishes the profits of farmers and chemical makers.
Corn crops, which took up 84 million acres in the US in 2011 and 96 million in 2012, are planted with seeds treated with neonicotinoids, produced by the German chemical manufacturer, Bayer. Neonicotinoids are also used on soy and other US crops. Neonicotinoids have been applied to corn crops since the late 1990s.
Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides chemically related to nicotine. “Neonicotinoids” means “new nicotine-like insecticides.” Like nicotine, neonicotinoids act on certain kinds of receptors in neural synapses. They are much more toxic to insects than to mammals and birds.
What happens is that the pesticides are absorbed by the plant’s vascular system and “expressed” in its pollen and nectar, which are gathered by the bees. The pesticides attack the insects’ nervous systems and impair their ability to forage for nectar, learn and remember where flowers are located, and find their way home.
But neonicotinoids do not have “lethal effects” that kill the bees outright, as would insecticides like Raid. They have “sublethal effects” —changes in physiological processes, growth, reproduction, behavior and development—that make the bees more vulnerable to stressors like poor nutrition and pathogens. The weaknesses in the bee population caused by neonicotinoids may be passed to subsequent generations.
Ironically, the three 2012 studies were funded by Bayer itself.
A national survey of honey bee colonies for the 2012/2013 winter season indicated that 31.1% of managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost. This is a 7% increase in the winter losses for the 2011-2012 season, which were 21.9%. The total losses over a six-year period were 30.5%. These surveys were conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In response to these concerns, the European Union recently suspended most use for two years. A report by the European Food Safety Authority in January identified acute risks for bees from exposure to neonically treated crops like corn and sunflowers.
The EPA, on the other hand, still permits the use of neonicotinoids, pending further study.
In May of this year, the EPA and USDA released a joint report at the “ National Honey Bee Health Stakeholder Conference” that avoided identifying a single cause of CCD but referred to a “complex set of stressors and pathogens,” including poor nutrition, viruses, gut parasites, and pesticides. But poor nutrition and susceptibility to pathogens are among the particular sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids.
The EPA was loath to mention anything that would negatively affect sales and profits.
There was a presentation by USDA scientist Jeff Pettis that pointed to several studies showing that even low-level exposure to neonics makes bees more vulnerable to the gut parasite nosema. Nosema ceranae, a fungal pathogen, has also been closely linked to CCD.
So neonicotinoids are not the only cause for concern.
In the Bayer study, researchers took pollen samples from hives used for pollination purposes and tested them for pesticides, which include insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. The researchers found insecticides and fungicides in every hive, and herbicides in nearly a quarter of them. Organophosphates—insecticides known to be a powerful neurotoxin—were found in 63.2% of the hives. Another pesticide, pyrethroids, showed up in every sample.
A study just published in PLOS One and co-authored by USDA bee scientist Jeff Pettis and University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp, found that the bees’ exposure to neonicotinoids was small compared to their exposure to other chemicals. It appears that neonics get a lot more attention and attract more research dollars.
The EPA approved the use of neonicotinoids based on research that the EPA’s scientists themselves characterized as flawed. Its joint study with the USDA resulted in recommendations about best management practices and technical advancements for applying pesticides to reduce dust. Nothing was said that was adverse to chemical manufacturers.
Meanwhile the European Commission not only suspended the use of neonicotinoids but conducted a behind-the-scenes campaign to stop Bayer, and Syngenta, another chemical giant based in Europe, from marketing neonicotinoids.
In the United States, however, considerations of the health and safety of bees, or of any other form of life, are less of a concern than the profits made by farmers and chemical makers.
By: Tom Ukinski