Bees Die and Farmers Thrive



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

Sources:  Mother Jones Bee Informed Texas Agrilife Exotoxicology AG 101

3 Responses to "Bees Die and Farmers Thrive"

  1. James Bianconi   August 5, 2013 at 10:35 am

    This paragraph is misleading:

    “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.”

    While it’s true that neonicotinoids did not play a significant role in the results of their study ( doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0070182), this result is not generalizable towards the experience of bees “in general”. The study was designed around examining differences in pesticide exposure between hives of bees pollinating 7 different types of crops, only one of which (an apple orchard) was treated with a neonicotinoid pesticide (and correspondingly, the bees pollinating the apple orchard were the only hives with detectable neonicotinoids).

    So while the findings of the study itself strongly indicate that more attention should be payed to the myriad of fungicides, herbicides, miticides, and other insecticides bees are regularly exposed to, it’s misleading for the last sentence of the quoted paragraph to suggest that neonicotinoids get an undeserved amount of attention based on a study that explicitly avoided exposing bees to neonicotinoids. The real issue with neonicotinoids is their ubiquitous use as seed treatments for corn crops, as corn accounts for ~20% of the total land used for farming in the United States (,-land-value-tenure/background.aspx#.Uf_h9WTErIY, sorry for the older statistics). So while it may be true that bees primarily pollinating cranberry bogs are not often significantly exposed to neonicotinoids, the majority of bees in the United States are likely not exclusively pollinating cranberry bogs.

  2. A concerned citizen   August 4, 2013 at 6:02 am

    U.S. beekeepers are not calling for a ban of neonicotinoids, but rather that the EPA has failed to follow the law in approving them. They have not been legally approved and should be removed from the market until they are subjected to the proper testing. Pettis and vanEngelsdorp found little neonicotinoid because they were not looking and instead want to muddy the argument by claiming that this is oh so complicated, they will need years more research money, and fungicides are the new answer. They are good enough researchers to know full well that the neonics are the elephant at the garden party, but they have carefully avoided them in their research. Why is this?

  3. Gary Toth   August 3, 2013 at 11:40 am

    A few years ago my Dad was promoting to me the benefits of the FDA and how they watch out for us. I stopped him mid sentence and asked him to look straight into my eyes as I very deliberately said to him, “Dad, the FDA is not your friend”. This is just one more example of a bought and paid for government agency that does a few good things to prove it’s validity and then does absolutely nothing to a problem that has the potential to severely and negatively alter food production. Slowly but surely people the world over are waking up to the disgusting things that a relative handful of individuals that control big money interests are perpetuating on humanity. You know who you are and justice is coming to you whether in this life or the next. I hope that I live long enough to see that justice served to the greedy bastards that are standing on the necks of humanity so they can profit.


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