Why the Bees are Dying (and Why We Should Be Alarmed)

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Honey bee photoNew research points to pesticides as culprit in mysterious bee die-offs.

We’ve known for a while that bees are in trouble. Since around 2006, beekeepers have been seeing entire colonies disappear, as if they’d been zapped away by aliens.

This phenomenon, dubbed “colony collapse disorder” (CCD), has been attributed to fungi, stress, and malnutrition, among other causes. A number of factors likely play a role. But a growing body of research seems to show that pesticides are the prime culprit.

The trouble stems from one class of pesticide, in particular: neonicotinoids (neonics for short). When seeds are treated with neonics, the chemicals are taken up into the plant’s vascular system and “expressed” in nectar and pollen. As built-in pesticides, neonics turn an innocent corn plant into an insect-killing machine.

Neonics are used on a huge portion of our crops, including almost all of our corn. According to Pesticide Action Network of North America, at least 140 million acres are planted with neonic-treated seeds.

How do neonics affect bees? Tom Philpott has the answer:

The ubiquitous pesticides appear to affect bees in two ways: in big lethal doses that occur at the time of seed planting, when neonic-infused dust wafts around in growing areas; and in tiny doses that happen when bees bring neonic-infused pollen into hives, which don’t kill them immediately but appears to damage their immune systems and homing abilities.

But that’s not all. Harvard scientists recently found that high-fructose corn syrup, fed to bees by beekeepers, can trigger CCD. Since corn plants are treated with neonics, corn syrup contains traces of the pesticide–not enough to kill bees right away, but enough to slowly destroy colonies.

More new research further clarifies the problem:

  • A paper released in the journal Science found that small doses of a neonic hinder bees’ ability to locate their hive “at levels that could put a colony at risk of collapse.”
  • Another Science paper showed that (surprise!) neonics harm bumble bees, as well, causing an 85 percent reduction in the number of queens produced. Maybe that’s why bumble bees in the US have declined 96 percent in the last few decades.
  • study in Environmental Science & Technology looked into the effects of neonic-contaminated dust. The result? “Environmental release of particles containing neonicotinoids can produce high exposure levels for bees, with lethal effects compatible with colony losses phenomena observed by beekeepers.” In other words, bees can die immediately after flying over freshly-sown cornfields.
Should we be worried about bee-killing chemicals? Absolutely, and not just for the bees’ sake. As advanced as modern agriculture is, we still depend on bees to pollinate most of our crops. The economic value of honeybees in the US is in the billions, and it’s estimated that every third bite of food you eat is brought to you by bees. In fact, Einstein once predicted that, if bees went extinct, humans would follow shortly.
Now you might be wondering how these pesticides got approved in the first place (and why they’re still on the market). The answer is a disturbingly familiar government fail, which I’ll cover in my next post.

[Image: William Warby]

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Bees: Their importance, their problems, and how you can help

Think about the animals that we try to protect.  Polar bears, seals, whales, elephants, and wolves are some of the creatures that conservation groups promote.  They are all integral members of the ecosystem, and their lives are intrinsically important.  And we can’t help but appreciate their aesthetic value.

But is there a lower-profile, less charismatic creature that is equally important?

Every third bite of food that you eat is made possible by bees.  In fact, Einstein predicted that, if bees went extinct,bee(3).jpghumans would follow suit four years later.  It would be hard to name many flora or fauna that are not connected to bees at some point in the food web.

Considering this, it would be reasonable to argue that, on an ecological scale, bees are one of the most important of all the animals we protect — including Homo sapiens.

And bees are in trouble.

Part of the problem is industrial agriculture, which is harmful to native bees.  Chemical herbicides kill the plants that bees rely on for nectar and pollen when crop plants are not in bloom.  In addition, the consolidation of small farms into massive spreads means plowing under nesting areas.  Bees are not magical fairies that appear seasonally when needed; they must also survive on their own throughout the entire year.

The irony here is that agribusiness is trying to increase production by eliminating “pests.”  But in the process, it is eliminating natural pollinators, thereby severely damaging production.

What is the solution?  Hives of honeybees (which are not native to North America) must be placed in fields so that the crops will produce enough to be commercially viable.  So, honeybees are now migrant workers.

At the same time, beekeeping as a profession has declined, due to competition from cheap imported honey, so the remaining bees must work harder.  They are artificially roused from dormancy and trucked across the country.

The stress of transportation, along with fungi, malnutrition, and overuse of pesticides and antibiotics, is a possible cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD).  CCD is a phenomenon in which entire hives of bees simply disappear, and its cause is not yet known.

While Big Ag is causing trouble for bees, individuals also have an impact. In our efforts to turn a wilderness into a suburban paradise, we inadvertently kill the pollinators that make our very existence possible.

Here are some easy ways to make your yard bee-friendly:

  • Avoid using pesticides, and when you must use them, spray at night, when bees are less active.
  • Tolerate “weeds” such as dandelions and clover.
  • Choose bee-friendly plants.
  • Think before cutting dead wood; it can provide homes for bees.

Climate change also effects bees;  if there is not enough rain, flowers that bees depend on will not bloom.  Therefore, reducing your carbon footprint is another way to indirectly help bees.