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]

Green gardening: a quick guide

Six Ways to Save Energy and Reduce Your Yard’s Carbon Footprint

Want to save energy and reduce your backyard’s carbon footprint too? Here are six steps you can take:

1. Reduce the size of your lawn. Better yet, consider eliminating it entirely. Families with young children require only a small area of lawn where the kids can play. Everyone else can manage without turf by creating patios for living space, enlarging planting beds or installing a rock garden.

    Tip: Consider replacing your lawn with a native wildflower meadow. This will provide habitat for wildlife and requires no watering after its young plants are established. Since introducing plants to your property that are not indigenous to your region can contribute to ecological problems, ask your local native plant society which species are appropriate to cultivate.

2. Use hand tools instead of power equipment. When you reduce the size of your lawn, for example, you’ll only need a push mower.

3. Choose materials with low-embodied energy. Brick and concrete have large carbon footprints compared to gravel and especially wood. Used brick and other recycled materials are good choices, too.

4. Emphasize woody plants that capture more carbon than fleshy herbaceous species. Create a flower meadow or vegetable patch, but plant most of your property with low-maintenance native trees and shrubs, preferably those that also provide food and nesting and resting places for birds and other wildlife. Again, choose species native to your region.

5. Plant trees and shrubs where they will block winter winds and provide shade in summer. This will reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool your home and thus reduce your carbon footprint even further. The particular landscape strategy depends on your climate.

    Tip: For more details, see “Landscaping for Energy Efficiency,” a booklet produced for the U.S. Department of Energy and available online at www.eere.energy.gov.

6. Minimize, or better yet eliminate, the use of fertilizers and pesticides on your property. Use compost and mulch produced from garden trimmings to enrich your soil instead, and use native plants that are naturally pest resistant.

From NWF.