Could pesticides called neonicotinoids be the reason for the ongoing dramatic decline in the honeybee population? Last year was the fifth in a row that one third of US honeybee colonies did not survive the winter. Since 2006, the American bee population has been steadily declining, from 4.5 million honey-producing hives to 860,000, and the numbers are still going down.
Worldwide, honeybees pollinate 90 different commercial crops from fruits and vegetables (apples, oranges, strawberries, onions and carrots) to nuts, sunflowers, coffee, soya beans and clovers (including alfalfa, which is used to cattle feed) and cotton. Whether we know it or not, we depend on honeybees. Indeed, bees pollinate over 70 percent of food crops around the globe.
Pesticides made by the agricultural company Bayer have been tied to the global destruction of bee populations. Among those pesticides are neonicotinoids, which were developed, with all good intentions, as a “better” alternative to DDT, which was banned in 1972. But neonicotinoids are on average 7,000 times more toxic than DDT.
As Monica Potts at Grist notes, research by Jeffrey Pettis, the United States Department of Agriculture’s lead bee researcher, suggests that neonicotinoids are not “safer.” According to Pettis’ research,
…neonicotinoids, from pre-coated seeds or treated crops, ooze out through the nectar, pollen, and water of plants like cotton and corn. Honeybees and other natural pollinators eat it, and even undetectable amounts most likely weaken their immune systems and make them susceptible to harmful pathogens they would be able to fight off when healthy.
Potts also notes that, even though Pettis’ research suggests a link between neonicotinoids and the decline in the US bee population, he himself shies away from drawing “a straight causal line between the demonstrably harmful chemical to Colony Collapse Disorder,” the five-or-six-years phenomenon of huge swaths of the North American and European honeybee population dying off in the winter. Pettis instead suggests that pesticides, along with habitat destruction and other environmental problems, are “contributing factors” in the deaths of so many bees. But, due to variables including the size and mobility of bee populations, no one has yet uncovered a direct link between pesticides and bee deaths; it’s hoped that long-term studies might yield more evidence.
Nonetheless, Germany, France and Slovenia have banned the use of neonicotinoids and the UK is considering such a ban. Why doesn’t the US invoke the European “precautionary principle” and simply take the chemicals off the market, especially in view of the continuing decline of the bee population? Why in the US does the Environmental Protection Agency have to wait for the harmful effects of pesticides to become all too evident, rather than study and publicize those effects before allowing these chemicals to infiltrate the environment?
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