What’s the Buzz about the Bees?

Honey bees may seem mildly threatening on a summer day, but for the most part they just go about their business and leave us alone.  The interesting thing is that their business is big business, involving not just honey production but pollination of about $15 billion in crops each year, representing a third of our food supply.  The real threat is what’s happening to our honey bee population in recent years.

A phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder has scientists baffled.  Since 2006, honey bee populations have declined precipitously, with annual declines of averaging 30 percent in the US.  Several European countries have experienced similar declines.

There may in fact be no single reason for this decline.  Researchers have looked at viruses, parasites, pesticides and malnutrition, but have not been able to conclusively determine the cause of the problem.  It’s normal to experience annual declines of 10 percent during the winter.  According the American Beekeepers Association, domestic beekeepers have experienced losses ranging from 30 to 50 percent in each of the last 4-5 years.

David Mendes, president of the ABA, is understandably concerned about the problem, and believes that an increased use of pesticides is the most likely culprit.  “There are a lot of beekeepers who are in trouble,” he said.  “I don’t put my bees in Florida because in the last couple years there has been a tremendous increase in pesticide use in the orange crop to fight a disease.”

One pesticide, called clothianidin, is used on crops like corn and canola.  The chemical is designed to affect the central nervous system of pest insects, but be relatively harmless to other animals.  However, it appears to be highly toxic for the bee population, as the pollen and nectar from these plants are the favored food source of honey bees.  Test on dead bees in Germany showed that 99% had clothianidin buildup.

Clothianidin, developed by Bayer in Germany, was conditionally approved for use in the U.S. by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003 after some initial concerns about its effects on bees.   It was later officially approved on the basis of a single study conducted by Bayer.  The study was criticized by beekeepers, and documents show that the agency’s own scientists found reason to discredit the findings.  Clothianidin has been banned in a number of European countries, including Germany, France and Italy. Yet, it appears as though the commercial value of the product in the U.S. and the risks of a lawsuit are more important than the impacts to our bee population.

What is regrettable is that the EPA continues to allow the sale of this product in the U.S., despite the fact that its own scientists have discredited the very study upon which approval was based.  This agency, which is responsible for the protecting our environment, maintains the position that beekeepers must prove that the chemical is unsafe.  It seems more appropriate that the multinational corporation profiting from its sale should prove that it is safe.

The article Timeline of a Bee Massacre: EPA Still Allowing Hive-Killing Pesticide provides additional depth and important references to EPA documents and other background information.  The Credo Action network is appealing to members to petition the EPA to ban clothianidin until a scientifically-verified independent review of the effect of the chemical is conducted.  On their website, Credo Action offers an easy way to tell the EPA to ban the pesticide that’s killing honey bees.

I think we’d all like to see a healthy balance between science and commerce.  Scientific advances have, for the most part, brought about a longer and higher standard of living.  With appropriate vetting of new products through objective, collaborative research (rather than corporate-sponsored science), we can minimize unanticipated fiascos like this.  Bees are benign and essential contributors to our food supply. Let’s take care of them and by ensuring that it’s not the fox watching the chicken coop!

This was published in the Going Green section of the March 2011 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.

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