Threats To Bees: Connect The Dots

Honey bees on a flower, Slovenia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After I met Joan Guerin’s honey bees this summer I became attuned to news that affects them.  An article about the greening of Florida’s citrus trees raised an alarm.

Since 2006 a third of the honey bee colonies in the U.S. have suddenly collapsed and died.  Their disappearance is not merely a honey crisis, it’s a food crisis because the majority of our crops are pollinated by commercially tended honey bees.  Fruits, soybeans, sugar beets, alfalfa… the list of crops is huge and worth over $15 billion.

In the U.S. most news reports say “We don’t know what causes bee collapse. It’s probably a number of factors including pesticides, parasitic mites, inadequate food, and a new virus” yet on April 29 the European Union banned three pesticides for two years to save their bees.  This came 16 years after French bee-keepers concluded that neonicotinoids harmed bees and ultimately caused their colonies to collapse.

In the mid-1990s French beekeepers experienced brutal bee population losses that coincided year after year with the sunflower honey season.  What had changed?  In the mid-1990s French sunflower growers began planting seeds coated with a neonicotinoid pesticide called imidacloprid that protects plants by becoming a systemic insect poison in the roots, stems, leaves, pollen and nectar.  Bees are insects. It ultimately killed them, too.  Even low doses weaken the bees’ immune systems so the EU placed imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiametoxam on a two year moratorium.

Not so in the U.S. and the U.K.  The Guardian points out that despite evidence from beekeepers around the world, regulators in our two countries prefer to take the chance of not regulating a bad substance rather than accidentally stopping a good one.  Neonicotinoids are used on 95% of our corn and canola and the majority of our bee-pollinated crops and they persist in soil and water even after the treated plants are gone.  Some disturbing events in the U.S. point to additional trouble ahead.

In June a landscaping company in Wilsonville, Oregon sprayed 65 linden trees in a Target parking lot with the pesticide “Safari” that contains dinotefuran neonicotinoids.  They did this for cosmetic reasons — to kill aphids that cause the lindens to dot sap on the cars below — but the result was catastrophic.  The trees were blooming.  50,000 bumblebees died.  The only way people stopped additional deaths was to drape the trees with nets so the bees couldn’t touch them.

Last weekend I read about the “greening” of Florida’s citrus trees.  This is not a happy color change but the sad irreversible death of all citrus trees from a bacteria carried by the Asian citrus psyllid.  Initially the only solution was to chop down infected trees but some farmers decided to keep on farming by nurturing their trees and using intensive systemic insecticides to kill the Asian citrus psyllid.

Imidacloprid, the chemical implicated by French beekeepers and now banned by the European Union, is being used to “save” the citrus groves.

Citrus groves require honey bees to pollinate them.

Connect the dots.  Oh no!

(photo by Mihael Simoni? from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

5 thoughts on “Threats To Bees: Connect The Dots

  1. When will they ever learn………………………..? Making “chase the dollar” the
    universal religion can only lead to universal catastrophe.

  2. I’ve been reading a book called 1491, and it talks about how the European discovery of America affected the entire planet. The author talks about how the sweet potato became a staple food in China, the white potato a staple in Europe, and how bird guano from the Americas became the first widely used fertilizer, which tremendously increased the crop yields in Europe.

    But he points out that most of our food crops are monocultures…they are mass production of non-genetically diverse species. So that when one insect or virus or fungus infects some of the plants (or animals!), they are all susceptible to it. And farming practices that help reduce the incidence of disease and infestation do not provide the yields that you get by using pesticides, fungicides, etc.

    And insects, bacteria, viruses, and fungi have the ability to mutate quickly to survive the chemicals used to get rid of them, and the farmers have to use more and harsher chemical as time goes on to keep the crop yields up. He said that if you go to a modern day cornfield, it is completely silent. There are no insects, not even beneficial ones, because the pesticides kill everything. And you wonder how the animals that eat the treated insects are affected…my brother had a mother robin die sitting in her nest (in which she had laid eggs) on the tree outside of their window. It’s one of these modern upscale developments that all use the lawn care services, and I wonder if the robin ate enough poisoned insects that it killed her.

    It’s a tough situation because with today’s medical advances people are living longer and there are more people on the planet, so you need a lot of food to feed them. But, like the Irish potato famine, you could have one new strain of a pest that we can’t treat fast enough, and it could wipe out a huge percentage of a particular crop, which would be devastating to the economy and could cause widespread starvation. What do you do? There are no easy answers.

    1. Mary Ann, I have read that crop yields on pesticide crops are lower than on non-pesticide diverse fields.

      Here are some examples. Note that my list is only the “Failure to Yield” side of the argument. “Pesticides Help” is easy to find at, the trade association for the chemical manufacturers:

      * This study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes how use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has temporarily raised yields but ultimately reduces soil fertility & yields in the future:

      * In 2011 the UN urged using “agroecology” because it outperforms chemicals:

      * The EPA discusses pesticide persistence in foods, also says that Integrated Pest Management increases yields:

      * A Union of Concerned Scientists study in 2009 shows how genetically-modified food has not lived up to its touted high yields.

  3. This is a major concern here in CA, where most of the country’s produce is grown. Almond trees are at particular risk. Our only hope is that if they see pesticides causing financial loss, they’ll change course.

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