The United States faces the same crisis. No specific cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious bee illness, has yet been found. But perhaps the most insidious killer of all could be nicotine-based pesticides that interfere with honey bee memories. If their memories are damaged, they may not be able to find their way back to the hive.
In 2003, the U.S. EPA approved a new nicotine-based pesticide called Clothianidin developed by Takeda Chemical Industries and Bayer, a German chemical and pharmaceutical company. It suspected by many of being a primary cause of the bee die-offs.
If lack of honey is the first thing that springs to mind when you hear that honeybees are dying off, you’re not alone. But creating honey is only a small portion of what bees do to help keep us all alive here on planet earth.
Can We Survive Without the Honeybee?
Honeybees are critical components of agriculture, used to pollinate many of the nuts, fruits and vegetables you have grown to love.
A full one-third of the U.S. food supply depends on pollination from bees. Apple orchards, for instance, require one colony of bees per acre to be adequately pollinated. The California almond crop alone requires 1.3 million colonies of bees, and bees actually add an estimated $15 billion in value to crops like these. So if bee colonies continue to be wiped out in unprecedented numbers, major food shortages could result, adding to the current food crisis.
Debate About the Cause of Colony Collapse Disorder Continues
American beekeepers surveyed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service in the winter of 2007 reported a total loss of about 36 percent of their bee colonies, up from 13.5 percent the year before. Historically, beekeepers would incur losses of between 5 and 10 percent in an average year.
The cause has been dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD), as it can seemingly wipe out hives overnight, but the debate is still ongoing about what’s causing it. So far, things like cell phones, genetically modified crops, high-fructose corn syrup used for feeding bees, and viruses and parasites that compromise the bee’s immune system have all been mentioned. And while most researchers are pointing to a combination of the above factors, it’s hard to ignore the scientific findings about pesticides and other chemicals.
For instance, Penn State scientists analyzed pollen, beeswax, adult bees and larvae and found dozens of chemicals, including pesticides, present. These chemicals, especially when combined with these other stresses, are more than capable of overwhelming the delicate system of the honeybee.
Current German and U.S. Lawsuits Try to Shed Light on the Problem
Two of the latest developments in the effort to determine the main culprit of the bees’ demise include the filing of a legal complaint against Bayer Crop Science on August 13, 2008, and a lawsuit by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on August 18th.
On the European front, German beekeepers and a consumer advocate group filed a legal complaint against Bayer Crop Science to determine what Bayer really knows about the environmental impact of its nicotine-based pesticide clothianidin.
And in the U.S., just days later, the NDRC filed a lawsuit against the EPA to
“uncover critical information that the U. S. government is withholding about the risks posed by nicotine-based pesticides to honey bees. EPA should be evaluating the risks to bees before approving new pesticides, but now refuses to tell the public what it knows. Pesticide restrictions might be at the heart of the solution to this growing honey bee crisis, so why hide the information that EPA should be using to make those decisions?”
The NRDC had tried to obtain the agency’s original data from Bayer on the pesticide under the Freedom of Information Act since 2006, without success.
Are Bayer’s Nicotine-Based Pesticides to Blame?
Currently, the two main pesticides being scrutinized as potential causes for the worldwide die-offs of bee colonies are Bayer’s clothianidin and imidicloprid. Clothianidin and related nicotine-based pesticides generated about $1 billion of Bayer’s $8.6 billion in global sales for 2007.
Bayer, a German chemical and pharmaceutical company, is also the third largest pharmaceutical company in the world.
It seems incriminating – but not surprising -- that the EPA is ignoring requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. Especially when you consider that the EPA’s own fact sheet on clothianidin says:
“Clothianidin has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other nontarget pollinators, through the translocation of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen … In honey bees, the effects of this toxic chronic exposure may include lethal and/or sub-lethal effects in the larvae and reproductive effects on the queen.”
It’s quite disconcerting that this chemical was so readily approved by the EPA back in 2003. Aside from the potential to kill honeybees, the EPA’s clothianidin fact sheet also notes that:
“Assessments show that exposure to treated seeds through ingestion may result in chronic toxic risk to non-endangered and endangered small birds (e.g., songbirds) and acute/chronic toxicity risk to non-endangered and endangered mammals …
The fate and disposition of clothianidin in the environment suggest a compound that is a systemic insecticide that is persistent and mobile, stable to hydrolysis, and has potential to leach to ground water, as well as runoff to surface waters.”
Despite this knowledge, clothianidin is widely used to douse the seeds of corn and canola in the U.S. and more than 120 other countries. But some countries are wisening up to the problem. The German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety has prohibited the use of clothianidin as of May 15, 2008, until further studies can prove its harmlessness.
Imidacloprid, another systemic chloro-nicotinyl compound developed in 1989 by Bayer A.G, has since become the number one active ingredient in insecticides around the world. It’s used in products for seed treatment on wheat, tomatoes and potatoes, as well as pesticides for control of grubs, subterranean termites, and carpenter ants.
It is also the active ingredient in Advantage®, the best selling product for the control of fleas on dogs, cats and other pets.
After reporting large losses of bees after exposure to imidicloprid, France banned it for use on corn and sunflowers, despite protests by the multi-national giant Bayer.
Beware of New Bayer Pesticides Designed for Home Garden Use
Recently Bayer and Pursell Industries, Inc. formed Bayer-Pursell, LLC, which will market a new Imidacloprid-containing product called “Merit” to the U.S. consumer market. The joint venture will also introduce the brand, Bayer Advanced™, designed for home garden use.
Needless to say, if you have any concern for the welfare of the pollinators in your neck of the woods, I recommend you stay clear of these new Bayer products. And, when it comes time for you to make choices about the food you’ll purchase to feed your family, choosing pesticide-free varieties will not only protect your health, but will give the honeybees a fighting chance as well.
Canaries in the Coal Mine
Personally, I believe there’s more than just one thing causing the disastrous destruction of bee colonies. Just as you are bombarded with toxic chemicals from the air you breathe, to the soil your food is grown in, to the toiletries you use and the water you drink, bees are the true canaries in the coal mine, showing us what’s in store for you and me if we don’t clean up our act on several fronts.
I do believe pesticides are largely to blame, but I’m also relatively convinced that the epidemic increase in cell phone use is another major contributor to this disorder, as it coincides rather precisely with the decline in the bee population.
It took from 1984 to 2004 to reach the first billion cell phones and then only 18 months to get to the second billion, nine months to the third, and we will hit four billion cell phones by the end of this year.
Wireless broadcasts are loaded with information containing packets, which resonate at various frequencies (depending on the source), and can cause biological effects when the frequency is the same, or similar to, the biological system of the organism.
In the case of the bees, it appears to disrupt intercellular communication and cause disorientation of the magnetite in their bodies that they use to orient themselves to the earth. Wireless technology is also being linked to the death of migratory birds.