Study Proves Pesticide Exposure Linked to Bee Colony Failures


Story at-a-glance -

  • A new study found bees given access to two commonly used agricultural pesticides were adversely affected in numerous ways, including a higher death rate among worker bees and an increased likelihood of colony failure
  • Neonicotinoid pesticides, in particular, affect insects' central nervous systems in ways that are cumulative and irreversible, and are now being suggested as a cause of disappearing honeybees
  • Bayer CropScience – a leading manufacturer of the neonicotinoid pesticides at the heart of the CCD debate (lawsuits against Bayer from beekeepers are ongoing) – plans to open the North American Bee Care Center by July 2013; Monsanto, the leader in genetically modified crops (and their associated pesticides), has also purchased a bee research firm
  • A full one-third of the U.S. food supply depends on pollination from bees, so if bee colonies continue to be devastated by colony collapse disorder major food shortages could result; other important innovations made from honeybee products (such as propolis for cancer treatment and honey for wound healing) could also disappear

By Dr. Mercola

Serious honey bee die-offs have been occurring around the world for the past decade, which is an alarming trend considering one of every three bites of food you eat depends on the good graces of the honey bee.

They pollinate at least 130 different crops in the United States alone, including fruits, vegetables and tree nuts. Without honey bees, farmers would have to resort to pollinating their crops by hand, which would be an incredibly expensive and labor intensive undertaking, if it could even be done on the same scale.

No one knows exactly why the bees are disappearing, but the phenomenon, dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is thought to be caused by a variety of imbalances in the environment, secondary to current agricultural and industrial practices.

Bees are sensitive to the constant flood of manmade chemicals into their environment and bodies, especially pesticides, many of which accumulate over time … and now new research has provided some of the strongest evidence supporting this theory to date.

Pesticide Exposure Proven to Impact Bee Colonies

Exposure to pesticides has been associated with changes in bee behavior and reductions in colony queen production, both of which could have detrimental impacts on the life of the colony. However, the impact of pesticides on individual bee behavior, and its subsequent impact on the colony as a whole, had not yet been determined … until now.

You see, bee colonies are like living cities, and each individual bee plays a crucial role. A healthy hive is occupied by a collection of overlapping generations. Tasks are divided up according to age and colony needs via a very intricate system of communication:

  • Younger worker bees (nurse bees) tend to the queen and the baby bees.
  • Older worker bees forage for food and water for the colony, convert nectar into honey, construct and clean wax cells, and guard the hive from invaders. Worker bees develop stingers to defend the eggs lain by the queen.
  • Drones have only one purpose—to mate with the queen. In fact, the queen will leave her hive only once in her lifetime, in order to mate with several drones and store up enough sperm to last the rest of her life.1

Researchers explained:2

"Social bee colonies depend on the collective performance of many individual workers. Thus, although field-level pesticide concentrations can have subtle or sublethal effects at the individual level, it is not known whether bee societies can buffer such effects or whether it results in a severe cumulative effect at the colony level.  Furthermore, widespread agricultural intensification means that bees are exposed to numerous pesticides when foraging, yet the possible combinatorial effects of pesticide exposure have rarely been investigated."

This is what the new study set out to determine, and it was revealed that bees given access to two commonly used agricultural pesticides were adversely affected in numerous ways, including:

  • Fewer adult worker bees emerged from larvae
  • A higher proportion of foragers failed to return to the nest
  • A higher death rate among worker bees
  • An increased likelihood of colony failure

The researchers said:

"Here we show that chronic exposure of bumble bees to two pesticides (neonicotinoid and pyrethroid) at concentrations that could approximate field-level exposure impairs natural foraging behaviour and increases worker mortality leading to significant reductions in brood development and colony success.

We found that worker foraging performance, particularly pollen collecting efficiency, was significantly reduced with observed knock-on effects for forager recruitment, worker losses and overall worker productivity. Moreover, we provide evidence that combinatorial exposure to pesticides increases the propensity of colonies to fail."

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Leading Pesticide Makers Heading Up Bee Research?

Pesticide manufacturers are likely none too pleased about the recent accusations hurled against their products, so they've taken matters into their own hands and purchased leading bee research firms, ostensibly to study colony collapse disorder and other bee research.

Monsanto, which is the world leader in genetically modified (GM) crops (and the pesticides and herbicides that go along with them), recently bought Beeologics, a company whose primary goal is finding a solution to the colony collapse disorder.

Beeologics states their mission is to become the "guardian of bee health worldwide." Monsanto bought the company in September 2011, just months before Poland announced it would ban growing of Monsanto's genetically modified (GM) MON810 maize, noting, poignantly, that "pollen of this strain could have a harmful effect on bees."3

The ongoing blight of GM crops has been implicated in CCD for many years now. In one German study,4 when bees were released in a GM rapeseed crop, then fed the pollen to younger bees, scientists discovered the bacteria in the guts of the young ones mirrored the same genetic traits as ones found in the GM crop, indicating that horizontal gene transfer had occurred.

Further, the newer systemic insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, have become the fastest growing insecticides in the world. Two prominent examples, Imidacloprid and Clothianidin, are used as seed treatments in hundreds of crops. Virtually all of today's genetically engineered Bt corn is treated with neonicotinoids.

Bee colonies began disappearing in the U.S. shortly after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed these new insecticides on the market. Even the EPA itself admits that "pesticide poisoning" is a likely cause of bee colony collapse.

These insecticides are highly toxic to bees because they are systemic, water soluble, and very pervasive. They get into the soil and groundwater where they can accumulate and remain for many years and generate long-term toxicity to the hive. They enter the vascular system of the plant and are carried to all parts of it, as well as to the pollen and nectar. Neonicotinoids affect insects' central nervous systems in ways that are cumulative and irreversible. Even minute amounts can have profound effects over time.

One of the observed effects of these insecticides is weakening of the bee's immune system. Forager bees bring pesticide-laden pollen back to the hive, where it's consumed by all of the bees. Six months later, their immune systems fail, and they fall prey to secondary, seemingly "natural" bee infections, such as parasites, mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria. Indeed, pathogens such as Varroa mites, Nosema, fungal and bacterial infections, and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) are found in large amounts in honey bee hives on the verge of collapse.

In addition to immune dysfunction and opportunistic diseases, the honey bees also appear to suffer from neurological problems, disorientation, and impaired navigation. These effects have great consequence, as a bee can't survive for more than 24 hours if she becomes disoriented and unable to find her way back to the hive.

Bayer is Now Heading Up Bee Research, Too

Interestingly, Bayer CropScience – a leading manufacturer of the neonicotinoid pesticides at the heart of the CCD debate (lawsuits against Bayer from beekeepers are ongoing) – plans to open the North American Bee Care Center by July 2013. The Center is intended to be a research hub as well as promote "the active promotion of bee-responsible use of Bayer products along with communication activities worldwide."5

Clearly, the forthcoming research from Beeologics and the North American Bee Care Center may now be tainted with regard these companies' products and their impact on bee populations.

Already, in 2010 a study by Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk found that CCD was not caused by pesticides but rather a combination of fungus and virus, found in all collapsed colonies, may be the culprit … what was not widely reported in the media, however, was that Dr. Bromenshenk received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination – a massive conflict of interest that is likely to be carried over into any upcoming research from Bayer and Monsanto.

Losing Bees is About More Than Just Honey

When most people think of honey bees, they think honey. But honey is only a small part of the useful work bees do for us in the United States. Honey bees are critical components of U.S. agriculture, used to pollinate nuts, fruits and vegetables. 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.

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. So if bee colonies continue to be devastated by colony collapse disorder -- or whatever is causing them to die -- major food shortages could result. If honey bees disappear, so, too, will all of these other innovations and any new developments that may be honey bee-inspired in the future. And that's not all. Bees also contribute to many other areas of human health, including:

  • Playing an important role in human medicine; raw honey, which has potent anti-inflammatory and anti-infective properties, is being used for wound healing and treating coughs, while "stun" chemicals from bee stings are being looked at as an effective anesthetic for humans
  • Propolis, the "caulk" honey bees use to patch holes in their hives, may slow the growth of prostate cancer and has powerful immune-modulating effects, along with potent antioxidant and anti-microbial action, and healing, analgesic, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory properties
  • Bee pollen, which is often referred to as a superfood because it contains a broad range of nutrients required by your body. About half of its protein is in the form of free amino acids that are ready to be used directly by your body and can therefore contribute significantly to your protein needs.
  • Honey bees have helped make scientific discoveries in many fields, including the aeronautics industry, which used the design of the six-sided honeycomb to help design aircraft wings; honeybee communication systems have even been adopted by computer programmers to help run Internet servers more efficiently6

You Can Take Action to Help Honey bees

The documentary film Vanishing of the Bees recommends four actions you can take to help preserve our honeybees:

  • Support organic farmers and shop at local farmer's markets as often as possible. You can "vote with your fork" three times a day. (When you buy organic, you are making a statement by saying "no" to GMOs and toxic pesticides!)
  • Cut the use of toxic chemicals in your house and on your lawn, and use only organic, all-natural forms of pest control.
  • Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant a garden. Lawns offer very little benefit for the environment. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide excellent natural honeybee habitats.
  • Become an amateur beekeeper. Having a hive in your garden requires only about an hour of your time per week, benefits your local ecosystem, and you can enjoy your own honey!

If you are interested in more information about bee preservation, the following organizations are a good place to start.

  • Pesticide Action Network Bee Campaign7
  • The Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees8
  • American Beekeeping Federation9
  • Help the Honey Bees 10