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Massive Honey Contamination Revealed

Threatened Bees

Story at-a-glance -

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly began testing a small number of foods for glyphosate in 2016
  • Tests revealed glyphosate residues of 653 parts per billion (ppb) in some honey samples — an amount that’s more than 10 times the European limit of 50 ppb
  • Other honey samples contained glyphosate residues ranging from 20 ppb to 123 ppb
  • In an internal email, an FDA researcher complained that no honey (even “organic mountain honey”) appeared to be free of glyphosate

By Dr. Mercola

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is the most used agricultural chemical in history — and was recently classified as a probable human carcinogen — but the U.S. remains largely in the dark about just how much glyphosate residue is found on commonly consumed foods.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly began testing a small number of foods for glyphosate earlier this year, and so far the results are not reassuring, including in foods widely considered to be pure and natural, like honey.

Research by an FDA chemist and a colleague from the University of Iowa revealed glyphosate residues of 653 parts per billion (ppb) in some honey samples — an amount that’s more than 10 times the European limit of 50 ppb.1

Other samples contained residues ranging from 20 ppb to 123 ppb. Sadly, in an internal email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, another FDA researcher complained that no honey (even “organic mountain honey”) appeared to be free of glyphosate, as reported by The Huffington Post:2

“It is difficult to find blank honey that does not contain residue. I collect about 10 samples of honey in the market and they all contain glyphosate.”

How Does Glyphosate Find Its Way Into Honey?

Honey is not a “crop” sprayed with relentless amounts of herbicides the way other crops, like genetically engineered corn, are. So why is it turning up contaminated nonetheless?

Glyphosate is virtually everywhere in the U.S. Since 1996, its has risen nearly 15-fold, according to a study published in Environmental Sciences Europe.3 Since glyphosate was introduced in 1974, 1.8 million tons have been applied to U.S. fields, and two-thirds of that volume have been sprayed in the last 10 years.

Bees, as pollinators, travel from plant to plant. With grasslands being increasingly converted into genetically engineered (GE) corn and soybean fields where glyphosate is amply sprayed, it’s easy for them to become contaminated and then transfer that contamination to their honey.

Darren Cox, president of the American Honey Producers Association, told The Huffington Post:4

“It’s a chemical intrusion, a chemical trespass into our product … We have really no way of controlling it. I don’t see an area for us to put our bees. We can’t put them in the middle of the desert.

They need to be able to forage in ag [agricultural] areas. There are no ag areas free of this product [glyphosate].”

Beyond honey, glyphosate has also been detected in blood, breast milk and urine samples. Common breakfast foods, including oatmeal, bagels, coffee creamer, organic bread and even organic, cage-free, antibiotic-free eggs, have also tested positive for glyphosate residues, as have organic wine and beer.5,6

Are Bees Being Killed by Chemical Cocktails?

Glyphosate is only one type of pesticide that bees have to contend with. Research published in the journal Nature Communications revealed that pollen collected next to cornfields is contaminated with up to 32 different pesticides.7

While certain classes of pesticides, like neonicotinoids, have been implicated in bee deaths, it’s becoming clear that exposures to potent chemical cocktails may be causing deleterious, and as yet unknown, effects.

New research — the first to systematically assess multiple pesticides accumulated in bee colonies — has revealed, however, that the mixture of chemicals, not the dose, may be the deadliest factor of all.

The study, published in Nature Scientific Reviews, found 93 different pesticide products in the bee colonies they tested. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, said in a press release:8

“We found that the number of different compounds was highly predictive of colony death, which suggests that the addition of more compounds somehow overwhelms the bees’ ability to detoxify themselves.”

The researchers tracked not only the total number of pesticides found in honeybee colonies (91 in all) but also the pesticides found above a minimum level of toxicity. Each colony was given a “hazard quotient,” which represented the total toxicity of the combined pesticides present.

All of these measures were associated with an increased risk of colony death or loss of the queen bee. There is only one queen bee per hive. She mates once and then is fertile for life, laying up to 2,000 eggs per day to sustain the colony. If the queen bee dies, the colony is at risk of collapse.

Also concerning, the study found “an abundance of fungicides inside the hives,” and while such products have been regarded as safe for bees, the study found their presence was “linked to imminent colony mortality.”9

Will Cryopreservation of Bee Sperm Be Needed to Sustain the Food Supply?

From April 2015 to April 2016, U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies, a worsening from the prior year. The fact that high summer losses have been noted is also important, as mite infestations are more likely to occur in the winter.

Bayer, Syngenta and other chemical companies have blamed mites as a reason for the bee deaths, but the latest summer losses weaken their argument, according to Pettis. Instead, pesticide exposure is a likely factor.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership, said in a press release:10

“We’re now in the second year of high rates of summer loss, which is cause for serious concern … Some winter losses are normal and expected. But the fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming.”

Bees and other pollinators are necessary to help 80 percent of flowering plants reproduce and are involved in the production of 1 out of every 3 bites of food.

If bees disappeared, the food supply would be threatened, so scientists have added genetic material from honeybees to the National Animal Germplasm Program, a gene bank run by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

This wasn’t possible until recently, when Washington State University (WSU) entomologist Brandon Hopkins developed a technique to freeze, or cryopreserve, honeybee sperm, “making it possible not only to create an emergency supply for the repository, but also to breed better bees for the field,” Civil Eats reported. They continued:11

“Hopkins’ technological advance came at a critical time. As beekeepers continue to lose a third of their bees every year on average, many are counting on breeding to combat some of the threats to honeybees, namely pests and disease.”

Reduction of Pesticide Use Critical for Bees; Flowering Plants Could Conserve Them

The authors of the Nature Scientific Reports study noted it’s essential to reduce the amount of chemical products that bees are being exposed to. Unfortunately, as the use of GE crops has spread across the U.S., the use of herbicides (like the highly toxic glyphosate) has increased by 21 percent.12

By 2025, Monsanto has plans to introduce GE corn seeds that will contain 14 GE traits allowing farmers to spray five different varieties of herbicide.13 So rather than moving in the right direction and curbing pesticide use, the U.S. appears to be worsening the problem.

In contrast, in France (where GE crops have not gained a foothold) the use of both insecticides and fungicides dropped by 65 percent during the last two decades while herbicide use decreased by 36 percent.14

Simple interventions could prove invaluable to U.S. bees, however. In addition to reducing pesticide usage, the introduction of ornamental flowering plants could support bees and other beneficial insects.

Researchers from the University of Georgia studied pollinator visits to four research plots, including butterfly and conservation gardens, that included 74 varieties of annual and perennial ornamental plants.

More than 30 species of pollinators and 20 species of beneficial insects were observed, and the researchers noted “flowering ornamental plant species have the potential to support beneficial insect communities.”15 Some of the most-visited plants included cockscomb flower (celosia), bee blossom (gaura), lantana, hummingbird mint (agastache) and catmint (nepetax faassenii).

"This could be due to the vibrant colors, rich nectar and pollen supply, and the variety of floral inflorescences these plants possess," study author Bethany A. Harris said in a press release.16 They further noted, “The results obtained will be useful in formulating recommendations on planting the best species for the purpose of attracting pollinators as well as for conservation purposes.”17

Boycott GE Foods and Pesticides and Plant a Flower Garden

To avoid harming bees and other helpful pollinators that visit your garden, swap out toxic pesticide and lawn chemicals for organic weed and pest control alternatives. Even some organic formulations can be harmful to beneficial insects, so be sure to vet your products carefully.

Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant an edible organic garden. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide good honeybee habitats. It's also recommended to keep a small basin of fresh water in your garden or backyard, as bees actually do get thirsty.

In addition, you'll want to grow your own pollinator-friendly plants from organic, untreated seeds. If you opt to purchase starter plants, make sure to ask whether or not they've been pre-treated with pesticides.

Keep in mind that you also help protect the welfare of all pollinators every time you shop organic and grass-fed, as you are actually “voting” for less pesticides and herbicides with every organic and pastured food and consumer product you buy. The video above, from the Pesticide Research Institute (PRI), gives examples of 12 pollinator-friendly plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen to add to your garden.