Will a Ban on Harmful Pesticides Save Bees?

May 2, 2013

In a far-reaching and proactive measure, the European Commission has enacted a two-year ban on three common pesticides: clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam. These pesticides, collectively known as neonicotinoid insecticides, are used on agricultural crops that are pollinated by honeybees. Affected crops include corn, apples, strawberries, sunflower and rapeseed (which is the source of canola oil). The ban, which will go into effect on December 1, 2013, is considered controversial in Europe—only 15 nations supported it. The purpose of the ban is to give the European Union an opportunity to assess to what degree these chemicals have contributed to the worldwide collapse of the honeybee population.

As you might imagine, the situation is not as clear-cut as either side would like—environmentalists and beekeepers versus agrochemical companies and farmers. The science is still somewhat inconclusive, although the preponderance of evidence suggests that these nerve agents are harmful to honeybees. It is difficult to conduct a definitive study on honeybee populations and control for different exposure levels to chemically-treated crops, which are practically ubiquitous in every field. Furthermore, the major chemical companies involved have not been forthcoming with their own scientific data. However, the German agrochemical company, Bayer CropScience and the Swiss biochemical company, Syngenta, have both offered to finance additional research. Nonetheless, the studies that have been performed—several of which have been published in the prestigious journals, Science and Nature, have convinced European officials that the risk is serious enough to justify a temporary suspension.

The importance of honeybees to our way of live cannot be overstated. Bees pollinate 71 out of the 100 or so crops that we humans rely upon for 90% of our food (Source: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization). The future health and very survival of honeybees should be of the utmost concern of every nation, including the United States (US). So far, the US is taking a “wait and see” approach to the question as to whether certain pesticides are contributing to the widespread colony collapse disorder (CCD) phenomenon. In the US, managed bee populations are at a record 50-year low and this downward trend is projected continue.

What is being done in the US to help address this critical problem of CCD? To date, several environmental groups and beekeepers have sued the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the continued use of neonicotinoids. They blame the EPA for failing to protect pollinators from these insecticides and are demanding the suspension of their use. They want the EPA to re-evaluate their continued application in the light of evidence indicating that they are adversely affecting honeybees.  However, an outright ban is unlikely to happen in the US—at least for the foreseeable future—as the amount of data to support a regulatory decision by the EPA is not sufficient, especially compared to case of organophosphates (chlorpyrifos and diazinon) and organochlorines (DTT or Aldrin). There is also the added complication that CCD is likely not caused by a single factor and disease, viruses, loss of habitat and general nutrition may also be contributing to the unhealthy state of many honeybee colonies. 

We are fortunate that the beehives at Bee America came through the winter in good condition and look strong and healthy. Currently, our bees are out gathering nectar and building up honey stores as their population increases in preparation for peak honey flow in early to mid summer. When I see the bees leave the hive in the morning after the sun warms their wings, I have faith that we can figure out how to save them. I’m reminded that a love of bees and honey is just the simple faith we need to get started doing just that.

Ten things YOU can do to help save honeybees:

1.    Create bee-friendly habitats—plant a variety of flowering plants that bloom from early spring to late summer

2.    Select old-fashioned plant varieties rather than highly-cultivated plants

3.    Plant wildflowers or create a small wildflower meadow

4.    Avoid pesticides and use natural insect-control measures

5.    Buy local honey or honey that is true-sourced

6.    Support companies that fund bee research and breeding

7.    Participate in a save-the-bees initiative—from signing petitions on banning pesticides to asking for funding for bee-related research

8.    Write to your local government and request it stops the use of pesticides in public spaces, plants more bee-friendly plants, makes space for wildflowers

9.    Eat organic

10. Spread the word about the need to save the honeybees!