There are close to 20,000 different species of bees in the world. You are probably familiar with bumble bees and, of course, honey bees.
What you may not know, however, is that the tiny bee you swat away as it hovers around your glass of lemonade is actually vital to your survival.
You see, bees are responsible for pollinating 30 percent of everything you eat and 90 percent of wild plants. (1) They also play a crucial role in sustaining our planet’s ecosystems. In fact, it’s safe to say that 84 percent of all the crops grown, which includes 400 various plants that we eat everyday, depend on the bees to pollinate them in order to continue a healthy growth cycle.
To put this into perspective, this translates to 1 in 3 bites of all food you eat is reliant on honey bee pollination. (2) Even things like nuts, sunflowers, various teas and cocoa beans need these little guys to ensure they flourish and in turn, provide us with food.
So, when reports come in stating things like, “37 million bees just died in Canada,” (3) or “44 percent of the honey bee colonies in the US were lost from April 2015 to April 2016,” (4) it can be alarming to say the least.
Why Are the Bees Dying?
The simple answer for why bees are dying in mass numbers according to many experts is genetically modified organisms or GMOs—plants that have been genetically modified, in this case, with a pesticide.
“These neonicotinoid pesticides are a newer class of chemicals that are applied to seeds before planting. This allows the pesticide to be taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows, where it is expressed in the pollen and nectar.” (5)
One Canadian beekeeper, Dave Schuit, states that since GMO corn was planted in a field near his farm, he has lost close to 37 million bees, which represents about 600 hives. He says, “Once the corn started to get planted our bees died by the millions.” (6)
Schuit is not alone. Countless beekeepers now link neonicotinoids, also called “neonics,” for what is essentially a colony collapse. And apparently, it’s not just the beekeepers who are making this claim.
In 2012, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), a division of Health Canada, received numerous reports of honey bee deaths in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario, essentially nationwide. (6)
According to the agency, some of the deaths were attributed to what is called “spray drift,” where the pesticides are spread by the wind and end up outside the intended target area. A significant number of honey bee deaths, however, were linked to the corn growing regions of Ontario and Quebec, especially in southern Ontario where over 40 beekeepers and 240 different bee yards were affected. The timing and location of these deaths directly coincides with the planting of GMO corn seed.
According to the PMRA, clothianidin (a nitro guanidine insecticide) was detected in approximately 70 percent of the samples analyzed in Ontario and both clothianidin and thiamethoxam (another nitro guanidine insecticide) were both detected in the samples analyzed from Quebec.
“On a bee yard basis, these residues were detected in approximately 80 percent of the bee yards where dead bee samples were collected and analysed.” (7)
These nicotine-based pesticides are neurotoxins designed to kill invading insects. They essentially impair a bee’s navigational capabilities and weaken their immune and nervous systems. Ultimately, they paralyze the bee and it slowly dies when it is unable to make it back to its hive—honeybees cannot survive without their hives.
Neonicotinoid Pesticides Banned in EU
In the European Union, the use of neonicotinoid pesticides is banned. Government agencies understand the dangers and attribute these pesticides to direct contamination of pollen and nectar, which ultimately damages and kills any pollinators like the bees and other insects. (8)
Other countries, like Canada and the US, however, continue to allow the use of these hazardous pesticides, despite the obvious dangers these chemicals cause. According to a study published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, neonicotinoid pesticides kill honeybees by destroying their immune systems, leaving them unable to fight diseases and bacteria. They found “35 different pesticides in the sampled pollen, and found high fungicide loads.” (9)
Clothianidin, one of the more wildly used neonicotinoids, is particularly dangerous based on the simple fact that we grow so much corn, close to 90 percent of which is GMO. According to Monsanto, the largest supplier of GMOs and pesticides, America’s farmers produce 20 percent more corn per acre than any other country in the world.
Currently, there are more than 90 million acres of corn growing in the US. (10) So, not only is almost 90 percent of this corn genetically modified, but it is also treated with clothianidin, which makes its way up through the plant’s vascular system and is then dispersed through pollen and nectar.
The bees not only bring this poisonous pollen and nectar back to the hive, but the wind also carries the dust from these pesticide-coated seeds dropping it on the bees and other flowering plants. It further accumulates in the soil, finding its way into other vegetation and wildlife.
Changes Need To Be Made…Fast!
As more research emerges, some government agencies are starting to take the threat of these pesticides and GMOs seriously. Several states in the US, including California, Alaska, New York, and Massachusetts, are considering legislation to ban neonicotinoids. (11) Maryland’s Pollinator Protection Act has eliminated consumer use of neonicotinoids in the state.
Other countries, like Canada, have banned the use of Imadacloprid (another neonicotinoids) for use on sunflower and corn fields. In fact, The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in Canada has laid out a three-point initiative that includes: (12)
- An 80 per cent reduction in acreage planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by 2017.
- Limiting the number of honey bees that die during winter by 15 per cent by 2020.
- Developing a “comprehensive” action plan for pollinator health.
The Legal Buzz
Numerous private groups and organizations are also stating to stand up. The Ontario Beekeeper’s Association, for instance, started a petition claiming that Ontario has seen a 35 percent decrease in honey bees over the last two years. (15)
The Beekeepers Association also has since filed a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturers of the pesticides—Bayer CropScience and Syngenta.
According to the lawsuit, the EPA has failed to ensure that its numerous product approvals for the neonicotinoid insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam, will not jeopardize any federally-listed threatened or endangered species. In fact, according to the lawsuit, “…in the nine years since the EPA conditionally registered clothianidin for use on corn and canola, the agency has admitted to both the hazards of the insecticide and the need for compliance with ESA. (16) The EPA itself states in their fact sheet: (17)
“Clothianidin is expected to present acute and/or chronic toxicity risk to endangered/threatened birds and mammals via possible ingestion of treated corn and canola seeds. Endangered/threatened non-target insects may be impacted via residue laden pollen and nectar. The potential use sites cover the entire US because corn is grown in almost all US states.”
In the interim, studies out of Yale, Purdue, Harvard and Europe continue to show the devastating effects these pesticides have on the bees and our environment in general. (18) EU scientists are also further reviewing the EU-wide ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides. They expect to be finished with their evaluation by the end of January 2017. (19)
In the interim, the EPA has now admitted that neonicotinoids actually provide little to no benefit to yield on genetically modified soybeans. (20) So, all of the bee deaths may have been for nothing!
As it stands, the EPA has until 2018 to review the safety of neonicotinoids for honey bees.