Grocery bills are expected to climb as beekeepers watch honeybee hives continue to crash in catastrophic numbers. The connection between the troubled winged critters and your wallet? Honeybees offer upwards of $20 billion worth of free services to farmers each year as they pollinate fruit, vegetable, and nut tree crops, helping to increase yields. In fact, honeybees are responsible for 80 percent of crop pollination in America.
Unprecedented losses over the harsh winter and throughout 2012 have erased up to half of the hives farmers need to pollinate favorites like blueberries, cherries, and apples. The growing consensus is that neonicotinoids and bees don't mix. Neonicotinoids, a powerful class of systemic insecticides, are chemicals often used to coat seeds, including genetically engineered corn, to kill pests by affecting their neurological functioning. The problem is these chemicals travel inside the plant and disperse into its pollen and nectar, creating dangerous exposures for honeybees foraging on the plant.
A growing number of laboratory and field studies show that when honeybees come into contact with these sublethal levels of neonicotinoids, they experience behavioral chances that make it hard for them to survive, including decreased foraging ability, memory loss, a compromised navigation sense, and learning problems. "The main reason that honeybees have difficulties of winterization is likely due to the sublethal exposure to neonicotinoids," explains colony collapse disorder researcher Chensheng Lu, PhD, associate professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Other studies suggest sublethal pesticide exposure could shorten the longevity of adult honeybees while damaging their immune systems, making them more susceptible to pathogen infestations, such as mites.
As farmers continue to shell out more money for pollination, Americans can expect the honeybees' plight to have an impact on food prices. "This extra cost would be absorbed by the consumers," Lu says.
His previous research found a link between the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid and colony collapse disorder, finding that it isn't just large exposures to the insecticide, but ones similar to field conditions, too, that can cause widespread harm to honeybees.
In fact, a March 2013 study published in the journal Nature Communications, British researchers found when a bee is exposed to neonicotinoids imidacloprid and clothianidin and a popular organophosphate mite-killing chemical at levels found in fields and in hives, honeybees experienced brain damage. The bees' neurons stopped firing correctly, causing "epileptic-type" hyperactivity; the different lobes of the bees' brain start failing to communicate with each other.
Another study in the Journal for Experimental Biology found that common chemicals found in honeybee hives cause brain damage that scatters the bees' brains, making it hard for them to even remember what food smells like. This leads to foraging problems and a higher likelihood that the queen bee could starve to death. These emerging studies signal that a pesticide may become even more lethal and potent when mixed with other common agricultural chemicals turning up in fields and in hives. Safety tests don't require this type of multiple-chemical-exposure testing before a product is deemed "safe" for use on a grand scale.
Facing a lawsuit, the Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing neonicotinoids' impact on bees and wildlife. Since the use of this type of farm chemical erupted in the mid-2000s, bee deaths have seemingly paralleled the increase. Unlike older bug-killing chemicals that were toxic for just a limited time, neonicotinoids appear to poison bugs over a span of months.
The American Bird Conservancy recently released a report showing neonicotinoids' harrowing impact on songbirds, too. Conservancy researchers say a single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird.
"Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid—called imidacloprid—can fatally poison a bird," said report coauthor Cynthia Palmer in a statement accompanying the report. "And as little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction."
Europe appeared to move on the issue, but then fell short of the votes needed to take neonicotinoids out of many fields where bees forage. In 2012, the European Union proposed to ban the use of three neonicotinoids on crops that attracted bees for a period of two years, but the proposal failed to get a majority vote from the 27 member countries. Although 13 countries did favor the action, the UK and Germany abstained from the vote, a move some researchers say is linked to pressure by the chemical companies Bayer and Syngenta. "This is a classic example of how politics gets tangled up with protecting environment in the face of corporate profits," says Lu. "My opinion is that the longer we wait to act on saving honeybees, the weaker the bee population will be."
Here's how to protect the food supply's unsung heroes:
Buy organic. Every time you reach for organic food, you're sending a clear signal that you want food grown without toxic chemicals. As more people demand organic, fewer fields will be laced with the bee-killing chemicals that are not permitted in farming operations that earn organic certification.
Plant for pollinators. Fill your garden with vegetables grown from organic seeds. When it's time to plant flowers, seek ones native to your area by searching your area in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Database. For help in finding the plants that will be particularly pollinator friendly, search for the native plant directory. Be sure to ask for plants that haven't been treated with toxic chemicals.
Practice nontoxic lawn care. You can still have a lush lawn without resorting to dangerous chemicals. Read 7 Quick & Easy Organic Lawn Fixes.
Published on: April 2, 2013
Updated on: April 3, 2013