If bees died out, man would have no more than four years to live.
- Albert Einstein
One in every three bites of food we eat is dependent on honeybees for pollination
- Jay Feldman, Beyond Pesticides
The biggest user in the world (of neonicotinoid) , by an order of magnitude, is China. They manufacture imidacloprids themselves these days. And this might explain the horror stories that have come out of some parts of China, where they’re having to hand-pollinate their crops now, because they don’t have any bumblebees left alive.
- Professor Dave Goulson , University of Stirling
Bees pollinate a tremendous amount of the world’s fruits, nuts and vegetables. More than 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food are pollinated by bees so it is not an exaggeration when we say that bees are a critical component to human food production worldwide.
Figure 1: Plants pollinated by honeybees (Source: Dr. Gary Reuter, University of Minnesota Bee Lab)
Table 1: List of Plants Pollinated by Honeybees
- Macadamia nuts
- Alfalfa Hay
- Alfalfa Seed
- Cotton Lint
- Cotton Seed
- Legume Seed
- Sugar Beets
Figure 2: Percentage of crop pollinated by honeybees
In the last 25 years, however, a deeply disturbing trend has arisen. A staggering 50% of bee colonies have mysteriously died off in the UK and the US. This mysterious condition is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The adult bees simply disappear from the colony hives. There are typically few, if any, dead bees found. The queen and immature bees (brood) are often found in the hives inadequately attended by adult bees.
Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam – Grim Harbingers of Death
In trying to solve the great mystery of CCD, scientists have considered everything from cellular tower RF signals to parasites. For a long time, the reason for the huge decline in bee numbers has remained uncertain and scientists studying fungus, mites, viruses, bacteria and pesticides failed to find an obvious, smoking-gun cause — but now, there is indisputable evidence that strongly suggests one class of pesticides are to blame.
A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids – insecticides derived from chemicals related to nicotine are being implicated by a growing body of research. These pesticides are neurotoxins that are applied at a plants’ seed stage and stay lodged in the plants’ entire system as it grows. The three most common are, you guessed it -Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam.
This genetic design of these chemicals significantly reduces pesticide spraying but since the chemicals are a part of the plant, they end up in the nectar and pollen on which pollinators such as bees feed on. This formula has proven to be a commercial hit with it’s manufacturers, Bayer and Syngenta, to shareholders delight as they rake in billions of dollars.
Unfortunately, this is turning out to be yet another repeat story of large agribusiness companies developing untested products and regulatory agencies not doing their job. It’s another example of the all-too-familar progress trap which trans-national corporations working within the paradigm of greed-based capitalism always fall into.
EPA ignores its own scientists and sides with Bayer
The EPA is not mitigating the damages… Who’s in the driver’s seat here? This is horrible mismanagement of a regulatory agency.
- A US Beekeeper speaking about the EPA
Leaked documents in 2010 show that the U.S. EPA has ignored the warnings of its own scientist and sided with industry giant Bayer to allow the neonicotinoid Clothianidin. The document [PDF], leaked to Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald, reveals that EPA scientists have rejected the findings of a study conducted on behalf of Bayer that the agency had used to justify the registration of clothianidin. Furthermore, the EPA scientists reiterated concerns that widespread use of clothianidin imperils the health of the nation’s honeybees. Why did the EPA approve the pesticide when its’ own scientist warned of clear dangers?
USDA Top Bee Scientist Jeff Pettis implicates Neonicotinoids
In his 2012 paper published in the German research journal Naturwissenschaften, a team of scientists led by the USDAs’ top bee scientist Jeff Pettis published a groundbreaking research paper entitled Pesticide exposure in honey bees results in increased levels of the gut pathogen Nosema which provided strong evidence that the neonicotinoid imidacloprid is directly linked to rapidly declining bee populations all over the world.
The team found that bees deliberately exposed to minute amounts of the pesticide were, on average, three times as likely to become infected when exposed to a parasite called nosema as those that had not. As a result, Matt Shardlow, director of Buglife, the invertebrate conservation charity called for a ban saying “The science is now clear, bees poisoned by neonicotinoid pesticides are much more likely to die from disease, gather less food and produce fewer new bees.”
Predictably, Dr Julian Little, a spokesman for Bayer CropScience, dismiss the new findings saying “The key issue here is that Jeff Pettis’s studies were carried out in the laboratory and not the open air.Bee health is really important, but focusing on pesticides diverts attention away from the very real issues of bee parasites and diseases – that is where Bayer is focusing its effort.”
But Professor Simon Potts, of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at the University of Reading, disagrees with Little saying “Most reports of direct impacts of pesticides on bee mortality are usually due to the incorrect application of pesticides on farmland,,” he said. “However, the Pettis study should be taken as a warning that we may need to look much more carefully at the indirect effect of pesticides.”
Purdue University Study implicates
Published in the open source peer reviewed journal PLOS in Jan 2012, the Purdue university researchers of the paper Multiple Routes of Pesticide Exposure for Honey Bees Living Near Agricultural Fields reached the following conclusion:
Our results demonstrate that bees are exposed to these compounds and several other agricultural pesticides in several ways throughout the foraging period. During spring, extremely high levels of clothianidin and thiamethoxam were found in planter exhaust material produced during the planting of treated maize seed. We also found neonicotinoids in the soil of each field we sampled, including unplanted fields. Plants visited by foraging bees (dandelions) growing near these fields were found to contain neonicotinoids as well. This indicates deposition of neonicotinoids on the flowers, uptake by the root system, or both. Dead bees collected near hive entrances during the spring sampling period were found to contain clothianidin as well, although whether exposure was oral (consuming pollen) or by contact (soil/planter dust) is unclear. We also detected the insecticide clothianidin in pollen collected by bees and stored in the hive. When maize plants in our field reached anthesis, maize pollen from treated seed was found to contain clothianidin and other pesticides; and honey bees in our study readily collected maize pollen. These findings clarify some of the mechanisms by which honey bees may be exposed to agricultural pesticides throughout the growing season. These results have implications for a wide range of large-scale annual cropping systems that utilize neonicotinoid seed treatments.
This study contradicts Bayer’s claim that bees don’t forage much in cornfields. Researchers found that “maize pollen was frequently collected by foraging honey bees while it was available: maize pollen comprised over 50% of the pollen collected by bees, by volume, in 10 of 20 samples.”
The researchers detected significant levels:
- in the fumes that rise up when farmers plant corn seed in the spring
- in the soil of fields planted with treated seed
- in adjacent fields that hadn’t been recently planted
- in dandelion weeds growing near cornfields, suggesting that the weeds might be taking it up from the soil
- in dead bees “collected near hive entrances during the spring sampling period
- in pollen collected by bees and stored in the hive
Neonic pesticides likely have two separate effects on bees:
- acute effect during spring corn planting, when huge clouds of neonic-infested dust rises up, at doses that kill bees that come into contact with it
- chronic effect when bees bring in pollen contaminated at low levels by neonicotinoids.
The population losses resulting from acute effects weaken hives but don’t typically destroy them but Research by the USDA’s top bee scientist Jeff Pettis suggests that even microscopic levels of exposure to neonics compromises bees’ immune systems, leaving hives vulnerable to other pathogens and prone to collapse. The EPA is performing a dereliction of duty and looking the other way while tens of millions of acres are poisoned and potentially risking disaster for the US food system. In 2013, 94 percent of all corn seeds in the U.S. are treated with neonicotinoids.
David Goulson Study March 2012
In March 2012, Science published a paper by David Goulson et. al entitled Neonicotinoid Pesticide Reduces Bumble Bee Colony Growth and Queen Production. The findings of this paper were:
Growing evidence for declines in bee populations has caused great concern because of the valuable ecosystem services they provide. Neonicotinoid insecticides have been implicated in these declines because they occur at trace levels in the nectar and pollen of crop plants. We exposed colonies of the bumble beeBombus terrestris in the laboratory to field-realistic levels of the neonicotinoid imidacloprid, then allowed them to develop naturally under field conditions. Treated colonies had a significantly reduced growth rate and suffered an 85% reduction in production of new queens compared with control colonies. Given the scale of use of neonicotinoids, we suggest that they may be having a considerable negative impact on wild bumble bee populations across the developed world.
The EU is actively considering banning several neonicotinoids. Several recent reports, including one from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), indicate that three neonicotinoid insecticides — imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam, produced by Switzerland’s Syngenta and Germany’s Bayer—pose an unacceptable hazard to honey bees. EFSA found that the industry-sponsored science — upon which regulatory agencies’ claim of safety have relied — are fatally flawed.
Goulson’s group studied an extremely widely used type called imidacloprid, primarily manufactured by Bayer CropScience. Bumblebees were fed the toxin at the same level found in treated rape plants and found that these colonies were about 10% smaller than those not exposed to the insecticide. The most unexpected effect, however was that the the exposed colonies lost almost all of their ability to produce queens – up to 85% reduction – quite significant when the queens are the only bee to survive the winter and establish new colonies.
French Study Demonstrates Loss of Navigation at Normal Dosages of Thiamethoxam
Prof Mickaël Henry, at INRA in Avignon, France and his team performed research following up on previous scientific work which showed insect neurotoxins may cause memory, learning, and navigation problems in bees. Henry and his team analysed the effect on honey bees of a new generation neonicotinoid, called thiamethoxam manufactured by Syngenta. They fitted tiny electronic tags to over 650 bees and monitored their activity around the hive. Those exposed to “commonly encountered” levels of thiamethoxam suffered high mortality, with up to a third of the bees failing to return. The bees disappeared in much higher numbers than the researchers expected.
Professor Henry and his team concluded that under the effects observed, the population size would decline disastrously, and make them even more sensitive to parasites or a lack of food.
Perhaps the most compelling stories are those of the beekeepers themselves. Beekeepers say that the scientific findings are consistent with their own observations.
“During corn planting we have a light kill on our bees,” Minnesota beekeeper Jeff Anderson said. “And the inability of the colony to produce a good brood.”
Based on the most recent scientific research, Anderson suspects that as farmers plant millions of acres of corn, dust from the neonic-coated seeds floats out over the countryside. It lands on bees and other flowering plants such as dandelions and builds up over time in the soil. When August and September arrive and bees forage for pollen in corn tassels, the colonies are weakened just when they need to produce the brood that must be strong enough to survive the winter. Anderson noted that 15 to 20 percent of his bees used to die in a year. Now, the death rate has doubled, and beekeepers all over the US are experiencing the same thing.
New York Beekeeper Jim Doan is certain that clothianidin is killing his bees. “The problem is corn dust. And I say that without any hesitation in my voice.” Doan is talking about the dust expelled as exhaust from the machinery used to plant corn. While New York bans the pesticide clothianidin, nevertheless it comes into the state on pre-treated corn seeds.
Doan had hives sitting in apples and neighboring farmers planted field corn nearby. Doan lost 148 hives. He moved his remaining hives away from those apple orchards, but the bees continued dying – this time from a different but related pesticide. In July, Doan had losses so called the USDA. The USDA came and took samples which showed 39.6 parts per billion, one of the highest levels of thiamethoxam in the nation. In New York State, there are only possible ways to get exposed – from corn or from rosy aphid sprayed on apples. During this time, Doans’ bees were surrounded by cornfields, with the nearest apples 30 miles away. Doan is certain that his 2,300 fell to 1,100 due to thiamethoxam and clothianidin from field corn.
Bayer – the new Monsanto
Increasingly, it is beginning to look like Bayer is the new Monsanto.
In 2001, public scientists (i.e. not funded by Bayer) concluded that feeding bees syrup containing just 0.1 ppb for 10 days would kill 50 percent of them. The next year, Bayer announced that its own studies found “no negative effect can be observed on honeybee colonies” below 20 ppb. In other words, Bayer concluded that bees can tolerate 200 times as much imidacloprid without suffering any harmful effects compared to the public science findings. This is far from an isolated incident and it is obvious that Bayer’s scientist consistently skew results in their favor and therefore, their work cannot be trusted.
Playing it safe and even without solid scientific proof yet, France made a decision to ban the use of imidacloprid on sunflowers in 1999. Shortly thereafter, Bayer sued the French government. Other multinational seed producers like Monsanto and Pioneer sided with Bayer. Bayer also sued representatives of beekeepers syndicates for “discrediting” their pesticide. Bayer lost each and every one of these cases.
The new European report also reveals that Bayer attempted to influence public scientists working on this issue by threatening them with lawsuits or appealing to their superiors.
UK Minister siding with Multi-national Rather Than With the People
Scientific peers who reviewed the report determined that it was bad science. It was very misleading and riddled with flaws and serious methodological problems. It was clear that the UK government was siding with the trans-national manufaturers of the suspect pesticides but the depth of the collusion was only revealed when the Observer newspaper applied for a letter to be released under the freedom of information act. This letter, written by the Environmental Secretary Owen Paterson shows two things:
- the government rushed to attempt to deliver a study to deny the Whitehorn study
- the Environmental secretary pandered to the heads of the main producers of neonicotinoids, showing that the British government is not unbiased but very much fighting for the interests of the trans-nationals
The EU Ban Goes Into Effect
April 29, 2013 may be remembered as a landmark day in the fight against the three hotly debated neonicotinoids, Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam. The E.U. Commission voted to ban neonicotinoids continent-wide and restrict their usage to crops not attractive to bees or other pollinators. The commission said that the moratorium can not start any later than Dec 1, 2013.
EU Health Minister Tonio Borg said “I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22bn euros (£18.5bn; $29bn) annually to European agriculture, are protected.”
Monday’s vote “makes it crystal clear that there is overwhelming scientific, political and public support for a ban said Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero.
“Those countries opposing a ban have failed.”
In the runup to the vote, both sides lobbied fiercely. Nearly three million signatures were collected by social petition website Avaaz supporting the ban. Andrew Pendleton of Friends of the Earth said “leading retailers have already taken action by removing these pesticides from their shelves and supply chains – the UK government must act too”.
A study funded by major chemical manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer CropScience asserts that “If Neonicotinoid seed treatment were no longer available in Europe, there would be a significant reduction of food production,” and estimates that “over a 5-year period, the EU could lose up to €17bn [$22.3 billion].” The pesticide companies claimed that if their pesticides were banned, farmers would be forced to use even more harmful older generation pesticides. In rebuttal, campaigners point out that this has not happened during temporary suspensions in France, Italy and Germany and that the use of natural pest predators and crop rotation can tackle problems left in the wake of abandoning modern pesticides. According to a 2012 study in the journal Ecotoxicology that reviewed 15 years of research on neonicotinoids’ effects on bees. 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators, “accounting for an annual value of 153 billion Euros [$200 billion]” All in all, the case for a ban was more compelling than the case to continue pesticides.
Earlier, the chemical industry funded a report published claiming that banning neonicotinoids would cost farmers £620m in lost food production. But upon analysis, professor David Goulson said the report contained “not a shred” of serious evidence.
Neither beekeepers nor scientists think that the pesticides are the sole cause of bee declines and the collapse of colonies as other legitimate studies have also showed the impact of viruses, parasites and loss of habitat. But the systemic pesticides could make pollinators vulnerable to other dangers such as the parasite Nosema, or the neurotoxins may confuse them so much they can’t find their way home.
A major issue the European report addresses is the relationship between pesticides and diseases or parasites. Previous research only mistakenly considered lethal doses and ignored the chronic harm caused by sublethal dosages. Beekeepers began to worry that even at sublethal doses, pesticides harm bees’ immune systems. Recent studies now confirms the latest science that sublethal does can trigger depressed immune systems making it possible for pathogens or parasites that might not otherwise kill bees to do so.
The report concludes, “imidacloprid seems to be a substance particularly ‘fit for the precautionary principle’.” Other results:
- the chemical has the ability to harm honeybees and wild bees at minute doses
- it persists in the soil for several years
- after Italy temporarily banned neonicotinoids in several crops, reports of high honeybee mortality decreased from 185 to two
- bees might also be a canary in the coal mine. They are more sensitive to environmental pollution than other insects, so honeybee losses can be interpreted as an ‘alarm bell’ of harm to other entomofauna [bugs] and indirectly to plants, birds, and other species.