Death of the honey bee is anything but sweet

Jessica Jewell

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Illustration by Carl Robinette / Daily Sundial

Bees, an unsung hero in bringing food to you. They work hard pollinating produce aisle delights. It is a task ensuring plants reproduce and thrive— without bees, the food supply would be in peril. Well, it kind of is these days. Bees are dying and ditching their hives around the world, a scary prospect as our own elementary subsistence depends on these little guys.
Since 2007, between 30 and 90 percent of honey bees have been mysteriously dying and abandoning their hives in the U.S. according to Harvard research. Until now, there were no clear culprits or contributors to this crisis. But recently, Harvard’s School of Public Health released new research to be published in the June issue of the Bulletin of Insectology linking the health care, agribusiness and technology company Bayer and their notorious nicotine-based (neonicotinoid) insecticide, imidacloprid, to bees abandoning their hives and their puzzling deaths. This is one of the most widely-used insecticides in both industrial agriculture, but also in peoples’ backyards.
The researchers conducted a 23-week-long experiment monitoring bees in four different locations. They treated the bees with different levels of the chemical and a control hive. The writing is on the wall: 94 percent of bees died in 15 out of 16 hives treated with the chemical; and the hives treated with higher levels of the insecticide experienced higher rates of death.
Aspirin is the first thing that comes to mind with Bayer; benign enough, right? But no, this company doesn’t just produce thae lifesaving aspirin – they  were also partial developers in the creation of Zyklon B gas in WWII, championing the effective gassing of millions of people in concentration camps. Well, now Bayer has moved on to other things, like creating toxic—albeit lucrative—pesticides!
Even Wired says that neonicotinoids have been banned in France, Germany and Italy!
The phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has bees dropping like flies. Puns aside, the alarming disappearance of honey bees has scientists stumped and is a major threat to the world food supply.
Fingers flagrantly pointed left and right in the science community; some blamed climate change; others thought it was pollution; and there were some ruminating over pollution as a cause.
The new findings may help the bees, now that science has a place to start. Now to wait and see if the evidence can actually persuade decision-makers to wake up.
The elusive insects play a major role in agribusiness, as one third of all crops in the U.S. depend on these pollinators. Honorable mentions include fruits, nuts, livestock crops like alfalfa and clover, and vegetables. Experts estimate losses projected in the billions if the honeybee population continues its decline at this rate.
“About 130 crops in the U.S.—worth some $15 billion a year—depend on honeybee pollination, and if bee populations really did collapse, it would mean an agricultural catastrophe,” Time Magazine wrote this month.
CCD has been on the radar for a few years, but until now there has been little evidence to explain this eco-crisis.
The Harvard findings reported that bees are subject to exposure through two ways: the nectar of affected plants, or the high-fructose corn syrup beekeepers use to feed their bee colonies.
“Treated colonies had a significantly reduced growth rate and suffered an 85% reduction in production of new queens,” Science magazine said.
In the bee-universe, queens make the world go round; bees are matriarchal creatures that depend on a queen to keep the hive alive. She pops out grips of baby bees that then go out and take one for the colony, pollinating plants and bringing home the goods. But when the colonies are exposed to the chemical, queenie goes bye bye. And without the queen, well, there is no longer a colony.
Southwest Farm Press argues that Bayer’s intentions have always been in the favor of protecting the bee population and that the insecticide is safe and helpful for agriculturists to use to protect their crops. They attempt to debunk the recent findings to vindicate Bayer.
“Insecticides generally, remain safe and effective management tools to control a wide range of destructive insect pests…Bayer is committed to bee health and has been actively involved in finding solutions to improve honey bee health for more than 25 years,” a Southwest Farm Press article said. “As a company dedicated to crop protection, Bayer is also committed to environmental stewardship and sustainable agricultural practices, including the protection of beneficial insects such as honey bees.”
This canned sound bite retort is flimsy at best.
Upon further investigation it’s clear to anyone who does their homework that it’s not just Bayer that is to blame, but the EPA itself. They released a fact sheet detailing the risks of clothianidin, another neonicotinoid.
“Clothianidin is highly toxic to honey bees on an acute contact basis. It has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other nontarget pollinators, through the translocation of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen. In honey bees, the effects of this toxic chronic exposure may include lethal and/or sub-lethal effects in the larvae and reproductive effects in the queen,” the EPA said.
If everyone and their mothers who know a modicum of what’s up in science, they’d think twice about approving a family of chemicals that in their own words “is highly toxic to honey bees.”
What’s going on, EPA?! This institution is supposed to be the environment’s last beacon of hope. Prevent these atrocities, don’t enable them!
The EPA further disappoints in a memo, “(c)hronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual instability of the hive.”
What gives? CCD is throwing the science community for a loop as scientists around the world try to find a reason bees are abandoning their hives in droves like mysterious have-beens in the past; it’s oddly reminiscent of a certain people who won’t be named. Okay, I’ll give you a hint, it starts with “M” and ends in “ayan”… does 2012 ring a bell? Civilizations disappearing into thin air?
Harvard says it’s bad; Science says it’s bad; and if bees could talk, they would say it’s bad. What else does the EPA need?
Oh, that’s right. This precious little potion is a goldmine and with a menacing GOP over your shoulder threatening to pull the plug on you any minute, you’ve lost the backbone to do what’s right. I guess there’s that.
Let’s cross our fingers that the guys at the top will wise up before it’s too late and we start feeling the effects of bee death everywhere. Heaven forbid it hits the consumers’ pockets when the cost of meat and produce skyrockets, then people might actually care. What a concept.