This article originally appeared in Investor’s Business Daily on May 13, 2013.
Beekeeping is big business, and everyone loves honey and foods made possible by pollination. But “colony collapse disorder” threatens bees and crop pollination in many areas.
CCD and other bee die-offs are nothing new.
What we now call colony collapse was first reported in 1869, and many outbreaks since then have sent scientists scurrying for explanations and solutions. Fungi, varroa mites and other possible suspects have been implicated, but no definitive answer has yet been found.
That’s created a perfect environment for anti-pesticide groups. They want the U.S. and EU to ban a widely used class of safe “neonicotinoid” pesticides, by blaming them for bee population declines in various countries.
Their scary assertions are pure conjecture, but that hasn’t stopped activists — or news outlets — from promoting scary stories implicating the chemicals.
Derived from naturally-occurring nicotine plant compounds, “neonics” have been hailed as a low-toxicity pest treatment.
They are often applied to seeds or on soils during planting, become part of the plants’ physiology, and work by giving treated plants internal defenses against invading pests.
That means neonics are toxic only to insects that feed on crops — dramatically reducing the need to spray entire fields with other pesticides, and curtailing risks to farm workers and beneficial insects.
Claims that these insecticides could kill bees appear plausible at first blush, and lab studies have shown that high doses can affect bees.
However, the doses that bees receive in lab studies “are far above what a realistic field dose exposure would be,” says Dr. Cynthia Scott-Dupree, environmental biology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
Scott-Dupree helped coordinate a Canadian field study that compared hives exposed to neonics to those that weren’t exposed — and found no difference in colony health between the two groups. Another study by Britain’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs reached the same conclusion.
A DEFRA evaluation of studies purporting to link neonics to bee harm found the lab work was conducted under extreme scenarios that wouldn’t occur under real-world conditions.
“Risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids, as they are currently used, is low,” it concluded.
That’s hardly surprising. Plant tissues contain only tiny amounts of neonics, bees are not feeding on the plants, and pollen contains barely detectable neonic levels.
Various neonicotinoids are widely used in Canada to protect its vast canola fields, and Canadian bee populations are thriving, notes science writer Jon Entine.
Australia is likewise one of the world’s prime users of these pesticides, and its bee colonies are among the planet’s healthiest.
Nevertheless, four beekeepers and five activist groups (Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network of North America, Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Health) have sued the Environmental Protection Agency, demanding that the EPA immediately ban all neonicotinoids.
The lawsuit is not merely ill-advised. By blaming pesticides, activists are ignore — and deflect attention from — a real, serious threat to bees: a parasitic mite aptly named “Varroa destructor.” Varroa threatens honeybees directly, while spreading and activating previously dormant or harmless bee viruses, which then become dangerous. It is not easy to destroy.
“You can imagine how hard it is to kill a bug on a bug,” says John Miller, president of the California State Beekeepers Association, and sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Treating varroa requires an insecticide that can be toxic to bees at levels high enough to work. Well-intentioned apiarists fighting varroa can accidentally overdose hives with miticides.
Multiple studies point to other factors that explain why bees are struggling. They include bees developing resistance to antibiotics, funguses like Nosema, multiple bee viruses and parasites, bacterial infections like foulbrood, exposure to commonly used organophosphates, bee habitat loss, and even long-term bee inbreeding and resultant lack of genetic diversity.
Activists aren’t asking for investigation into these problems — which calls their science, sincerity and integrity into question.
Right now, no one knows why bees aren’t thriving. Studies show that neonicotinoids are innocent, and reflexive bans will harm farmers, whose crop yields will fall; consumers, whose food bills will rise and food safety will fall; and environmental values, as older, more toxic insecticides will have to be reintroduced to protect crops.
The prudent, precautionary approach would be to avoid eliminating vital, low-toxicity neonicotinoids, while continuing to study their potential effects on bees and the causes of die-offs and colony collapses.
Sound, replicable science must underpin all pesticide policies, or the unintended consequences will be serious, far-reaching and most harmful to poor families.
We need answers, not scapegoats.