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Declining Bee Populations Pose

A Threat to Global Agriculture

The danger that the decline of bees and other pollinators represents to the world’s food supply was highlighted this week when the European Commission decided to ban a class of pesticides suspected of playing a role in so-called “colony collapse disorder.”

by elizabeth grossman

One of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators, especially bees, for a successful harvest. And in the past several months, a scramble in California’s almond groves has given the world a taste of what may lie in store for food production if the widespread — and still puzzling — decimation of bee colonies continues.

For much of the past 10 years, beekeepers, primarily in the United States and Europe, have been reporting annual hive losses of 30 percent or higher, substantially more than is considered normal or sustainable. But this winter, many U.S. beekeepers experienced losses of 40 to 50 percent or more, just as commercial bee operations prepared to transport their hives for the country’s largest pollinator event: the fertilizing of California’s almond trees.

Spread across 800,000 acres, California’s almond orchards typically require 1.6 million domesticated bee colonies to pollinate the flowering trees and produce what has become the state’s largest overseas agricultural export. But given the widespread bee losses to so-called “colony collapse disorder” this winter, California’s almond growers were able to pollinate their crop only through an intense, nationwide push to cobble together the ‘In the long run, if we don't find some answers, we could lose a lot of bees,’ says one expert. necessary number of healthy bee colonies.

“Other crops don’t need as many bees as the California almond orchards do, so shortages are not yet apparent, but if trends continue, there will be,” said Tim Tucker, vice-president of the American Beekeeping Federation and owner of Tuckerbees Honey in Kansas, which lost 50 percent of its hives this past winter. “Current [bee] losses are not sustainable. The trend is down, as is the quality of bees. In the long run, if we don’t find some answers, and the vigor continues to decline, we could lose a lot of bees.”

The gravity of the situation was underscored on Monday, when the European Commission (EC) said it intended to impose a two-year ban on a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, now the world’s most widely used type of insecticide. Neonicotinoids are one of the leading suspected causes of colony collapse disorder, and the European Commission announced its controversial decision three months after the European Food Safety Agency concluded that the pesticides represented a “high acute risk” to honeybees and other pollinators.

The EC action will restrict the use of three major neonicitinoids on seeds and plants attractive to bees, as well as grains, beginning December 1. “I pledge to my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22 billion Euros [$29 billion] annually to European agriculture, are protected,” said European Union Health Commissioner Tonio Borg.

The EC action comes as scientists and regulators have grown increasingly concerned about the impact of colony collapse disorder on the world’s food supply, given that the majority of the planet’s 100 most important food crops depend on insect pollination. A recent international study of 41 crop systems on six continents showed that healthy populations of wild bees are key to successful yields of crops ranging from pumpkins to grapefruit. Relying solely on domesticated honeybees could ultimately put those crops at risk, scientists say. Wild bees also have been declining in many places.

No one investigating the issue is suggesting that neonicotinoids are the sole cause of current bee declines. Tucker, other beekeepers, and entomologists say that the cause of colony collapse disorder is likely a combination of factors that includes the widespread use of pesticides and fungicides, as well as the spread of viral pathogens and parasitic mites in beehives. While mites and diseases have long been known to cause significant declines in domesticated bee populations, no single pathogen or parasite, say entomologists, appears to sufficiently explain the current rate of hive collapse.

A recent study that found unprecedented levels of agricultural pesticides — some at toxic levels — in honeybee colonies is prompting entomologists to look more closely at the role of neonicotinoids in current bee declines. No one is suggesting that neonicotinoids are the sole cause of current bee declines. Some studies have indicated that neonicotinoids can lead to a sharp decline in queen bees in colonies and can also interfere with the ability of bees to navigate back to their hives. James Frazier, a professor of entomology at Pennsylvania State University, said more research needs to be conducted into whether neonicotinoids, particularly in combination with other pesticides, may suppress the immune system of bees at “sub-lethal” levels, enabling diseases to take hold.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Purdue University associate professor of entomology Christian Krupke. “We’ve never done pest management like this before.”

While not downplaying neonicotinoids as a potential culprit, Eric Mussen, an apiculturiust at the University of California, Davis, noted that the case against these pesticides is not clear-cut. For example, honeybees are apparently doing fine in Australia, where neonicotinoids are widely used and varroa mites are not a problem. Neonicotinoid use is common in Canada, but colony collapse disorder is not significantly affecting hives there.

University of California

Honeybees are brought in to pollinate onion crops at a California farm.

In the U.S. several national environmental advocacy organizations and commercial beekeepers filed suit in March against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its conditional registration of certain neonicotinoids, contending that the agency did not properly ensure environmental health protections, particularly with respect to pollinators.

The EPA is now reviewing its registration of neonicotinoids and has accelerated the review schedule due “to uncertainties about these pesticides and their potential effects on bees.” The agency said in an email that it is working with beekeepers, growers, pesticide manufacturers, and others to improve pesticide use, labeling, and management practices to protect bees and to thoroughly evaluate the effects of pesticides on honeybees and other pollinators. As part of these efforts, the EPA is working with pesticide and agricultural equipment manufacturers to reduce the release of neonicotinoid-contaminated dust during planting — a time when commercial bees are likely to encounter the insecticide.

In the U.S. neonicotinoids are currently used on about 95 percent of corn and canola crops; the majority of cotton, sorghum, and sugar beets; and about half of all soybeans. They’re also used on the vast majority of fruit and vegetable crops, including apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, leafy greens, tomatoes, and potatoes. Neonicotinoids are also applied to cereal grains, rice, nuts, and wine grapes.

Charles Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, has estimated that neonicotinoids are used on approximately 75 percent of the acres devoted to these crops in the U.S. They are also widely used on landscaping plants and urban trees and in numerous home garden pest-control products — all in places frequented by bees, domesticated and wild.

“There is no place to go hide,” says New York beekeeper Jim Doan, a director of the American Beekeeping Federation. “The outlook is not good.”

When governments around the world registered and approved these insecticides for use in the 1990s, many questions about the environmental impacts of neonicotinoids were left unanswered. Neonicotinoids were welcomed as a safer alternative to previous generations of pesticides, ‘These compounds are a nightmare scenario for pollinators,’ says one beekeeper. particularly organochlorines (such as DDT) and organophosphates, which have known adverse environmental and human health effects. Neonicotinoids attack insects by harming their nervous systems and are considered of low toxicity to mammals. They are also typically used as systemic pesticides — meaning that they stay with the plant as it grows — and are applied as seed treatments, to roots, or into tree trunks, rather than applied with as a spray. This greatly reduces the potential for human exposure compared to other pesticides.

But because the insecticide stays with the plant as it grows, it raises questions about the potential for bees to be exposed through nectar, pollen, or leaf surface moisture, where a growing number of studies are finding evidence of neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are known to be toxic to bees, earthworms, and other terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, as was noted in documents submitted to the EPA when they were registered.

“The motivation for producing neonicotinoids was reduced human toxicity, but the environmental and ecosystem impacts were not considered in enough detail to predict what’s going on,” says Frazier of Penn State.

“These compounds are a nightmare scenario for pollinators,” says Steve Ellis, a Minnesota-based beekeepeer whose bees primarily pollinate California almonds. “There is no way to prevent exposure to these chemicals. The only question is the exposure level, whether that is a problem or not. The pesticide industry claims not. The beekeeping industry says yes.”

Both Doan and Ellis have experienced dramatic losses of bees in recent years, including complete hive failures. Both say their bees and hives have tested positively for neonicotinoids. Yet in both cases the agricultural authorities and pesticide manufacturers who participated in testing the damaged hives said the insecticides’ presence was not conclusively linked to the bees’ deaths. Doan and Ellis are now part of the lawsuit filed against the EPA.

The pesticides’ manufacturers, among them Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, and their trade association, CropLife America, say that neonicotinoids are safe if used as directed. These compounds are biologically active for the limited periods of time when the products’ target insects are active, say their manufacturers, who point to independent tests showing that risks of adverse impacts to bees and “non-target” insects are minimal.


Behind Mass Die-Offs,

Pesticides Lurk as Culprit

In the past dozen years, three new diseases have decimated populations of amphibians, honeybees, and — most recently — bats. Increasingly, scientists suspect that low-level exposure to pesticides could be contributing to this rash of epidemics.

“We can use them safely and not endanger the health of bees,” says David Fischer environmental toxicologist with Bayer CropScience. “There is not a correlation with the use of these products and the loss of colonies. What tends to be publicized is not an accurate reflection of the weight of the evidence.”

CropLife America senior director of regulatory policy, Ray McAllister, says only a small quantity of pesticide is applied to the seed, precisely where its

needed. He said the major effects are during the plant’s early growth stages and that as the plant grows, the pesticide’s active ingredient is diluted and breaks down. This, he explained, “reduces by orders of magnitude the amount present in the plant when it flowers. If the dose is extremely low it is not going to be toxic.”

Yet recent studies by entomologist Kimberly Stoner and colleagues at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station have found two neonicotinoids, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, in the nectar and pollen of squash to which the pesticides were applied as directed. Published research by environmental chemists at the U.S. Geological Survey documents the presence of neonicotinoids in rivers and streams. Data collected by Washington State’s Benbrook and colleagues also shows residues in numerous foods.

“There’s going to be a shortage of bees in this entire growing season,” Frazier said of the U.S. situation. “The ability to replace bees that have been lost has been exhausted, so there’s a very large question mark about next year. Whether we’ve reached a point of no return, we don’t know.”

“Yet in both cases the agricultural authorities and pesticide manufacturers who participated in testing the damaged hives said the insecticides’ presence was not conclusively linked to the bees’ deaths”. Yes we found the victim on the ground with a bullet hole through his heart but is not conclusively linked to his death. What.

Posted by Bill on 30 Apr 2013

I fully agree with the author's observations. Pesticides are the major cause of bee losses and wipe outs, and hence the decline in the global agricultural production over the globe. Estimates from the developing world are missing which are more alarming than the developed countries. If the prompt measure are not taken in time, the situation is bound to take an ugly turn.

Posted by R.C.Sihag on 02 May 2013

How real is the honey bee crisis? Almond cultivation keeps increasing the acreage and yield per acre. So far they continue to have enough bee hives to do the pollination. Some statistics don't make much sense.\%20of\%20Almond\%20Production.pdf.

Posted by Beatriz Moisset on 02 May 2013

This problem NEEDS to be addressed with progressive and necessary policy adjustments. More than 170 cities across Canada fully or partially restrict the use of pesticides for cosmetic reasons. Tested water quality in some of these areas has improved dramatically in as little as one year later. Similarly, the EU parliament’s 2006 REACH program, transfers the burden of demonstrating a chemical is safe from the government to the industry, creating a competitive market for safer products which fosters innovation within the industry. Imagine what could be accomplished if these policies were applied to commercial scale agriculture. The US needs to be a leader in when it comes to issues like this and not be stuck in political limbo.

Posted by Andrew Carr-Harris on 02 May 2013

Pollinators and flowering plants co-evolved.

Life as we like it followed right along.

Honeybee mortality as a result of sprayings of neonicotinoids is widely known. We need holistic strategy to tackle the problem. Our knowledge regarding bee repellents and many other aspects are limited. Insecticidal sprayings in large areas should not be done at a time. Spread awareness of proper use of insecticides among farmers with ways how to protect bees. Pest management should be evolved along with bee management.

Posted by Dr. PB Singh on 04 May 2013

Croplife America is funded by big agribusiness like Bayer and Syngenta so when you hear them talking your actually listening to these corporations. Croplife America handles all the dirty work for them like propaganda etc. like the bouncers in the bar. These people ignore all the science and only what their paid to do, deny, deny, deny.

Posted by Linda on 06 May 2013

Bees have been getting a lot of well-deserved news on the topic of pesticides but here's more to the story.

The Guardian (May 1 2013 edition) quotes a Dutch study citing high die-off of aquatic insects, hence the probable "upstream" effects in the food chain for fish and other aquatic species.

If neonicotinoids are toxic to earthworms and other creatures that influence soil quality, isn't that reason for concern as well?

Finally, the American Bird Conservancy (visit their webpage) has another study citing the death toll of neonicotinoid pesticides on bird populations. Apparently exposed grain is fatally toxic.

We really need to investigate other means of pest management than chemicals unless nothing else will work. It's too difficult to contain the effects of pesticides to just the target species.

Posted by Michael Eckenfels on 07 May 2013

A new report on winter losses of honeybee colonies came out on May 1:

Survey found losses were about average (31 percent) since they started the program in 2006. So honeybee health has been stable since 2006.

Posted by Paul Cherubini on 09 May 2013

I am beekeper, every year I loose 50 percent to 60 percent of my bees. because of pesticides. Organic Farming may be the answer!

Posted by samir safadi on 11 May 2013

I'm wondering if there is an antidote that could be given to the bees to protect them? Certainly not the best solution, and maybe dangerous because it could extend usage of the neonicitinoids, but perhaps helpful in the next few years?

Hello i love honey but is it really worth the lose of our breathing worker (flowers)? if all bees are gone we have no air because with out bees we wouldnt have flowers to begin with. SAVE THE BEES TO SAVE YOURSELF.

Posted by alysha harrdin on 14 May 2013

I am an agriculturalist from Kenya and also a bee keeper in our country we are yet to experience bee colony collapse but we are big users of imidacropids in our horticultural sector. Can someone advice me on how to join a programme in the US that can equip me with skills that would help our country manage such a challenge if ever it comes knocking onto our door?

Posted by Fredrick Mutuota Mugo on 20 May 2013

I'm becoming convinced that the collapse of the bee colonies is a blessing in disguise. We must begin to think differently about agriculture. Mono crops, systemic pesticides, GMO's must be replaced with diversified crops, organic small farms, bee sanctuaries, soil building just for starters. We must become stewards of the lands, not rapists.

I think if balance is restored in farming, pollinators will return to health, pests will be managed naturally, soil will consume excess carbon dioxide and reduce global warming. What will it take to embrace a new way of thinking? Hopefully not the loss of our honeybees.

Posted by Kristi on 19 Jun 2013

“The agency said in an email that it is working with beekeepers, growers, pesticide manufacturers, and others to improve pesticide use, labeling, and management practices to protect bees and to thoroughly evaluate the effects of pesticides on honeybees and other pollinators”. This is nonsense the only way to protect bees is to ban these neurotoxins.

Posted by Jim on 25 Jun 2013

People need to understand that pesticides are omnipresent in the environment, and that the dose makes the poison. Everyone is exposed to toxins literally every day, both natural and artificial — many plants contain natural toxins to discourage insects from eating them, for instance, but those toxins are not toxic enough to humans to be of concern unless greatly concentrated.

So finding pesticide residue in honeybee hives is meaningless unless it is found that the pesticide is concentrated enough to harm the bees.

Moreover, not using pesticide isn't really an option — not unless you want a lot of people to starve. Organic farming is even worse for the environment: Not only does it use natural pesticides which are just as toxic as synthetic pesticides (remember, nightshade and arsenic are 100 percent natural), but it also has to apply them more often and has lower yield per acre and causes more damage to the land due to increased tilling, resulting in greater habitat loss. Organic farming has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with not using pesticides.

GMOs, incidentally, are a good thing for the bees and the environment. GMOs have been proven safe (indeed, they're the only foods which HAVE been proven safe — most non-GMO food is never tested for safety as an inherent food product) both for humans and for bees, and because of increased pest resistance, GMOs actually require less pesticide use than other crops do.

Also, the idea that pesticides are responsible for this is, unfortunately, utterly false. We saw a huge time delay between their introduction and the deaths of large numbers of honeybees, whereas if the new pesticides had caused the decline, we should have seen it immediately. It would be nice if it was true, but unfortunately I suspect that the picture is far more complicated — as do those who are knowledgeable in the field.

Moreover, it is noted that the decline is not actually attributable to CCD. CCD, while annoying, is not the sole cause. The majority of the hives which failed did not fail due to CCD, which suggests that other factors are at work here which are causing the failure of honeybee hives.

Posted by Titanium Dragon on 21 Oct 2013

This is interesting and all, but I would like to see graphs and pie charts and bar lines, and all that good stuff.

Posted by jenny clopsniks on 10 Nov 2013

An interesting note is how many of the die-offs occur during the bees' winter hibernation period.

There is a great Harvard study ( ) that replicated CCD during the winter hibernation period by feeding bees high-fructose corn syrup (adopted as a replacement for sucrose foods by many keepers) containing imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, at levels that had been proven in the environment.

This high-fructose syrup was introduced to replace previous sucrose-based bee foods, given to them in the winter to survive, and the introduction of the version grown with imidacloprid correlates with the start of CCD.

Posted by Garrett Pohl on 19 Nov 2013

They are lying. We know they are lying. They are capitalists. Anything for a buck. Interesting that Bayer products including Confidor have been banned in Germany for years. And Bayer is a German company.

Posted by John on 20 Nov 2013

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