Honeybees Are Dying in Record Numbers
A world without bees would be a very different place. Bees are pollinators – and critical ones at that. Of the 100 different crops that make up 90 percent of the world’s diet, bees pollinate 70.
The crops that make up about one out of every three bites of food depend on bees to flourish. Without bees, the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds that you may currently take for granted at your grocery store could cease to exist… and along with them, the many other species that depend on them for food.
In an effort to show the critical importance of bees, one Whole Foods store removed all produce from plants dependent on pollinators. This involved pulling 237 of 453 products (or 52 percent) from the shelves. A sampling of the produce that disappeared without bees included the following:1
Apples Onions Avocados Carrots Mangos Lemons Limes Honeydew Cantaloupe Zucchini Summer squash Eggplant Cucumbers Celery Green onions Cauliflower Leeks Bok choy Kale Broccoli Broccoli rabe Mustard greens
Honeybee Losses Soar in the US
In the 1940s, there were 5 million managed honeybee colonies in the US. Today there are half that number, while demand for pollination services (for crops including almonds, berries, and more) has increased.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is basically defined as a dead bee colony with no adult bees, or a colony with a live queen and only immature bees present, is often blamed for the ongoing honeybee losses, but no “official” cause has been named. According to the USDA’s internal research agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS):2
“Colony losses from CCD are a very serious problem for beekeepers. Annual losses from the winter of 2006-2011 averaged about 33 percent each year, with a third of these losses attributed to CCD by beekeepers. The winter of 2011-2012 was an exception, when total losses dropped to 22 percent.
A 1-year drop is too short a time period to count as definitive improvement in honey bee colony survivorship. At least 2 to 3 years of consistently lower loss percentages is necessary before it is possible to be sure that CCD is on the decline.”
Indeed, the latest numbers from the USDA show that honeybee losses are, in fact, continuing to climb. From April 2014 to April 2015, losses of honeybee colonies hit 42 percent, which is the second highest annual loss to date.3 This percentage is down from 45 percent in 2012-2013, but remained well above the three prior years’ annual measurements.
Honeybee Losses Are Occurring at an ‘Economically Unsustainable’ Level
The USDA considers 18.7 percent to be the benchmark beyond which the losses become economically unsustainable. Even at the 33 percent level, ARS noted:4
“If losses continue at the 33 percent level, it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry. Honey bees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honey bee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs.”
Jeff Pettis, a USDA senior entomologist, told Reuters regarding the latest numbers:5
"Such high colony losses in the summer and year-round remain very troubling… The bees should be surviving better, but the numbers say otherwise.”
The fact that high summer losses have been noted is also important, as mite infestations are more likely to occur in the winter. Bayer, Syngenta, and other chemical companies have blamed mites as a reason for the bee deaths, but the latest summer losses weaken their argument, according to Pettis. Instead, pesticide exposure is a likely factor.
Pesticide-Coated Seeds May Be Killing Bees
The majority of soybean, corn, canola, and sunflower seeds planted in the US are coated with neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics). The chemicals, which are produced by Bayer and Syngenta, travel systemically through the plants and kill insects that munch on their roots and leaves.
Neonicotinoids are powerful neurotoxins and are quite effective at killing the pests… but they’re also being blamed for decimating populations on non-target pests, namely pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
This occurs because the pesticides are taken up through the plant's vascular system as it grows, and, as a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant.
Despite accumulating evidence that neonics are implicated in widespread bee deaths across the US, Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow, which sell the treated seeds, have no intention of stopping.
In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a report that ruled neonicotinoid insecticides are essentially “unacceptable” for many crops,6 and in the US, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) announced that they were restricting the use of 18 pesticide products containing dinotefuran, a type of neonicotinoid.
Neonicotinoids have been increasingly blamed for bee deaths (and were implicated in the 2013 mass bee die-off of 25,000 bumblebees along with millions of bee deaths in Canada), prompting the European Union (EU) to ban them for two years, beginning December 1, 2013, to study their involvement with large bee kills.
Meanwhile, an independent review by 29 scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (which looked at 800 studies) put another nail in the coffin for neonicotinoids. The study found neonicotinoids are gravely harming bees and other pollinators (like butterflies). The research also showed serious harm to birds, earthworms, snails, and other invertebrates.7 One of the researchers, Jean-Marc Bonmatin with the National Centre for Scientific Research, said:8
"The evidence is very clear. We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT… Far from protecting food production, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it."
Monoculture and the Destruction of Grasslands Lead to Bee Death
It’s imperative to understand that agriculture is a complete “system” based on inter-related factors, and in order to maintain ecological balance and health, you must understand how that system works as a whole. Any time you change one part of that system, you change the interaction of all the other components, because they work together. It is simply impossible to change just one minor aspect without altering the entire system, and this is in part why monoculture is so destructive.
Monoculture is the growing of just one type of crop on a massive scale – a growing method that is contrary to nature. NPR commentator and science writer Craig Childs decided to replicate a photo project by David Liittschwager, a portrait photographer who spent years traveling the world dropping one-cubic-foot metal frames into gardens, streams, parks, forests, and oceans, photographing anything and everything that entered the frame.
Around the world, his camera captured thousands of plants, animals, and insects within the cubes, with entirely different “worlds” of plants and animals living as little as a few feet away from each other. But whereas Littschwager’s camera captured several dozens of insects wherever he set up his frames, Childs found nothing stirring among the genetically modified (GM) corn stalks on one 600-acre farm in Iowa. As reported by NPR:9
“It felt like another planet entirely,” Childs said. “I listened and heard nothing, no birds, no clicks from insects. There were no bees. The air, the ground, seemed vacant. Yet, 100 years ago, these same fields, these prairies, were home to 300 species of plants, 60 mammals, 300 birds, hundreds and hundreds of insects… This soil was the richest, the loamiest in the state. And now, in these patches, there is almost literally nothing but one kind of living thing. We’ve erased everything else.
…There's something strange about a farm that intentionally creates a biological desert to produce food for one species: us. It's efficient, yes. But it's so efficient that the ants are missing, the bees are missing, and even the birds stay away. Something's not right here. Our cornfields are too quiet.”
Midwest Bees ‘Get It from All Sides’
GM corn is the epitome of monoculture, and the vast majority of GM corn is treated with neonicotinoids like clothianidin or thiamethoxam. As reported by Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), honeybees in the Midwest “get it from all sides” when the vast expanses of GM corn are planted, as they:10
- “Fly through clothianidin-contaminated planter dust
- Gather clothianidin-laced corn pollen, which will then be fed to emerging larva
- Gather water from acutely toxic, pesticide-laced guttation droplets
- Gather pollen and nectar from nearby fields where forage sources such as dandelions have taken up these persistent chemicals from soil that’s been contaminated year on year since clothianidin’s widespread introduction into corn cultivation in 2003”
And the neonicotinoids are not the only chemicals the bees have to worry about. According to PANNA:11
“Over the last 15 years, US corn cultivation has gone from a crop requiring little-to-no insecticides and negligible amounts of fungicides, to a crop where the average acre is grown from seeds treated or genetically engineered to express three different insecticides (as well as a fungicide or two) before being sprayed prophylactically with Roundup (an herbicide) and a new class of fungicides that farmers didn’t know they 'needed' before the mid-2000s.”
Measures that target single classes of pesticides, though a move in the right direction, may actually be falling short. In 2013, researchers analyzed pollen from bee hives in seven major crops and found 35 different pesticides along with high fungicide loads.12 Each sample contained, on average, nine different pesticides and fungicides, although one contained 21 different chemicals. Furthermore, when the pollen was fed to healthy bees, they had a significant decline in the ability to resist infection with the Nosema ceranae parasite, which has been implicated in CCD.
Pollinators Are Losing Their Natural Foraging Areas
In addition to exposure to agricultural chemicals, mass conversions of grasslands to corn and soy in the Midwest have dramatically reduced bees’ natural foraging areas. This is affecting not only bees but also other pollinators like the Monarch butterfly. Milkweeds are critical to the Monarch’s survival because they’re the only food source for Monarch larvae.
Milkweeds that used to abundantly line the Monarch’s flight path have been largely eradicated by modern agriculture. Not only are chemicals, including the herbicide Roundup, killing the milkweeds, but prairies are being replaced by cornfields, and roadsides are being mowed where milkweeds previously grew wild.
Many equate modern farming techniques with “progress,” when in fact many of our technological “advancements” are now threatening to destroy us right along with the entire planet. There are major differences between industrial farming and regenerative agriculture, and the foods produced by the former cannot be equated to the foods produced by the latter. GM plants and industrial farming contributes to every form of environmental devastation, while organic farming methods support, restore, and rejuvenate the ecosystem.
What Can Help to Save the Bees?
By plowing up grasslands to grow monocrops, we are contributing to environmental destruction and world hunger. One important factor that some experts believe is KEY for reversing environmental devastation is to return much of our land to grasslands and build a network of herbivore economics. There is no better way to improve the conditions for animals, protect pollinators, bring more revenue to farmers, and improve our health by purchasing nutritious foods from properly pastured animals.
By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals—meaning allowing livestock to graze freely, and moving the herd around in specific patterns—farmers can support nature's efforts to regenerate and thrive, while providing natural, chemical-free foraging area for pollinators and other beneficial insects.
The good news is that we don't need to invent yet another chemical or a new piece of farm equipment to solve this problem. We simply need to revert to a system that works with nature rather than against it. And this involves grazing cattle. My previous article discussing the work of ecologist Allan Savory goes into this process in greater detail.
Further, to avoid harming bees and other helpful pollinators that visit your garden, swap out toxic pesticide and lawn chemicals for organic weed and pest control alternatives. Even some organic formulations can be harmful to beneficial insects, so be sure to vet your products carefully. Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant an edible organic garden. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide good honeybee habitats. It's also recommended to keep a small basin of fresh water in your garden or backyard, as bees actually do get thirsty.
In order to support the Monarch butterflies, consider planting a locally appropriate species of milkweed in your garden, on your farm, or wherever you manage habitat. You can use the Milkweed Seed Finder to locate seeds in your area. Whatever you choose to grow, please avoid purchasing pesticide-treated plants. Cut flower growers are among the heaviest users of toxic agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, so if you must buy cut flowers, make sure you select only organically grown and/or fair trade bouquets.
Ideally, you'll want to grow your own pollinator-friendly plants from organic, untreated seed, but if you opt to purchase starter plants, make sure to ask whether or not they've been pre-treated with pesticides. Keep in mind that you also help protect the welfare of all pollinators every time you shop organic and grass-fed, as you are actually “voting” for less pesticides and herbicides with every organic and pastured food and consumer product you buy.
You can take bee preservation a step further by trying your hand at amateur beekeeping. Maintaining a hive in your garden requires only about an hour of your time each week, benefits your local ecosystem—and you get to enjoy your own homegrown honey!
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