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How Neonics Are Plucking Off Our Honeybees in Droves

May 3, 2012


Last June, I wrote about the disturbing phenomenon of the disappearance of millions of honeybees.

My impetus then was a post on my sister's Facebook page wondering if cell phones were responsible for mass bee disappearances. A few days ago I saw on a friend's Facebook page a post claiming the mystery had been "solved."


Does a Bee Die Whenever You Use Your Cell Phone?

In my write-up I summarized the gist of why cell phones were responsible for "lots of bees dying in America over the past 30 years, just when cell phones have gotten popular!" Inhabitant invoked research conducted in Switzerland that showed "the signal from cell phones not only confuses bees but also may lead to their death. Over 83 experiments have yielded the same results."

Time magazine found scientists on both sides of the fence, citing Andrew Goldsworthy, a British biologist, saying that cell phone radiation affects the insects' ability to find their hives, as well as quoting Norman Carreck, a scientist at the University of Sussex, saying, "We know they are sensitive to magnetic fields. What we don't know is what use they actually make of them."

Nobody's arguing whether bee populations are declining. They are. Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported last May that data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture "show a 29 percent drop in beehives in 2009, following a 36 percent decline in 2008 and a 32 percent fall in 2007." Scientists have variously blamed the colony collapse disorder on viruses, parasites, insecticides, malnutrition and other environmental factors or a combination thereof.


Are Those Pesky Pesticides to Blame?

Of course, pesticides were carefully considered. AFP reported that research conducted in 23 U.S. states and Canada and published in the Public Library of Science journal found 121 different pesticides in 887 samples of bees, wax, pollen and other elements of hives. Yet the journal Science published a piece by another University of Sussex faculty member, who said pesticides aren't the culprit except among those with an agenda:

"Personally, I think there are people that want to put the blame on certain factors that fit their worldview. People want to blame pesticides but I think it is highly unlikely. We're not saying they are good for bees but they are not to blame for the declines."

Various diseases, instead, were bruited about as explanations for colony collapse disorder. Then, there was the loss of habitat theory: The Ecologist wrote in early 2010 that "intensification of farming and subsequent decline in food sources, rather than pesticides or disease, is seen as biggest threat to honeybees," and Britain's The Independent quoted Jeff Pettis, lead researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., saying the best thing to help bees is "to try to limit habitat destruction."


"Compelling" Science Now Points to Neonics

But now, according to Reuters, there appears to be a tentative agreement -- since real science, as we all know, is never "settled" -- that there is an identifiable main culprit in the disappearance of bees. Richard Schiffman wrote, "Three new studies point an accusing finger at a culprit that many have suspected all along, a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids."

Called "neonics," Schiffman wrote that they "coat a massive 142 million acres of corn, wheat, soy and cotton seeds," adding that "they are also a common ingredient in home gardening products" and are "absorbed by the plants' vascular system and contaminate the pollen and nectar that bees encounter."

Evidently they poison bees' nervous systems, damage their all-important homing ability and disorient them, Schiffman explains. Which means the bees never return to their hive, which means the queen bee starves, which means there's one less colony in the world.

"Neonics turn an innocent corn plant into an insect-killing machine," wrote the website Through A Green Lens. It cited a recent study from Tom Philpott that found that neonics act in two ways -- "big lethal doses that occur at the time of seed planting, when neonic-infused dust wafts around, and in tiny doses that happen when bees bring neonic-infused pollen into hives."

Most of the time, neonics don't kill bees immediately. But sometimes they do. Citing a study in Environmental Science & Technology, Through A Green Lens wrote that if exposure levels to the pesticides are high enough, "bees can die immediately after flying over freshly sown corn fields."

Schiffman cited a study conducted by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) scientists, who "re-created the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder in several honeybee hives" simply by giving them small doses of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide.

As reported in

"[The HSPH study] treated 16 hives with different levels of imidacloprid, leaving four hives untreated... by 23 weeks 15 out of the 16 hives treated with imidacloprid underwent classic Colony Collapse Disorder: hives were largely empty with only a few young bees surviving. The adults had simply vanished. The hives that received the highest doses of imidacloprid collapsed first and the four untreated hives were healthy."

Lead author Chensheng "Alex" Lu, an associate professor at HSPH, told that "the evidence is clear that imidacloprid is likely the culprit" for colony collapse disorder. "U.S. corn began to be sprayed with imidacloprid in 2004-2005. A year later was the first outbreak of Colony Collapse Disorder." also reported another study, from France. In this one, researchers glued microchips to free-ranging Western honeybees and administered small doses of neonics to some of them. Those given neonics were two to three times less likely to return from foraging excursions.

Some are firmly convinced neonics are the definitive reason why bee populations are declining. The website BeeSource reported last year that Italian beekeeping couple Marisa Valente and Renato Bologna declared a hunger strike to protest the pesticide. They camped outside the Italian Minisitry of Agriculture in Turin with their van.

Beekeepers of about 20 years in the Asti wine-growing region of Italy, they noticed that in the late 1990s, local vineyards began spraying neonicotinoids -- specifically thiomethoxam.

The couple, according to Beesource, said they lost 20 percent of their hives in the winter of 2003, then 40 percent in 2004, 50 percent in 2007 and, finally, 80 percent in 2010. During their hunger strike, they ate only what a bee would consume -- a bit of honey and fruit juice every day -- while demanding Italian officials to ban "all systemic neonicotinoid pesticides which are exterminating bees, butterflies and all pollinating insects."

If honeybees are taking it in the groin, at least they're not bumblebees. A recent study, reported in the UK's The Guardian, found that U.S. bumblebee stocks have declined by up to 96 percent and that their geographic ranges had contracted significantly in the last two decades.

The Guardian also noted that, according to the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, "three of the 25 British species of bumblebee are already extinct and half of the remainder have shown serious declines, often up to 70 percent, since around the 1970s." Neonics were blamed again, in conjunction with certain diseases, loss of habitat and other factors.

Good thing we seem to have identified the major factor in the loss of such a valuable  resource to world agriculture. The sooner we know what is killing off precious honeybees, the sooner we can fix it.