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Bee Crisis: More Than 40 Percent of Honey Bee Colonies Lost

Neonicotinoids are increasingly suspected of contributing to the massive losses in the number of bees, even as industry has attempted to blame mites and other things.

Beekeepers have reported losing more than 40 percent of their honey bee colonies over the last year. (Photo: Dead Bee via Shutterstock)

A dangerous new pattern in the bee crisis is alarming researchers and advocates. For the first time ever, beekeepers are losing more bee colonies during summer months than the cold winter months.

Beekeepers have reported losing more than 40 percent of their honey bee colonies over the last year, according to a recently released survey.

Why such alarm among experts and activists alike? Two thirds of crops require pollination by bees – that’s one out of every three bites of food we take.

The survey, conducted each year by the Bee Informed Partnership (BIF) in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America, included responses from 6,000 small-scale and commercial beekeepers from all 50 states to help assess the health of our nation’s honey bee colonies. The BIF receives the majority of its funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Agricultural Pesticides Are Widely Suspected Culprit, Despite Corporate Claims

Types of manufactured chemicals called “neonicotinoids” are increasingly suspected of contributing to the massive losses in the number of bees, even as industry has attempted to blame mites and other things.

These systemic insecticides can block nerve impulses to an insect’s central nervous system, paralyzing them. Neonicotinoids are similar in structure and behavior to nicotine and bees can apparently develop preferences for foods that contain Neonicotinoid pesticides.

A scientific study by the European Food Safety Authority documented the dangers of neonicotinoids, prompting the European Union to suspend the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides. In the UK, many garden retailers have also responded by ceasing the sale of neonicotinoid products in their stores.

U.S. Lags Behind in Protecting Bees

The federal government has been slower to respond, even as states and localities jump in.

In 2013, a mass die-off of 50,000 bees in an Oregon parking lot ignited outrage.

This largest ever-recorded die-off, which actually happened during National Pollinator Week, provoked investigations and a legislative task force to review the impact of pesticide use on hive health. The Oregon Department of Agriculture then prohibited the use of products containing dinotefuran, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, or clothianidin, all types of neonicotinoids, on linden trees and related species.

Since the mass extermination, at least eight municipalities have followed suit with neonicotinoid bans. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is also slated to prohibit their use at national wildlife refuges by next January.

In April of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency finally took a step forward and announced a moratorium on “new” or “expanded” uses of neonicotinoids while research into their risk to pollinators continues. The U.S. House of Representatives also held a hearing but has taken no action to ban neonicotinoids.

This leaves unabated the hundreds of neonicotinoid products on the market for commercial and home and garden use.

Why is the federal government dragging its feet when the EPA’s own 2014 report claims that neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybean production “provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production?”

It could be because neonicotinoids are very profitable for some large U.S. companies and their lobbyists.

Profits over Bees?

One of the largest sellers of neonicotinoids is Bayer. The company could lose profits if the U.S. limits the use of its two neonicotinoid products, imidacloprid and clothianidin, which are worth more than $1.5 billion.

Bayer’s response to concerns about hive losses? A “Bee Care Tour” as well as a children’s book “in which a friendly neighborhood beekeeper tells young Toby that the bees are getting sick, but ‘not to worry’ it’s just a problem with mites, and there is special medicine to make bees healthy. Bayer manufactures that ‘medicine’ — miticide Check-Mite Plus (coumaphos).”

Perhaps Bayer recognized that including a sales pitch in a children’s book could be viewed as problematic: the second edition of Toby and the Wild Bees omits the mite problem and the chemical solution.

Syngenta also profits from the use of neonicotinoids with its product, thiamethoxam, which is worth $627 million. The company deflects the role of pesticides in the decline of bee colonies by blaming human fear– “The number of bees killed by humans each year dwarfs the numbers of bees killed by any of its other predators.”

Syngenta and Bayer both have legal challenges pending against the EU ban.

Bayer went as far as to sue Friends of the Earth Germany for libel action for their claim that a pesticide manufactured by Bayer, thiacloprid, is harmful to bees. A March 2015 ruling by a judge in Dusseldorf, however, held that the environmental group had a right to raise debate over the issue.

“Bayer has been shown up as a corporate bully, trying to silence campaigners who are standing up for bees,” according to the group.

Additionally, it is worth noting that the chemical giant Monsanto may have a financial stake in these pesticides too. It does not appear to manufacture neonicotinoids, but it does sell pre-treated seeds. The connection between Monsanto and this category of insecticide demands attention considering that about 90 percent of corn in the United States, for example, is treated with neonicotinoids, according to Mother Jones.

In what the FOE calls a “fox-buys-henhouse” situation, Monsanto purchased Beeologics, a $113 million bee research firm, in 2011. And in 2013, Monsanto announced the formation of a Honey Bee Advisory Council, which includes Monsanto executives.

Buzz Kill: Putting the Issue Off to the Next White House

While the European Union takes steps against neonicotinoids, the EPA is planning to delay action until 2018. More bee colonies are expected to collapse in the meantime.

Millions of Americans are calling on Obama and Congress to restrict the use of neonicotinoids and create stronger protections for bees and other pollinators.

People who are concerned about bees or who simply like almonds, strawberries, apples, avocados, cauliflower, cacao, coffee, cherries, grapes, and many other common foods are signing a petition by Friends of the Earth demanding that the U.S. protect our bees and not put this issue off to the next president and Congress to address.

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