JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
What is happening to the world’s bees? According to the USDA, their population has decreased by half since the 1940s. And they’re important, of course, ’cause they help pollinate a third of our food supply.
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Attention is turning to neonicotinoids, insecticides which have been linked to a decrease in bee populations. The E.U. has placed a two-year ban on some of them, and the European Food Safety Authority has said that they may affect human nervous system development of children.
Here in North America, this week is the Bee Week of Action, according to environmental groups, who are sending Valentine’s Day cards to Home Depot and Lowe’s, asking them to stop selling plants treated with these insecticides. Friends of the Earth released a study last year which said more than half of these garden plants sold by Home Depot and Lowe’s contain some of these products with no warnings to consumers.
Now joining us to discuss this is Professor Dennis vanEngelsdorp. He’s a research scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, honey bee expert, who authored a recent groundbreaking study on these bees. He was featured in the documentary film Silence of the Bees, broadcast on PBS.
Thank you so much for joining us.
DENNIS VANENGELSDORP, RESEARCH SCIENTIST, UNIV. OF MARYLAND: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: So let’s start off by getting your—or just a brief breakdown on what these insecticides are and why they’re such a big concern. And can you also address the recent news out of the European Union? They’ve restricted the use, at least temporarily, of some of them.
VANENGELSDORP: So neoniconoids are this class of insecticides that are actually based on nicotine, which, of course, is produced by tobacco plants. And what’s unique about this group of pesticides is that instead of being sprayed, you can just put a little bit, paint a little bit on the seed of a plant, or you can dribble a little bit in the soil around the root system of the plant, and the plant will suck up this pesticide. And then any insect that eats the leaves of this plant will die.
So these pesticides were developed in order to reduce how many pesticides we have to use, because you only need a tiny little bit in order to control insect populations on crops.
Now, plants naturally produce a lot of different toxins to insects that eat them. However, they’ve developed filters to make sure that those toxic chemicals don’t get in the nectar and pollin. However, neonicotinoids at very low levels can get into the nectar and pollin of treated plants. And so the concern is that if the bees bring this home, first, they can get a sublethal dose and get confused and not find their way home as well, and also it could have negative effects on colonies at home.
Again, I want to emphasize, though, that this class of insecticides were developed in order to help reduce the number of beneficial insects killed accidentally by other pesticides which can be much more harmful to bees than neonics.
Now, the way the Europeans register or allow the use of the chemical is very different than the way the North American system has developed. So in Europe they do the precautionary principle, which means that if you aren’t 100 percent sure no harm is being done, they will ban a product. That’s very different than here, where you have to have science-based evidence—after a chemical has gone through different sets of reviews, you have to have science-based evidence that these products are hurting the environment in order to instigate the ban. And so it’s very different ways of looking at the same system.
I will say that this has highlighted the fact that neonics clearly have some sublethal effects. So they’re not killing the bees outright, but they may be making them more susceptible to disease. And certainly there are other pollinating insects that they’re having a very negative impact on their reproductive ability.
And so what we have to keep in mind, though, is that what—if we remove these chemicals from the market, what will replace them? And I think that’s important, because you have to remember that we need insecticides in order to produce food for the country and the world. And so without these products, what will we use? And what would those effects have on bee populations?
Having said that—and I think this is where the argument from this group comes from, is: why are we using these highly toxic chemicals on plants that have no human health risk or pose no food safety risk? I think that’s a legitimate question. And I think EPA needs to consider, as do the chemical companies, why are we marketing products that are so toxic to insects for purely ornamental use?
And this was really brought to attention last year in Oregon, where there was a flowering basswood tree that got treated—off-label; it was an illegal application of the product—got treated, and it killed tens of thousands of bumble bees. And that does seem ridiculous, because they treated the tree because there were aphids on it, and they were worried the aphids would poo on cars beneath the trees. Well, I mean, all the people had to do was wash their car. And so why would we be using insecticides that could kill so many thousands of bees is a really good question.
Having said that, I think that banning it outright for all agricultural uses may be a little shortsighted, because it may have some indirect or unanticipated consequences.
NOOR: And I’d like to say that we did reach out to Home Depot and Lowe’s for this story, and they did not respond in time for broadcast.
And, finally, since we last had you on, what has been the response to your work from the Department of Agriculture and the EPA?
VANENGELSDORP: Well, there are several projects that I’ve worked on, actually, very closely with colleagues at the USDA, and certainly the EPA has been very open to the idea that we need to reconsider how we register products in this country, that as new products come onto market that act in different ways, perhaps the old way of evaluating their safety, which is, well, how much does it take to kill half the population, might not be effective and that we have to look at sublethal effects. So I think the EPA is reconsidering how they label law. I think that they are putting more stringent pollinator warnings on products.
I also want to emphasize that the most recent work we’ve done is suggesting that neonicotinoids, if you look at how much neonicotinoids we find in bee pollin, it’s only about 2 percent a sample. The vast majority or a great majority of products or pollin has fungicides in it, and we’ve also found evidence that fungicides, they also have sublethal effects on bee health. And so I sometimes worry that all this attention on neonicotinoids may be distracting from the fact that we have a lot of other products that may be harming bees in ways that we’ve never really considered.
And so I think that more broadly we have to look at why are we using insecticides and pesticides in general, including fungicides and herbicides, why are we using them, and do we need to use them, and can we use them more smartly. I think the approach of just banning it might be shortsighted. But I think that there’s a lot of room for making wise choices about it.
Generally I would argue that most homeowners do not need to use pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides. I mean, why do we need the perfectly green lawn with no dandelions? Dandelions are an exciting addition to your lawn. It makes it prettier. And it’s pollinator-friendly. It helps bees out.
And so I think we have to also, as a society, reconsider what our priorities are and redefine what is beautiful. This idea of the perfectly green mowed lawn is archaic, based on colonial times, and it’s time as a society we grow out of that view.
NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us.
VANENGELSDORP: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.
Thank you so much for joining us.