What’s all the buzz about colony collapse?
Bee populations are dwindling quickly, and it’s not just honey we’re at risk of losing.
According to PBS, honeybees pollinate about one-third of crops in the United States, including apples, nuts, broccoli, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, celery, squash, cucumbers, citrus fruit, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, melons, and animal-feed crops such as clover.
While the declining honeybee population isn’t likely to stamp out flowering crops from our diets just yet, improving honeybee health is imperative. Honeybees aren’t the only pollinators – other insects and birds also pollinate fruits and vegetables – but replacing honeybees would not be ideal. “The problem with other natural pollinators picking up the bees’ slack is that today’s agricultural industry has simply grown too large for them to keep up,” according to the PBS article.
The USDA reports beekeepers losing 30 percent of their honeybees each year, but this winter, “hive losses in the 70-90 percent range [were] reported.” Pesticide Action Network spokesperson Paul Towers told TakePart, “Bees pollinate over 95 different types of fruits and vegetables, with almonds being the most prolific… What happens in the almond crop spells good news or bad news for other crops. There’s a ripple effect as commercial bees get moved from almonds to blueberries to cranberries and pumpkins.”
Colony collapse disorder, the abrupt disappearance of worker bees, rose drastically in late 2006. The disorder was most drastic in North America, but similar phenomena were observed in Europe as well. The incidence of CCD has grown with the increased use of insecticides, particularly neonicotinoids that include clothianidin and thiamethoxam, manufactured primarily by Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science. Other possible causes of CCD may be weather, parasites, and disease.
Why are the neonicotinoids so dangerous? “Neonicotinoids are applied before planting to coat seeds,” Towers explained in an article on TakePart in March 2013. The pesticide, which was created as a ‘better’ alternative to DDT, “is then taken up through the vascular system of the plant and expressed through the pollen and nectar, which bees rely on for food.”
So what can be done to help the honeybees? In the short term, bringing in bumblebees – albeit more expensive than the honeybee – to take over some of the work has been successful in the Netherlands. Improving honeybee nutrition and reducing stress will be helpful in the long term, though it may require skipping some less nutritious crops some years, according to PBS. Breeding domesticated honeybees with wild or feral honeybees may have a positive effect, as well. Perhaps a more obvious solution, as insinuated by the articles on Grist and TakePart, would be to limit or halt the use of insecticides, specifically neonicotinoids, completely, as has been done in Germany, France, and Slovenia. These European countries are awaiting more conclusive research on the safety of such chemicals, and the UK is considering following suit.
The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency is currently facing a lawsuit from the Pesticide Action Network for ignoring warnings about problems posed by neonicitinoids. According to an article on Grist, “An internal EPA memo released [in 2010] confirms that the very agency charged with protecting the environment is ignoring the warnings of its own scientists about clothianidin, a pesticide from which Bayer racked up about $262 million in sales in 2009.”
How can you help? In the words of Michael Pollan, vote with your fork! Consider choosing organic produce from the grocery store, and support farmers who do not use pesticides (who may or may not have the organic certification) when you shop at your local farmers’ market. If you have the space, consider planting a backyard fruit tree for fresh, local, chemical-free fruit that will not only enhance your family’s health, but the health of honeybee colonies as well.