Guest Viewpoint: Stop selling poisons that kill honeybee colonies
By Gary Rondeau (MARCH 20 – R-G)
The honeybees are going down. This year for the first time, almond growers in California were not able to get all the bees they need for pollination, and many colonies supplied were weak. Thousands of bee colonies were dead on arrival to the almond orchards.
According to conventional wisdom, the problem is a combination of Varroa mites and infectious diseases, but new evidence points to pesticides as the root cause. Chemicals known as neonicotinoids, including imidacloprid, are the problem.
It may already be too late to save the beekeeping industry in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency has been slow to act, and the chemicals causing the destruction are extraordinarily toxic and are persistent in the environment.
Persuasive arguments that these particular chemicals are the culprits come from scientists studying the long-term toxicity of neonicotinoids. Even minute traces of the toxin will bind irreversibly to nervous system receptors, eventually causing innumerable problems for the organism. The amount of toxin required to kill an organism drops dramatically if you just wait long enough for sub-lethal damage to manifest.
In studies on aquatic crustaceans, it required 30 times less chemical to kill in two days compared with the amount required to kill in one day. To kill in 10 days required only one ten-thousandth of the one-day concentration. Bees going through the winter need to be healthy for many weeks. Very small amounts of toxin will produce cumulative damage to a bee’s immune response, foraging behavior, learning, memory, etc., which will eventually lead to its early demise.
Studies that would have detected such long-term, non-linear toxicity were never done when imidacloprid was approved by the EPA. It was assumed that as long as you were well below the “LD50” — the dose that kill half of the insects — there was nothing to worry about. This was true for the organophosphate insecticides, which do not bio-accumulate the way the neonicotinoids do. The EPA missed this point when it approved these chemicals in 1996.
The neonicotinoids are so toxic that they are usually restricted to seed treatment to minimize contact with bees. Seedlings take up the poison on the seed coat and it is distributed throughout the plant as it grows, including the nectar and pollen in the flowers. Usually the dose level in nectar and pollen is not enough to kill bees directly, so instead they return to the hive with their poisoned loads, where it is fed to larvae or stored for the winter.
Disease problems usually have a local or regional scope. But bee colony losses are a worldwide phenomenon. Imidacloprid is the most widely sold insecticide in the world. Global chemical companies have made sure that the planet is saturated with poison. Bayer Corp., manufacturer of imidacloprid, continues to make fabulous profits while insisting that bees’ problems have to do with mites. In reality, healthy bees with intact nervous systems could have handled the mites, unlike bees damaged by pesticides.
The problems extend beyond honeybees. Other insect pollinators and many arthropods that make up the bottom of the food chain are being decimated. As a result birds, bats and amphibians are under pressure as well.
The Europeans have not been sitting idly by. Over the last year, the European Food Safety Authority commissioned a study and has recommended banning the use of three of the most toxic chemicals, including imidacloprid, on plants that are attractive to bees. In response, hundreds of stores in the United Kingdom have voluntarily removed products containing the toxins.
I’ve kept bees in Eugene’s River Road area for the last 15 years with little trouble. Last fall, all of my five colonies died. Marketing of imidicloprid is not limited to agriculture. The highest toxic concentrations are often found in residential areas. Products like All-in-One Rose and Flower Care contain fertilizer and imidacloprid; overuse leads to toxic bee forage all over town. These products are marketed more extensively every year. With increasing use, some of our residential neighborhoods may no longer support bees.
The Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers want businesses in our community to stop selling neonicotinoid insecticides. We have talked to several local businesses, but we need community involvement to get action. Please, don’t buy products with imidicloprid. Join hundreds of others to take the Bee Friendly Pledge not to use insecticides. Tell Home Depot, Lowe’s, WalMart and Fred Meyer to stop selling these chemicals. Especially tell our local employee-owned stores, Jerry’s and BiMart, which sell much of the chemicals being spread in your neighborhood, to remove the neonicotinoids from their shelves.
Read more about our efforts, what you can do, and find the scientific references at www.oregonsustainablebeekeepers.org.
The bees are going down. Please help.
Gary Rondeau is a scientist, gardener and beekeeper in the River Road neighborhood in Eugene. He blogs at www.squashpractice.wordpress.com.