Economics for the Earth Blog

Worst bee die-off in 40 years

Posted May. 14, 2013 / Posted by: Lisa Archer

Updated May 2013: Take action here to tell Home Depot, Lowe's and other stores not to carry products containing bee-killing neonicotinoids.

Spring is in the air, and as we plant our vegetable gardens and enjoy the blossoming flowers, it’s easy to forget the small creatures that keep many of our spring favorites alive and are essential to our food supply: bees.

One out of every three bites of food you and I eat is pollinated by honeybees. In fact, bees and other pollinators are necessary for about 75 percent of our global food crops. From nuts and soybeans, to squash and cucumbers, from apples, oranges, cherries and blueberries, to avocados, peaches and melons, bees play a critical role in producing the food we eat. Honey bees also contribute over $15 billion to the U.S. economy. Bees are a keystone species and with roughly 80 percent of all flowering plants on the earth reliant on pollinators to reproduce, if we lose bees we will likely lose a host of other important species.

As you may have read in the news, these critical pollinators are in trouble, victims of Colony Collapse Disorder -- or CCD, a phenomenon in which bee colonies have been mysteriously collapsing when adult bees seemingly abandon their hives. This last winter, beekeepers reported bee die-offs of more than 50 percent -- the worst loss in more than 40 years. CCD has pushed the beekeeping industry in the U.S. to the verge of collapse, and this could spell trouble for a variety of our favorite foods from almonds to blueberries.

For years, the cause of CCD was a scientific mystery, but a growing body of scientific evidence is pointing to a key factor, a class of neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics. In fact, a January 2013 European Food Safety Authority report labeled neonicotinoids as an 'unacceptable' danger to bees. And a new report from the American Bird Conservancy provides compelling evidence that neonics are also harming birds.

Neonics are the fastest-growing class of synthetic pesticides in history, and the neonicotinoid imidacloprid (Bayer Crop Science's top-selling product), is currently the most widely used insecticide in the world. Neonics are used as seed treatments on more than 140 crop varieties, as well as on termites, cat and dog flea treatments, lawns, landscapes and gardens. Neonics are persistent and last for years in the soil. They permeate the entire plant and are expressed in pollen, nectar and guttation droplets (dew). And, they can’t be washed off food, meaning that we are all eating them.

What’s worse, neonics aren’t just in use in commercial agriculture. Many of the plants and seeds we buy in nurseries across the U.S. have been pre-treated with the pesticides and at much higher doses than is used on farms -- so when we plant our gardens we may unwittingly be harming bees!

The EPA approved Bayer's products based on the companies own studies and despite mounting evidence – including a memo by the EPA’s own scientists discrediting Bayer’s original study – and 1.25 million public comments, the EPA has delayed action on neonics until 2018. Other governments haven’t been so slow to act. Governments in Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere have already taken action to limit neonics, and beekeepers there are reporting recovery.

The 2013 EFSA study has prompted the EU Parliament to consider a two-year ban on three popular neonics. And, due to a successful campaign by our sister organization Friends of the Earth England, Wales, Northern Ireland, many of the major home and garden retailers in the UK have pledged to stop selling neonics.

Bees really are the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to our food, telling us that the way we produce our food is unhealthy and unsustainable and needs a rapid transition to sustainable, just, ecological agriculture. A new USDA study shows that we could move away from chemically intensive industrial agriculture toward a system of ecologically friendly agriculture and continue to produce enough food for us all.

Friends of the Earth has some exciting actions coming up to save the bees and other pollinators. You’ll have an important role to play, so check back soon.

And in the meantime, choose to buy organic food as much as possible, and, as you plant your spring gardens, be sure to say no to the neonics and choose certified organic seeds and plants to help protect bees and other pollinators!

Photo credit: Maciej Czyżewsk, Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

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