WASHINGTON, DC, April 5, 2013 – Huge numbers of bees in the U.S. have been inexplicably dying since 2005. In the past 12 months, what many are calling Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has destroyed 40 to 50% of the beehives used in the nation’s agricultural industry. Commercial beekeepers are worried, as bees continue to die and nobody really knows what is causing it.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about one fourth of the American diet depends on the work of honeybees. Farmers rent honeybee hives from commercial beekeepers to pollinate their fields and orchards. Commercial honeybees pollinate almonds, onions, apples, cherries, peaches, plums, pears, eggplant, watermelons, etc. Due to this year’s massive decline in hive populations, beekeepers are already reporting a 20% rise in hive rental prices.
Bee populations began to decline by about 30% since 2005, but this year has been thd worst by far. Since 2005 their death has been blamed on bee mites, some kind of virus, recent droughts, etc. However, there has been a recent focus on neonicotinoid pesticides.
Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticide, chemically related to nicotine, which kill by acting on the central nervous system of an insect. Neonicotinoids are generally not as toxic to mammals. They are usually applied as a sticky coating to seeds before planting. As the seed develops, the plant itself will carry the chemical that kills the insects. Soybean, canola, corn, and sunflower crops are generally treated with neonicotinoids.
While older classes of pesticide degrade quickly, neonicotinoids often persist for days and even weeks. However, according to Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, a group that represents over 90 pesticide producers, current research “supports the notion that the products are safe and are not contributing in any measurable way to pollinator health concerns.”
Many disagree. Several studies have tracked the proliferation of neonicotinoids and CCD. In the EU, the European Commission has proposed a plan that will ban the use of neonicotinoids in all crops frequented by bees, after researchers concluded that neonicotinoids were responsible for recent CCD epidemics in Germany and France.
A coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups believe that the U.S. should implement a similar ban. Some have gone as far as suing EPA last month, asking a northern California court to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revoke approval for clothianidin and thiamethoxam, the two most popular neonicotinoids on the market today.
How neonicotinoids are killing the bees is not clear. Some blame fungicides and herbicides and their interactions with each other and neonicotinoids, an area that has not been studied at length. Others blame the effects of chronic sub-lethal doses of neonecotinoids and other chemicals over a period of time.
EPA is currently studying the effects of neonicotinoids on bees, and results of a USDA assessment are due in May.
The massive death of honeybees is likely to lead to larger problems. If there are fewer bees to pollinate, there will be smaller harvests, leading to higher prices on certain foods. Additionally, because bees are more sensitive to pollution than other insects, some consider them to be a kind of “canary in the coalmine,” or early warning system of environmental harm to other organisms.
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