Defenseless bees

Jennifer Sass’s Blog

Defenseless bees

Jennifer SassPosted November 7, 2013 in Health and the Environment

BeeOur Nation’s bees are in a tail spin, and victims include commercial honey bees, wild bumble bees, and other native bee species.  This isn’t just a bee problem – it’s our problem too because we rely on the pollination services of our buzzing invertebrate friends to grow food and make flowers bloom. According to the US Department of Agriculture Honey Report, honey production is down, as it has been almost every year since the neonicotinoid pesticides were approved.

The decline of bee colonies almost certainly has numerous causes.  Much of the pesticide industry is focused on pathogens like Nosema parasites and Varroa mites, shifting attention away from their own toxic pesticide products. But, science is bringing pesticides and bee deaths closer together.

It is now evident that even low field-realistic levels of neonicotinoids (‘neonics’) – a class of pesticides purposely designed to soak into the whole plant – are compromising the immunity of bees, leaving them unable to fend off viruses and other deadly pathogens that stress and eventually kill bee colonies. It is a deadly one-two punch. The bees are immune compromised from the pesticides, and then fall prey to mites and other viruses that kill them.

In addition to immune system damage, a handful of well-conducted studies on honey bees and bumble bees suggest that bee colonies exposed to field-realistic levels of neonic pesticides in small but repeated or lasting (several weeks) doses have significant behavioral and functional impairments such as impaired learning, food collection, navigation, immune function, and reduced fecundity and queen production. While not likely to cause immediate (acute) death, such abnormal behavior can hinder the ability of the colony to survive winter. (See the Xerces Society report and my blog here for details).

Recent research by USDA scientist Jeff Pettis found 35 different pesticides in bee pollen – in addition to neonics – that appear to weaken the immunity of bees, leaving them unable to fend off the viruses that eventually kill them (Pettis et al 2013).  Clearly, the issue of pesticide use as well as other factors affecting bees is complex.  However, the evidence is clear that neonics are highly problematic and it’s time to reconsider the now pervasive use of these pesticides.

NRDC is supporting legislation —  Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2013 — introduced by Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) and Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) that directs EPA to suspend use of the most bee-toxic neonicotinoids for use in seed treatment, soil application, or foliar treatment on bee attractive plants within 180 days – with some exceptions – and to review these neonicotinoids and make a new determination about their application and safe use.

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