It would seem bees are vanishing, but until recently nobody really knew why. Now, thanks to Wikileaks, we have more evidence.
In recent years people have noticed dead bees on the ground having seemingly just fallen out of the sky, while hive owners have seen bee numbers decline by as much as ninety percent. A more conservative U.S. Department of Agriculture study reports that thirty percent of hives have been lost to the epidemic in each of the past two years.
This phenomenon is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where bees fl y out in search of pollen and do not return. Theories explaining the loss include global warming, radiation from mobile phone masts, the parasitic Varroa mite that was introduced from Asia or even the practice of monoculture — where a single crop covers a large area.
The most likely contributor, however, is simply manmade pesticide – specifi cally in recent years, a chemical called clothianidin. A file recently released via Wikileaks shows that the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ignored warnings from its own scientists about the use of clothianidin, a pesticide produced by multinational corporation Bayer.
The EPA allegedly knew that clothianidin would be deadly to bees when the product came on the market in 2003. The 101-page memo released by Wikileaks was leaked by EPA’s own scientists in response to Bayer’s request to expand the use of the pesticide to mustard and cotton. It identified clothianidin as a potential bee killer, stating: “Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to non-target insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis.”
According to environmental website Grist.org, the pesticide raked-in $262 million in sales in 2009 alone and was used by farmers of canola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat. Clothianidin pesticide has since been banned there, as well as in France, Italy and Serbia. It has helped, but clothianidin has a soil half-life of up to nineteen years in heavy soils, and over a year in the lightest of soils, so even an immediate ban on the chemical may not arrest the decline in the number of bees for some time.
Clothianidin, it’s worth remembering, is not the only pesticide on the market and has only been used since 2003. Bees began disappearing before then, but over 2,100 products have had “conditional registration” status since 1990. EPA is supposed to license (“register”) pesticides only if they meet standards for protection of the environment and human health. But pesticide law allows EPA to waive these requirements and grant a “conditional” registration of a new pesticide when health and safety data is lacking. In other words, this loophole allows companies to sell a pesticide before the EPA knows it is risk free.
Significantly, organic beekeepers across North America are not experiencing colony collapse. The problem is with mass-farmed non-organic bees that are fed antibiotics and are exposed to pesticides as they’re moved around the country for purposes of pollination. To give you an idea of how many are used in this way, California’s almond crop alone relies on 1.4 million colonies of bees every single year for pollination. In samples taken from non-organic bees, wax, and pollen, scientists have found traces of at least 121 different pesticides. When farmers begin to mix and match pesticides, tailoring them to their specific crops, the resulting effect on pollinating bees seemingly contributes still further to this ongoing disaster.
The loss of bees would be catastrophic for the world’s food chain. Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, has stated that: “Every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food.” German bee expert Professor Joergen Tautz from Wurzburg University told The Telegraph: “Bees are vital to biodiversity. There are 130,000 plants for which bees are essential to pollination, from melons to pumpkins, raspberries and all kinds of fruit trees — as well as animal fodder — like clover. Bees are more important than poultry in terms of human nutrition.”
And if the bees go, then the society-shattering food shortages will begin.
For Esquire Magazine, Feb 2011