By Laura Reynolds
On April 29, the European Union voted to largely ban the use of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide, for two years beginning in December 2013. The ban had 15 member state supporters, including France, Germany, and Poland; eight opponents, including the United Kingdom; and four abstaining votes.
Neonicotinoids are a possible cause of the rapid decline in bee populations worldwide. (Photo credit: University of California)
The ban restricts the use of three pesticides—imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam—on flowering crops, which honeybees depend on for pollen and hive health. Environmental groups, beekeepers, scientists, and the public hailed the ban as a victory for the precautionary principle, which urges caution and careful scientific study in circumstances where the effects of a chemical or action on the environment are not sufficiently clear.
Neonicotinoids are thought to be particularly harmful for insects because the chemical is applied directly to a plant’s seed instead of its leaves or flowers. This makes the pesticide present in the plant’s pollen. Neonicotinoids are also persistent chemicals, meaning that they do not degrade within weeks or months, but rather remain in the nerve systems of insects, causing systemic and lasting damage.
In the United States, a coalition of beekeeping companies and environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency in March over its approval of neonicotinoids for domestic use. The groups cited a lack of scientific understanding of the pesticides’ effect on bees and other insects, and drew a possible connection between the chemicals and the ongoing collapse of honeybee hives across the country and worldwide.
This bee population crisis, known as colony collapse disorder, emerged in 2005, and scientists have not yet identified a clear cause. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have both confirmed and denied a link between neonicotinoids and beehive collapse. Scientists agree that viruses, mites, drought, and loss of native habitat could also be contributing to the collapse.
Anecdotal reports from commercial beekeepers suggest that the U.S. bee population may have declined as much as 40 to 50 percent over the past year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will release its official assessment in late May. Annual hive losses of 5 to 10 percent were the norm for beekeepers in previous decades, but since 2005, losses have escalated to some one-third of all hives. Simply put, no bees means less or no production of certain foods: the USDA reports that one-third of the American diet depends on pollination by honeybees.
This spring, for the first time ever, orchardists in California couldn’t find enough bees to pollinate their crops. Bees are shipped to pollinate hundreds of thousands of fruits and trees in California’s Central Valley. Some of these specialty crops, such as almonds, are nearly 100-percent dependent on domestic honeybee hives. Because of the high concentration of fruit and nut production in California, the state imports its bees, possibly also importing diseases and viruses from around the country.
Because of the high demand and low supply of hives this year, farmers had to pay up to 20 percent more to use hives on their farms—which could result in increased food prices over the coming months.
What is your opinion on the effect of pesticides, as well as herbicides and other agrochemicals, on bee health? Let us know in the comments!
Laura Reynolds is a Food and Agriculture Staff Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.