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To say the honeybee is under attack worldwide is not an alarmist pronouncement.
It is the terrible truth, and as far as I can tell, few people outside our nation's multibillion-dollar agricultural realm have a really good understanding of the staggering importance of that pronouncement and what it could portend for our food supply and the environment.
Basically, this is a tale with profound implications far beyond the honey you put on your biscuit at breakfast: The health woes of the honeybee are an indicator of stresses we have placed on our environment – with the bees being much like the canary in the mine.
Just last week the U.S. government and the European Union offered sharply divergent approaches to the matter. U.S. regulators held a news conference Thursday in which they said a combination of factors, including pesticides, is impinging on bee health. But they did not describe pesticides as the probable key contributor involved, and they proposed no specific pesticide ban. On Monday, a top European Union official announced tight, two-year restrictions on a specific group of pesticides identified in numerous laboratory studies as having a harmful impact on bees.
When you try to unravel all this, start with these four facts:
The United Nations estimates that more than two-thirds of the 100 crops providing 90 percent of food worldwide depend on bee pollination. In the United States, bee pollination is involved in producing one-third of the food that Americans eat.
Meanwhile, scientists have been tracking major bee population declines in the United States and Western Europe for a decade or longer in some areas. Pesticides, loss of forage areas for bees, viruses, mites and droughts are cited often as likely die-off causes.
Currently there is no consensus among scientists and regulators on exactly why the bee die-off has occurred across the globe. Many say the cause, when identified, will involve multiple factors, but many environmentalist groups and beekeepers view the massive use of pesticides on crops as a leading culprit.
Samples of adult bees, beeswax and stored pollen have been found to contain nearly 150 pesticide residues, according to Eric Mussen, a University of California, Davis, apiculturist. Other research published in 2010 found that bees bringing pollen back to the colony carried an average of seven pesticides in that pollen.
Despite these bleak numbers, vast piles of money so far have not gone into researching the problem.
"Historically, the money funneled into bee health research has been rather dismal, considering how important the bee's role is to our food production," though some additional government funding has been made available lately, Mussen said.
Given the gravity of the situation, you might expect average folks would know a bit about the matter. Most often, though, people you talk to about the bee die-off are extremely vague concerning what's going on, posing questions along the lines of "Oh, yeah, I'd heard about that – there's an empty hive problem, right? Aren't almonds involved somehow?"
Yes to both questions. Starting in the mid-2000s, beekeepers found bees rapidly abandoning hives for no clear reason, and the phenomenon was tagged "colony collapse disorder." Scientists have yet to discover why that mysterious phenomenon occurs, but in any event, it is a manifestation of poor bee health – not a cause. And yes, bee pollination is crucial for California's multibillion-dollar almond industry, which provides about 80 percent of the world's supply. Each year when the crop is pollinated, 60 percent of the nation's bees are involved – many of them trucked in by beekeepers whose operation headquarters are thousands of miles from California.
Generally speaking, though, this lack of public awareness about bee die-offs constitutes more than just a predictable state of affairs in a nation where most people never think of food production issues beyond what they see on grocery store shelves.
This unawareness has a political consequence that is quite identifiable: Members of the public who are uninformed are not going to be out there signing petitions or lobbying Congress and federal regulators to demand far more financial resources to fund a massive, coordinated effort by the U.S. government and researchers to pinpoint the die-offs' precise causes and develop a comprehensive attack plan to thwart further escalation of bee deaths.
For much of my life, I paid little attention to bees myself. As a child growing up in Southern California, I mainly thought of bees as insects that might sting me if I ran through fields of clover in my bare feet.
Nowadays, I have schooled myself somewhat. Having heard off and on about what is termed "the pollinator decline," I recently made it my business to talk to some of the nation's beekeepers, almond growers, pesticide lobbyists and regulators about the matter.
The numbers I learned were startling: Bees are responsible for pollinating U.S. crops worth $20 billion to $30 billion, and since 2006, about 30 percent of U.S. hives have been lost each year, scientists tell me. That means beekeepers lost 5.6 million hives that cost $1.1 billion to replace.
My interest in bee die-offs has been sparked by the growing controversy over a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which today are used on most major U.S. crops and on many minor crops as well. In California in 2010, these pesticides were applied on 1.68 million acres, according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation. Developed in the 1980s and 1990s by chemical companies as a milder pesticide class less damaging to mammals, the neonicotinoids are treated on a crop's seeds, meaning the pesticide remains systemically in the plant through its lifetime and will be there in its pollen and nectar when the bee arrives to dine.
Steve Ellis, owner of Old Mill Honey Co. with 2,300 hives in California and Minnesota, is one beekeeper firmly focused on the neonicotinoids. He told me: "The use of these compounds coincides quite noticeably with excessive mortality reports from beekeepers around the world. The connection is just too profound in my mind to be coincidental."
Others point out that it is ill-advised to try to point to only one factor as the bee die-offs' cause. "Most everyone agrees it is a complicated problem likely to have multiple causes. If we don't have pollinators, we can't grow our own food – and that's a threat to our food security," said Jennifer Saas, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Pesticide industry representatives I spoke with strongly discount the idea that pesticides play a major role in the decline of bees' health. But they too urge more research. "I think we need more systematic research on the part of the federal government, university systems and private industry on support for pollinators," Ray McAllister, senior director of regulatory affairs for CropLife America, which represents the nation's pesticide makers, told me.
Fueling the controversy over what is killing the bees, some environmental groups and agencies have turned their focus to neonicotinoids, which attack insects' nervous systems:
At the start of the year, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – posed a number of risks to bees and recommended that their use be restricted until scientists are able to gauge whether they are a factor in bee die-offs.
The American Bird Conservancy, after reviewing 200 studies, issued a call in March for a ban on neonicotinoids' use as a seed treatment and also recommended suspension "of all applications pending an independent review of the products' effects on birds, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates and other wildlife."
The Washington-based Center for Food Safety, other environmental groups and some beekeepers filed a lawsuit in March against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that it had failed to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides.
The European Commission, which represents the interests of the European Union, will impose stringent, two-year, wide-reaching restrictions effective Dec. 1 on the three neonicotinoids cited by the European Food Safety Authority, according to Tonio Borg, the EU's health commissioner. Borg pledged to do his utmost to protect bees "which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22 billion euros (nearly $29 billion) annually to European agriculture."
In this controversy-charged environment, government is under pressure. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a news conference Thursday outlining their efforts to tackle the problem. Asked why government was not pursuing restrictions on these pesticides, EPA's acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, Jim Jones, said the agency was doing science-driven research to "make sure we make appropriate decisions" that will not harm society or the farmers who would be affected.
"The million-dollar question is to what degree are pesticides playing a role in bees' poor health – are they a major or minor player? Are they a leading cause or a supplementary straw that broke the camel's back?" Jeffrey Pettis, a research leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told me.
James Frazier, a Pennsylvania State University entomology professor who studies bees, has a dark view of where we stand in the fight for bee health.
"Our political system has failed to supply sufficient resources to solve this problem in a critical time frame," Frazier told me. "It is like trying to cure cancer in four years – it's not going to happen. We can't make things right overnight, and that is the seriousness of where we are in 2013."
Let's hope that Congress and the regulators listen to Frazier.
Susan Sward is a writer who lives in San Francisco.