For more than a decade, scientists have been trying to solve the mystery of the “colony collapse disorder” that is killing honeybees by the millions.
In an area that utterly relies on bees to pollinate our nut and fruit trees and the rest of the cornucopia of products we grow in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, this mission is critical.
There are many suspects, but one has become the focus of scientists worldwide. Over the past two months, several studies have pointed to a family of pesticides widely used in agriculture but also found in backyard products.
A four-year analysis by 29 scientists reviewing more than 800 peer-reviewed reports concluded for the first time that insecticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are “causing significant damage” to beneficial insects and are a “key factor in the decline of bees.” Chemically similar to nicotine, the insecticide impairs honeybees’ ability to forage for pollen and lessens their ability to rebuild their colonies over winter.
Just as startling, the insecticide was linked to drops in birds and reptiles, according to the Worldwide Integrated Assessment. Not only does the pesticide kill insects, it changes the tunneling behavior of earthworms, and creates health problems for snails and aquatic life – all part of birds’ and reptiles’ diets.
While debate still rages, regulators must realize that bees are a critical component of our food supply and they must be protected. Since colony collapse disorder was first seen in 2006, it has been estimated that 90 percent of bees were lost. Since then, their numbers have recovered slightly.
“We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT,” Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the National Center for Scientific Research in France, who is one of the lead authors of the assessment, said in a news release. “Far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it.”
Various reasons have been given, including parasitic mites, malnutrition and loss of natural foraging habitat, or a combination of those and other factors. But the threat posed by neonics was not among the top reasons beekeepers reported for loss of their colonies last year, said Eric Mussen, an apiculturist of the UC Davis. Parasitic mites and starvation were cited as the top two causes.
“Colony collapse disorder is a consequence of overwhelming stresses,” Mussen said. “Among other stresses, the bees are living in a pool of pollution. It’s a combination of everything beekeepers are putting in their hives and we are putting into the environment.”
California farmers depend on bees pollinating 870,000 acres of almond trees in February and March for a $3 billion harvest. After pollinating plum and cherry trees, then citrus blooms in April, honeybees are trucked throughout the United States where they provide an essential service that produces $30 billion in crops each year.
The loss of such an integral factor to worldwide agriculture triggered the scientific studies and a re-evaluation of neonics by regulators.
Last year, the European Union restricted the use of neonics for two years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is re-evaluating their use. Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will phase out the use of neonics in federal wildlife refuges in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.
In California, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation began re-evaluating neonics in 2009 but doesn’t expect results until 2016. Seven years is a long wait.
Scientific research may take time to determine the cause, but there is a prime suspect that could be taken out of our backyards, and our fields and orchards.
We should have learned a few lessons by now in tinkering with the environment: Too often, we have introduced a solution to one problem only to create an unintended but more harmful consequence.