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Notes from a Small Planet: Bee Here Now

Basia Yoffe
September 5, 2013

by Basia Yoffe

Africa-1bee_1415432cONE OF MY MOST MAGICAL childhood memories is of the season when honey bees took over a corner of our backyard. They came uninvited, setting up a hive that hung about ten feet off the ground from the limb of a fig tree. It was amazing to see them work my mother's flowers for nectar with their long tongues (prosboscises). At dawn and at dusk, when the air was still, the sweet smell of the honey was delicious. Then, at some point, my mother had enough of the bees, because it became very difficult for her to convince my brother to cut the grass. Much to my mother's credit, she called a beekeeper, not an exterminator.

Now my old friends the bees are in crisis from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (which the Obama Administration has stacked with former employees and allies of the Monsanto Corporation) and Environmental Protection Agency have proclaimed great concern about it, but claim that there is not enough evidence to ban the pesticides that are likely causing it — neonicotinoids — because they don't seem to be the sole cause of CCD.

They do seem to be a significant culprit, however. Neonicotinoids such as Imidacloprid and Clothianidin kill insects by attacking their nervous systems. These are known to get into pollen and nectar, and they are systemic pesticides, often embedding in seeds so that the plant itself carries the chemical that kills insects that feed on it. Older pesticides degrade in a brief time; neonicotinoids persist for weeks. And they were introduced to the market in 2005, the very year before the most drastic die-offs of bees began to happen.

"The suspected factors include pests, pathogens, pesticides, nutritional deficiencies and bee hive management practices," says the USDA in an October, 2012 report — as the die-off rate went up to nearly 50 percent of our pollinating hives, according to the New York Times.

WE LIVE IN AN AGE of nonsense and corruption. No one seems to be thinking things through. Imagine that you were needed for a job two thousand miles away. Imagine being put in a box on a truck in a tight space with lots of other workers. You are driven the entire distance while living in everyone's pee and poop. When you finally arrive, wouldn't you be susceptible to illness, sensitive to poison, vulnerable to mites? This is the life of many bees who are maintained for industrialized pollination.

beeherenowBut a bee is not a human, it's merely an insect, so why should you care? I recently attended a beekeeping workshop at a sustainability conference, and when someone asked me how I became interested in bees, I replied that I like to eat. A Whole Foods store recently removed all the produce dependent on bees, to bring attention to their importance as pollinators: 237 out of 453 products. Apples, broccoli, cucumbers, onions, carrots, mangos, lemons, limes, honeydew, cantaloupe, avocados, celery... all absent from the shelves.

YES, THE SOLUTIONS to the bee crisis are as complicated as the bees themselves, of which there are 20,000 species divided into seven to nine families. (Bees were not studied scientifically until the 18th century, when the matings of queens and drones were observed for the first time.) Bee disappearances have been common throughout the history of apiculture (beekeeping). The name "Colony Collapse Disorder" was coined in 2006 to describe the drastic, sudden die-off of bees; then, in February 2007, a New York Times article reported that scientists were concerned that trucking colonies en masse around the country was exposing bees to viruses and mites as they intermingled en route, and that the constant movement strained the lives of hives.

In Israel, where bees don't travel long distances, CCD is proving not to be as severe as in the U.S. Other factors also give bees a better chance of survival in Israel: the Israeli Agriculture Ministry insists that beekeepers provide bees with a chemical-free, clean source of water, and the government monitors the health of bees and their surroundings pretty extensively. Despite the country's high level of regulation, however, bees in Israel have fallen prey to the parasitic mite, varroa destructor, which has caused die-off infestations in North America and Europe that are difficult to treat.

The pesticide companies point to these multiple factors to oppose the banning of neonicotinoids. Their lobbying efforts have fallen short in Europe, however, where a continent-wide ban will go into effect this December. Three pesticides of the neonicotinoid family (clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiametoxam) will be banned for a period of two years.

IN A GRIST INTERVIEW, biologist Dave Goulson notes that while pesticide companies are demanding more evidence of harm before seeing their products banned, there is actually only minimal research to show their positive benefits and efficacy. "I was amazed when I started digging in to find out what the evidence base was for their use," said Goulson. "It's really very hard to find any published studies! When you look in scientific journals to find out which chemicals give you the biggest yield for the smallest cost, there's almost nothing. And evidence suggests that neonicotinoids may not have any effect at all on some crops — even crops for which they are very highly used!"

Goulson, a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, was part of the team who published a 2012 paper in Science pointing to the threats posed by neonicotinoid pesticides to fauna large and small, with particular lethality for bees. "The biggest user in the world," he notes, "by an order of magnitude, is China. They manufacture imidacloprids themselves these days. And this might explain the horror stories that have come out of some parts of China, where they're having to hand-pollinate their crops now, because they don't have any bumblebees left alive."

The U.S. EPA hosted a bee summit to talk about CCD in March of this year. The summit highlighted some of the factors that affect the bee collapse, but also gave platforms to companies like Bayer and Monsanto that make the pesticides involved in the crisis. Later that month, activists and beekeepers sued the EPA to force the agency to better protect bees by banning or regulating neonicotinoids. The suit also challenges the use of so-called "conditional registrations" for these pesticides, a classification that expedites commercial use by bypassing meaningful, pre-market review. Since 2000, over two thirds of pesticide products, including clothianidin and thiamethoxam, have been brought to market as "conditional registrations." "Pesticide manufacturers use conditional registrations to rush bee-toxic products to market, with little public oversight," complains Paul Towers, a spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network. Moreover, as "new independent research comes to light, the agency has been slow to reevaluate" approved products, "leaving bees exposed to an ever-growing load of hazardous pesticides.

WHENEVER I VISIT Eden Village Camp, the Jewish environmental camp that I've written about several times in this column, I always make my way to the farm. In front of the herb garden is a sign, "BEE HERE NOW," which alerts campers to live in the moment as well as warning them about the bees who frequently nap in the garden. I've had many favorite moments with my old friends, there, as they work tirelessly from sunflower to sunflower. But whether your experience with bees is one of spiritual communion or of being stung, you should care about their fate – if, just like me, you like to eat.

Click here to learn about action you can take to help the bees.

Basia Yoffe is a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board and an environmental activist who conducts our "Notes from a Small Planet" column and blog.