Bees pollinate a host of important crops, from fruits and nuts such as oranges, blueberries, apples and almonds, to row crops such cotton, canola, and soy. But the last few decades have been tough for bee populations, which have experienced larger than normal winter die-offs.
Some raise the specter of massive colony collapses spreading around the world. This even has its own acronym, CCD, which stands for Colony Collapse Disorder. While bee health is critically important, and there's a real problem, those who suggest that the sky is falling and we'll run out of food because of CCD have another agenda. And it has nothing to do with bees.
Radical environmental activist groups like the Sierra Club are using such fears to target a relatively new class of pesticide called neonicotinoids - or "neonics" for short - which they claim are responsible for CCD.
If the activists get their way, however, the complex and costly problem of disappearing bees will continue longer than necessary. Instead, activists should put their (hefty) resources into addressing the most likely causes identified by leading scientists.
As far as the bees, the greens, and their pesticide conspiracy goes, the evidence points more strongly to less obvious culprits. Although an unnecessary pesticide ban would cost farmers, as well as all of us who enjoy their bounty, scientists suggest it would leave the real bee killers on the loose longer.
The irony is that neonicotinoids were developed in part to replace older classes of pesticides that green groups vilified for being too toxic. Rather than being sprayed, the neonics are often used as a seed treatment -- a coating on the seed -- that can lower the amount of pesticide used by ten or twenty times or more.
That's one reason the often risk-averse Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) haven't been eager to jump on the activists' bandwagon and ban these innovative pesticides. The two agencies recognize the importance of bees to agriculture, and are taking the problem seriously.
Yet green groups, including Beyond Pesticides and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), have filed suit against the EPA to ban neonicotinoids. (No, they haven't called for a return to the older pesticides neonicotinoids more efficiently replaced.) One can't keep from wondering whether bee protection is the primary mission of these activist groups. Or, perhaps, they are using bees (as well as their co-plaintiff beekeepers) as pawns in their anti-chemical campaign.
Protecting bees is more complicated than banning the latest agricultural chemical. So says the conclusion of a comprehensive report on bee health, jointly released this month by the USDA and the EPA. "The forces impacting honeybee health are complex," said USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. The report, a culmination of a National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health, conducted by federal researchers in conjunction with Pennsylvania State University scientists, sought to pull together the most up-to-date science on issues of bee health.The report cited many factors that could be contributing to declining bee health. By far, they found the biggest threat to bees is a parasitic mite appropriately named the varroa destructor.
Varroa mites -- which have become endemic through much of the world - attach themselves to bees, sucking their blood and acting as a vector for deadly and crippling viruses. Traditionally, beekeepers have responded to these devastating infestations by dousing their hives with mite-killing -- and highly toxic -- pesticides, but the destructor mites are becoming increasingly resistant to the poisons, and the higher and higher doses of miticides being used are in themselves harmful to the bees.
If varroa were the only problem, it would be bad enough. But as the report notes, bee infections are proliferating. In fact, at least 34 different viruses, bacteria, fungi, mites, predators and other pathogens are currently affecting bee health.
Clearly, an ideological crusade against a class of decreased-toxicity pesticides isn't going to help this situation -- especially as real world experience has demonstrated that neonics aren't a problem. Beekeepers in Western Canada, for instance, take their bees into the middle of the massive canola farms in that region -- which are major users of neonics -- because the canola helps make such great honey. How's that for sweet irony?
Perhaps the most striking real-world proof is Australia, where bees are thriving and where beekeepers enjoy a profitable export business in the healthy bees they breed -- even though neonics are widely used there. What Australia doesn't have -- and this is the key -- is the varroa mite. While the parasite has spread almost everywhere else in the world, Australia's strict import controls and inspections have so far kept their island continent free of infection.
In the meantime, scientists are proposing research where it could really do some good:
"Increasing the overall genetic diversity of honey bees will lead to healthier and hardier bees," according to bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the University of California, Davis, and Washington State University." And as is true of any living being, nutrition matters. It "has a major impact on individual bee and colony longevity," according to the USDA, since "a nutrition-poor diet can make bees more susceptible to harm from disease and parasites."
The final recommendations from the government report for improving bee health involve more information and better communication. Research into whether pesticides play a role in bee decline has been inconclusive. The report calls for a better understanding on real-world exposure to pesticides and the effect of those exposures on bee health. The report's focus on "real-world exposure" is a not-so-subtle jab at activists who point to laboratory experiments where bees are harmed from being drenched in high levels of pesticides, unlike any levels they are exposed to in agriculture. Recent field studies, however which track real-world exposures of bees to pesticides fail to implicate neonics as an important factor in bee decines.
If the activists really wanted to solve the bee problem, instead of reflexively railing against pesticides, there are all sorts of things they could do which are based on the scientific recommendations.
For instance, the Sierra Club could organize a popular Run for The Bees, a 5k to support research to find a sustainable way to kill varroa mites, without killing the bees too.
And why stop there? If the Pesticide Action Network wanted to contribute to bee health, the science suggests their efforts would be more effective if they were to host a Bee a Good Eater initiative, which would educate beekeepers about proper bee nutrition. Perhaps they could lobby the First Lady's Let's Move campaign to get involved. That would really create a buzz.
And finally, given the importance of bee genetic diversity, I encourage Beyond Pesticides to invite their members to host weekly "bee socials" in their backyards. Nature-loving activists could cheer as bees of varying backgrounds are brought together to do what (birds and) bees are known to do.
The humor of these approaches may sting, but the point remains: if green groups were truly concerned about bee health, they'd vigorously advocate for advances pointed to by the nation's leading scientists in the field. None of that expertise calls for pesticides bans.
The green groups' approach to bee health doesn't just raise questions about their agenda, it answers them. So long as there's political hay to be made, they'd just as soon let the bees keep on dying.