Healthy bees needed for a healthy food supply

Spring has Sprung

Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A year ago I posted about a story from Dan Charles at NPR. He reported on growing scientific evidence that neonicotinoids, a common agricultural pesticide, are putting the health of bees—and therefore our food supply—at risk. “Neonics,” as they’re called, have been in the news again lately. Charles reports,

These pesticides are typically applied to seeds — mainly of corn, but also other crops — as a sticky coating before planting. When a seed sprouts and grows, the chemicals spread through the whole plant. So insects, such as aphids, that try to eat the plant also get a dose of poison.

Charles describes a presentation he attended that aimed to explain how bees might be coming into contact with neonics:

[Christian] Krupke [professor of entomology at Purdue University in Indiana] put up another slide: a picture of a huge machine that’s used for planting corn. This equipment is apparently part of the answer.

These machines use air pressure to move seeds from storage bin to soil. A slippery powder — talc or graphite — keeps everything flowing smoothly. The air, along with some of the powder, then blows out through a vent.

Krupke explained how he tested that planter exhaust and found amazing levels of neonic pesticides: 700,000 times more than what it takes to kill a honeybee.

That toxic dust lands on nearby flowers, such as dandelions. If bees feed on pollen from those flowers, that dust easily can kill them. A tell-tale clue: These bee die-offs all happened during corn-planting season.

Find the full print and audio versions of the piece from Charles here.

Despite this growing body of evidence, action is in short supply and colony collapse disorder continues. As Michael Wines describes in The New York Times,

A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables….

Following a now-familiar pattern, bee deaths rose swiftly last autumn and dwindled as operators moved colonies to faraway farms for the pollination season. Beekeepers say the latest string of deaths has dealt them a heavy blow….

Nor is the impact limited to beekeepers. The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees. Fewer bees means smaller harvests and higher food prices.

Check out Wines’s article here, where you can also find a NYT video from videographer Matt H. Mayes and producer Axel Gerdau.

Calls to ban neonicotinoids are ringing out in Europe as well as the US. Writing for the BBC, Matt McGrath notes,

Following on from research published in January by the European Food Safety Authority that suggested these chemicals posed an “unacceptable” threat to bees, the European Commission proposed that neonicotinoid sprays be restricted to crops not attractive to pollinators.

There are already some restrictions in place in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia. But the idea of a two-year ban did not attract enough support after the UK and Germany both abstained.

[Labour MP and chair of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee] Joan Walley says the UK government’s approach to the issue is “extraordinarily complacent”.

“If farmers had to pollinate fruit and vegetables without the help of insects it would costs hundreds of millions of pounds and we would all be stung by rising food prices,” she added.

But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says that a ban is not justified at present.

Unsurprisingly, the makers of neonicotinoids also say a ban is unnecessary. As NPR’s Dan Charles reports, “Bayer CropScience, the biggest seller of these pesticides, insists that most studies show that neonics are quite safe. Yet … [t]he company is working on a new system for planting corn that replaces the powder in planting machinery with a waxy substitute. The company says just making that change can cut the amount of neonics released from corn planters by 50 percent.” Agri-chemical companies are also hoping to stave off a ban in Europe. In a Reuters story featured at HuffPost Green, Emma Thomasson reports

Syngenta and Bayer, top producers of the pesticides blamed for a sharp fall in bee populations around the world, have proposed a plan to support bee health to try to forestall a European Union ban on the products….

Syngenta and Bayer, which say the impact of pesticides on bees is unproven and that a ban would deal a blow to the EU economy, proposed a plan … [that] includes the planting of more flowering margins around fields to provide bee habitats as well as monitoring to detect the neonicotinoid pesticides blamed for their decline and more research into the impact of parasites and viruses.

Opponents are dubious. Thomasson continues:

Campaign group Avaaz, which has collected more than 2.5 million signatures on a petition for the EU to ban the products, was sceptical about the Syngenta and Bayer proposals.

“Putting the pesticides industry in charge of protecting bees, is like putting a fox in charge of a henhouse,” campaign director Alice Jay said in an emailed statement.

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