Andreas Späth

Why bees are dying like flies

2013-02-11 15:40

Andreas Späth

Bees have had a bad time of late. Ever since 1994, when French beekeepers noticed that their honeybees didn't return home from foraging trips at alarming rates they've been going AWOL and dying in droves. In North America, cases of sudden mass disappearances from apparently healthy hives - referred to as colony collapse disorder (CCD) - were first reported in 2006, with some apiarists losing up to 90% of their hives. CCD has since been observed worldwide.

Over the years, investigators have implicated a number of possible culprits, including disease, genetically modified crops, an artificial diet of corn syrup among commercial bees, parasitic mites, loss of habitat or a combination of all of the above. That all changed last year, when several lines of evidence were found to strongly incriminate a single perpetrator for the mass killings: insecticides.

Now if you think like me, your first response to this revelation would be: "No shit Sherlock! They're called insecticides; bees are insects; ipso facto the bees bite the dust."

But it's not that simple. You see, commercial agrochemicals go through very stringent testing procedures to make sure they're safe. As it turns out, however, the data that these safety assessments are based on more often than not originate from the very companies that sell the chemicals. Yes, it's the old "self-regulation" boondoggle so beloved by industries with something to hide and the governments beholden to their big budget lobbying.

So for years, these companies have been telling us that their concoctions are perfectly safe for our yellow-and-black pollinating friends. But when independent scientists started publishing their research findings in peer-reviewed publications last year, their results suggested otherwise.

The class of insecticides implicated in offing the bees is called the neonicotinoids, particularly the unpronounceable triad of imidacloprid, clothianidin (both products of German mega-firm Bayer) and thiamethoxam (sold by Swiss giant Syngenta). Since the 1990s, they have been among the most widely used pesticides, selling hundreds of millions of dollars every year and being sprayed on millions of hectares of land worldwide, including South Africa. They appear as the active ingredients not only in agricultural products but in some of the everyday garden plant treatments you buy at your local nursery as well.

So what happened in 2012?

- French scientists found that thiamethoxam severely impairs the homing instinct of honeybees. Individuals dosed with small quantities were two to three times more likely to get lost on the way back to their hive than their unexposed colleagues (in case you’re wondering, the researchers glued tiny microchips onto free-ranging honeybees to track them).

- One US study found that "exposure to sub-lethal levels of imidacloprid [...] causes honey bees to exhibit symptoms consistent with CCD", while another claimed that the same chemical resulted in bees performing less of their famous waggle dance to alert others to good sources of food.

- Two groups of British scientists showed that imidacloprid hampered the food gathering ability of bumblebee workers, leading to increased mortality rates, and caused an 85% decline in the production of queens in their colonies. The effects were worse  if the bees were exposed to both imidacloprid and lamda-cyhalothrin, another commonly-used pesticide.

On the basis of the mounting evidence, France, Germany, Italy and Slovakia have already banned some neonicotinoids and last month, the European Commission requested its member states to suspend the use of the three main offenders on flowering crops pollinated by bees, including maize, sunflowers, rapeseed and cotton.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Both Bayer and Syngenta vehemently deny that their "crop protection" products are linked to CCD whatsoever, blaming "unrealistic research" and an "over-interpretation of the precautionary principle".

Even though CCD has not been reported to have had a significant impact on South African beekeeping operations (as far as I know), we should surely take heed of the accumulating scientific results documenting the detrimental effects of synthetic pesticides, especially since others have been shown to do despicable damage to frogs and other amphibians, the world’s most threatened vertebrate group.

Isn't it time for an independent reassessment of the things we choose to douse our crops with?

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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