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The Honeybee Effect: Fact or Science Fiction?

For the last several years scientists, commercial farmers and beekeepers have worried about the future of bees. They’re disappearing at alarming rates. But why is everyone so concerned?

Honeybees provide a unique service to the planet and its residents. Bees pollinate 1 in every 3 bites of food we eat. Honeybees are disappearing at an alarming rate around the world in a mysterious trend known as CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). The adult bees simply leave their hives and never return. Without worker bees, the bee colonies collapse. Bee keepers say they find empty boxes with a lone queen bee, but no remains of the adult bees can be detected. The losses are sudden and unprecedented.

Scientists are scrambling to find a cause for the crisis, but so far the source of the catastrophe has not been verified. It is believed that CCD is the result of several interacting factors such as increased exposure to pathogens and pesticides. Some experts believe neonicotinoids are the main culprit for CCD. Neonicotinoids have only been around for the past 50 years. Shell began developing this class of insecticides in the 1980s, and Bayer began development in the 1990s.

Currently, neonicotinoid imidacloprid is the most commonly used insecticide in the world. The neonicotinoids are thought to be less toxic than previously used insecticides. Studies show that most neonicotinoids do have a much lower toxicity rate for mammals, but some of the breakdown products are still toxic.

Based on findings that indicate neonicotinoids are toxic to birds, in March 2013 the American Bird Conservancy asked for a ban on the use of neonicotinoids to treat seeds. Because neonicotinoid insecticides are now believed to be the main cause of CCD, in the spring of 2013 the European Union passed a two-year ban on the insecticides. In March 2013, a coalition of beekeepers and consumer and environmental groups filed suit against the U.S. EPA. They allege the agency performed inadequate toxicity evaluations and permitted the registration of the pesticides on insufficient industry studies.

In the meantime, the U.S. seems to be doing nothing about the problem. Bees are still struggling to survive and colonies are more vulnerable than ever. The latest statistics from the winter of 2013 suggests the U.S. is experiencing an average loss of hives at a rate of more than 45 percent.

Why should the country care? Because it’s not just about honey that the bees produce. Bees are crucial as pollinators. About a third of the country’s food supply relies on these little insects. Bees are essential to western nations to keep commercial agriculture productive. All things considered, bees add more than $15 billion to U.S. crop production.

The U.S. isn’t doing enough to protect this valuable resource, but private citizens can take steps to prevent further damage. The first is to contact the EPA and a local representative to express concern about the effect these pesticides are having on bees and the environment. Concerned citizens might also mention that a continued decrease in the number of bees nationwide will mean a reduction in crop production that will result in food shortages. And the downside of that result: higher prices at the local markets.

 

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