By: Kerry Bazany

I have to admit: I never liked bees. I’ve been stung by them in the past, both in my childhood and adulthood. However, the bees that stung me weren’t really bees. They were hornets, a variety of wasp often called “yellow jackets.” Easy mistake to make, considering those yellow jackets really did look like bees, with their bright black and yellow markings.  I make no claims to be any sort of entomologist, but those critters were S.C.A.R.Y.

Enter the gentler, domestic honey bee: the harbinger of honey production. But it’s not just honey that they generate. By virtue of their DNA and their wonderful proclivity to pollinate, they do so much more. They are almost sacred creatures: tasked with assisting in the birth of countless varieties of food that we eat. Yet these bees are under attack by the very same methods that we employ to fend off unwanted pests that have the potential to eradicate crops. There arises a dilemma: do we risk using pesticides to protect crops from damaging insects and thereby continue to destroy millions of bees, or do we protect the bees that initiate the process of pollination?

The Power of Pollination

When a bee is busy hopping from flower to flower on a plant, some of the pollen from the stamen of the plant adheres to the hairs of the bee’s body, and when visiting the next flower, some of the pollen is rubbed off onto the tip of the pistil of the next plant, allowing fertilization. A new seed-carrying fruit is born and can then develop.

Many of the crops that are planted rely on pollination. The list is lengthy, but here are just some of the foods that are affected: almonds, cauliflower, lettuce, blueberries, apples, onions, garlic, lettuce, pears, and so many more. A 2010 study conducted by Cornell University revealed that the contribution made by managed honey bees (those that are “hired” by US crop growers) amounted to over $19 billion. It is estimated that there are about 2.7 million bee colonies in the US today, and two-thirds of these colonies travel the country each year, pollinating crops as well as producing beeswax and honey.

Colony Collapse Disorder and the Link to Pesticide Usage

According to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) “was first reported in 2006. Beekeepers began reporting high colony losses where the adult honeybees simply disappeared from the hives, almost all at the same time. The queen and her brood were often found in the hives with plenty of food stores, inadequately attended by a few adult bees.” One of the greatest concerns and possible causes of CCD involves pesticide exposure and subsequent pathological effects on managed honey bee colonies. Specifically, how do pesticide blends used to mitigate the damage done by insects (other than bees) affect the bees’ susceptibility to pathogens? One of the culprits is the gut parasite called Nosema cerabae, which can be devastating to honey bees.

A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids has had a fairly recent debut; and the action of these pesticides affects the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death. These pesticides include  imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam. The difficulty with using neonicotinoids is that they may persist in the crop environment: leaving residue on the pollen that the bees ingest. Additionally, neonicotinoids are water-soluble, meaning the bees may be picking up the pesticide-treated pollen not only in crop fields, but in surrounding wildflower fields as well. Additionally, this pesticide can threaten the health of the queen bee, thereby damaging the possibility of developing future populations of worker bees.

A “Beepocalypse” to Some; An Economic Response to Others

However, the decline in the honey bee population does not derive solely from the use of pesticides. According to Dr. Van Engelsdorp, who teaches entomology at the University of Maryland, “We think it’s three major factors: mites, pesticides, and poor nutrition, acting in concert.” In an effort to facilitate discussion on these key issues, an organization known as the Honeybee Health Coalition brings together a spectrum of representative from giants of agribusiness such as Monsanto and Syngenta to non-profits such as universities and state departments of agriculture. Collectively, these entities are working on coordinating four vital areas of concern: bee forage and nutrition hive management, crop pest management, and public outreach.

By contrast, some at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) perceive that it’s not the honey bees that are in danger of extinction; rather it is the beekeepers that provide pollination services. The difficulty lies in that beekeepers of managed colonies have to continuously raise prices in order to be economically competitive and environmentally responsive.

We Need Our Proliferous Pollinators

You will find a plethora of information regarding what some may call the impending doom of domestic honeybees. You will also find equally as much information to refute it. However, one fact is transparently clear: the continuous use of pesticides has produced a deleterious effect upon our honeybees and has contributed to their decline. Indeed, other factors as previously mentioned have damaged the bee population, but perhaps not so much to the degree as the use of pesticides. There is no question that this issue presents as a double-edged sword, given the fact that farmers employ pesticides in order to keep destructive insects at bay, but these same measures are driving away the very insects meant to initiate the whole growing process. With more national attention being brought to this dilemma, it is hoped that a more cohesive solution will begin to emerge.