Save the Whales, I Mean, Bees

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You may or may not be an environmentalist, but a part of nature that everyone should support is the humble bee. It’s thought that every third bite of food that you take is there because of pollination by bees. Honey, when raw and unprocessed, may even be used as a wound covering for burns and other injuries due to its antibiotic effect. Honey has a lot of other benefits, as well.

But bees are in big trouble, and we still don’t know all the reasons why. In the last decade, bee colonies are experiencing die-offs that affect a significant percentage of all the colonies in various areas. From April 2015-April 2016, our beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies.

Why is this happening? A new  reason is becoming apparent, but first a sad tale: Some time ago, customers at an Oregon Target store arrived to see tens of thousands of dead and dying bumblebees in the parking lot.  An investigation the day before revealed that a pest-control company had sprayed insecticide on surrounding trees due to an aphid infestation. Of course, bees don’t read warning signs and 300 colonies were destroyed. That’s a lot of lost pollinators.

The pesticide used is known as a neonicotinoid, popularly called a “neonic”. It was developed by Bayer a decade ago and differs from other pesticides, like organophosphates, in that they clear from the air a lot slower.

Many crops are treated with neonics. It works like this: The chemical, once sprayed on the plant, is absorbed by the plant’s vascular system. This makes it poisonous to bugs that eat the leaves, nectar, and pollen. Sometimes the soil is treated, with the same absorption effect that makes it deadly to pests. Unfortunately, the pesticide kills good insects, as well.

When a Bayer neonic doesn’t kill a bee, it can damage its immune system and even affect its ability to navigate. It becomes lost and can’t find the hive.

Now, a new study indicates that neonics harm drone bees’ sperm, killing close to 40 per cent and causing a condition called “queen failure”. A queen failure is when queen bees fail to have live offspring. A queen failure is a hive failure.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons a hive can fail. Parasites, disease, and many other factors may come into play. But given the stress that our nation’s bee population is already under, could this be the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Once a chemical has been approved in the U.S., it has to be proven dangerous to be removed from the market. Bayer is a German company, and you might be interested to know that you can’t use neonics in Germany or anywhere in the European Union. Too dangerous. In the U.S., however, neonics are widely used and the bees pay the price.

Some areas in the U.S., however, are taking action. Eugene, Oregon has forbidden the use of this pesticide, and others should follow. We need to encourage others to follow their lead and urge action by the federal government to ban neonicotinoids from use.

Our bees are an important natural resource, not just for beekeepers, but for farmers and for you, the consumer. Big agriculture’s chemical branch is big and influential, but if an entire continent like Europe can outlaw neonics, why can’t we?

Unless you’re one of those people who don’t eat food, you should be invested in this fight. I’d like to Save the Whales, but it’s just as important to save the bees.

Joe Alton, MD

joe alton, md

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