The Coming Bee-Pocalypse?

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You may or may not be an environmentalist, but a part of nature that everyone should support is the honeybee. It’s thought that every third bite of food that you take is there because of pollination by bees. Honey, when raw and unprocessed, is a versatile product that may even be used as a wound covering for burns and other injuries.

In the last decade, bee colonies are reported to be experiencing die-offs that have taken out a significant percentage of all the colonies in certain areas.  I found this alarming, but a review of recent articles, however, revealed this idea to be a matter of debate. Opinions on the state of the bee nation seem to go along with the political bent of the author; if you’re liberal, the “bee-pocalypse” has arrived; if you’re conservative, bees are thriving and it’s all a bunch of “junk science”. Which do you “bee-lieve”?

As a conservative environmentalist (am I the only one?), it’s all pretty confusing. I tend to think that bees, like a lot of critters in today’s densely populated world, are in trouble, and there are multiple factors to blame. Some of these factors are, indeed, due to human actions.

These actions could be very isolated, like the truck that overturned in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, taking out most of the 430 beehives that were being transported to farming areas without enough pollinators (a question: Why is this a thriving business if there are plenty of bees?).

Human actions may be more coordinated, however, than  a truck overturning. Our growing concerns about the Zika, West Nile, and other mosquito-borne viruses have led to the institution of mosquito control programs in many towns and cities in the U.S. One effective means of eliminating adult mosquitoes is aerial spraying with an organophosphate pesticide called Naled. Unfortunately, the use of Naled has caused collateral damage to many beneficial insects; the honeybee is one of them.

A recent series of aerial sprayings in Dorchester County, South Carolina, has killed millions of bees. Although relatively short acting, Naled is lethal to bees and daytime spraying has decimated the local population of these important pollinators. The chemical is not meant to be used between sunrise and sunset, when bees are out foraging. It seems the Dorchester County officials didn’t read the directions.

The inappropriate timing of the pesticide spraying has “nuked” the colonies of many Dorchester County beekeepers. Dead worker bees were found in large clumps at hive entrances; one beekeeper lost 46 hives.

Although the county claims to have given advisories of the spraying via email, many local beekeepers claim they didn’t receive the notice. Mosquito control is normally conducted by trucks in the county, and the aerial sprayings came as a (very bad) surprise. With warning, the beekeepers could have shielded the hives.

All this is happening at a time when another pesticide used to control pests is (apparently, another controversial statement) devastating bee populations in other areas.

Here’s a story that was reported 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. The chemical works like this: once sprayed on the plant, it is absorbed by the plant’s vascular system. This makes it poisonous to bugs that eat the leaves, nectar, or pollen. Sometimes the soil is treated as well, with the same absorption effect that makes it deadly to pests. Unfortunately, it’s 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. This phenomenon is sometimes known as “Colony Collapse Disorder” and it appears as if the bees have magically disappeared. Although not proven to be the cause in all cases, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to implicate the pesticide as a factor.

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 other reasons that a hive can fail. Parasites, disease, and many other factors may come into play besides chemical pesticides. But given the stress that our nation’s bee population is already under, what will be the straw that breaks the (bee’s) camel’s back?

To be banned, a chemical has to be proven dangerous in the U.S. Although Bayer is a German company, you might be interested to know that, at present, you can’t use neonics in Germany. Too dangerous. In the U.S., however, neonics are widely used and the bees pay the price.

Some areas in the U.S. are taking action. Eugene, Oregon has forbidden the use of this pesticide and the state of Maryland has followed with a ban to begin in 2018. Environmentalists urge action by the federal government to ban neonicotinoids and mandate wiser use of organophosphates like Naled (following the directions would be a good start).  Meanwhile, others are complaining, even in Europe, of pests invading crops and want freer use of neonic and other pesticides.

Our bees are an important natural resource, not just for beekeepers, but for farmers and for all Americans. If you’re a consumer, you should be invested in this fight regardless of your political stripes. I’d like to Save the Whales, but it’s just as or more important to save the bees.

Joe Alton, MD

Joe Alton, MD

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