France has recently banned all five neonicotinoid pesticides linked to bee deaths, and for good reason; honeybee populations have been dwindling at an alarming rate.
Bees and other pollinating insects are the reason why we can enjoy things like avocados, apples, carrots, and mango. They’re a critical link in our food system, with more than 85 percent of earth’s plant species depending on pollinators to exist (1). In fact, one of every three bites of food we take comes from plants pollinated by honeybees and other pollinators. Without bees, we’d have a third less variety of food to choose from.
While factors like habitat loss, drought, air pollution and global warming are contributing factors to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the major, and most significant factor is pesticides. That is, neonicotinoids.
What Is a Neonicotinoid?
Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticide chemically related to nicotine. Like nicotine, the neonicotinoids act on certain kinds of receptors in the nerve synapse. They’re extremely toxic to invertebrates (aka. insects) than they are to mammals, birds and other higher organisms (1).
There are several different kinds of neonicotinoids. These include:
While neonocotinoids were initially thought to be low-toxic for beneficial insects like bees, this claim soon came under question. More than 150 different chemical residues have been found in bee pollen, a deadly “pesticide cocktail” according to University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen (2).
Companies like Bayer (who now owns Monsanto), Syngenta, BASF, Dow, and DuPont have failed to admit that their chemical products have contributed to bee decline, despite the obvious links to neonicotinoids, bee deaths and colony collapse disorder. They advocate no change in pesticide policy, which makes sense, given how much money is to be made with farmers across the world.
Colony Collapse Disorder
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and some nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen (3).
What causes CCD isn’t completely understood. It has confused scientists since it was first described in 2006. Neonicotinoids have been a large focus of CCD, but many have also discredited the link.
Research from Dr. Alex Lu has attempted to peg neonicotinoid insecticides as the underlying cause of CCD. The study set up 18 hives to test the effects of two neonicotinoids – clothianidin and imidacloprid – from 2012-2013. Six colonies were selected from three different sites in central Massachusetts, and sublethal doses of each insecticide were given orally to treatment hives via a syrup solution.
What happened? Six of twelve treated colonies abandoned their hives while only one of the six control hives abandoned theirs. While many factors can cause a colony to abandon their hive, the fact that neonicotinoid-treated hives were abandoned 50%, compared to controls at 16% makes some significant comparison.
Other studies have found that environmental levels of neonicotinoids from surrounding farms do not obliterate bee colonies outright, but instead kill them over extended periods of time. According to PBS, “the pesticides also threaten bee queens in particular — which means colonies have lower reproductive rates.”
CCD and Neonicotinoids – Is There a Connection?
Amro Zayed, a biologist at York University in Toronto, decided to measure agricultural chemical use near Canadian cornfields grown from neonicotinoid-treated seeds over a five-month growing season. In his work, Zayed made note that flowers miles away from neonicotinoid-treated farms can take up these chemicals. As a result, the stems, leaves, pollen and nectar become infused with the chemical, which then can transfer onto bees and other pollinators. For this reason, Zayed’s team of researchers looked for the presence of neonicotinoids on dead bees, forager bees, nurse bees, larvae, pollen and in nectar.
They found that neonicotinoids were mostly detected on pollen from plants other than corn (like willow trees, clovers and wildflowers) located near the crop fields. The mindset that bees are only exposed to pesticides when near a treated, flowering crop was completely thrown out the window with the findings of Zayed’s study. The researchers also found that pesticides stuck around throughout the growing season. This chronic pesticide exposure is not just harmful to bees – it’s deadly.
To figure out exactly what was happening to the bees, the researchers utilized an outdoor lab (far away from the cornfields) and exposed bees to clothianidin over a 12 week period. They exposed them to levels encountered near the farms, with each round having a smaller and smaller amount of pesticide exposure (similar to what might be expected in nature as pesticides are washed away over time).
Even though these bees were exposed to lower amounts of pesticide over time than bees near the farm, the insects still suffered. Chance of survival was reduced, and their natural defense mechanisms were severely impaired. Bees in colonies treated with clothianidin displayed less of their social immunity techniques over time, meaning more sick bees were infecting, and staying, in the nests. The researchers noticed similar behavior of bees living next to cornfields the year before.
Hives treated with clothianidin also lost their queen and then struggled to find a new one. Without a queen, there is no eggs, and no future of the colony.
Zayed’s team also tested other fungicides along with neonicotinoids, to determine the dual toxicity. Since other labs have found that fungicides make neonicotinoids more toxic, they wanted to see if the same fungicides they found in the fields of their Canadian study had any impact on their lab-tested bees. The fungicides on their own had no effect on bee mortality. It was only when they were combined with neonicotinoids that it took half as much of the chemicals to kill the bees.
A second study carried out by Zayed and his team of researchers backed this idea. It wanted to see how combinations of pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers in oilseed rape fields affected bee survival across years in the United Kingdom, Germany and Hungary. The results are as you’d expect. Neonicotinoid exposure resulted in more queen deaths, and lower reproductive success of a colony in all three countries.
Dave Goulson, a biologist at the University of Sussex, who was not involved in the studies mentioned above, told PBS, “Neonicotinoids are not the only problem that bees face…But certainly both of these studies suggest very strongly that exposure to these pesticides is one of the factors causing bees to decline.”
So if neonicotinoids are so harmful, why aren’t more countries banning them? Well, some are. As of September 2018, the use of five neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, thiacloprid and acetamiprid – has become illegal in France.
France Bans Neonicotinoid Pesticides Linked to Bee Deaths
While the European Union ruled to ban three of the five neonicotinoid pesticides linked to bee deaths – clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam – France decided to put a blanket ban on the two excluded by the EU’s ban as well, thiacloprid and acetamiprid. The ban from the European Union started on December 19th, 2018 (4). Exceptions may be granted until July 1 2020, but only for pesticides made with acetamiprid, and only in “small amounts”, the French minister for ecological transition said.
France’s ban extends to the use of all five pesticides both on outdoor crops and inside greenhouses.
The move to ban the five pesticides has been hailed by beekeepers and environmentalists, but cereal and sugar beet farmers aren’t too happy about it.
A report by France’s ANSES public health agency said in May that there were “sufficiently effective, and operational” alternatives to the neonicotinoids used in France. Many others, including myself, believe the ban should go further. “There are pesticides all over the place,” Fabien Van Hoecke, a beekeeper in Saint-Aloué in Brittany, who lost 86 percent of his bees over the winter. While the ban was “a good thing, it won’t save us,” he told AFP, predicting that as soon as these pesticides are withdrawn, they will be “replaced by others (5).”
While this is true in the majority of cases involving the ban of certain pesticides, it sometimes takes baby steps to get somewhere beneficial. The use of all herbicides, pesticides and fungicides needs to be banned, and we need to start working with nature, instead of against her. It is well known that old farming practices are destroying the soil, and the planet, and only until we start learning how to farm in a way that respects the planet, will we actually be on the road to new, healthy beginnings.