"In the last four years, the chemical industry has spent $11.2 million on
a PR initiative to say it's not their fault, so we know whose fault it is."
― Jon Cooksey, writer, director: How to Boil a Frog.
We know what is killing the bees. Worldwide Bee Colony Collapse is not as big a mystery as the chemical companies claim. The systemic nature of the problem makes it complex, but not impenetrable. Scientists know that bees are dying from a variety of factors – pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global heating, and so forth. The causes of collapse merge and synergise, but we know that humanity is the perpetrator, and that the two most prominent causes appear to be pesticides and habitat loss.
Biologists have found over 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen, a deadly "pesticide cocktail" according to University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen. The chemical companies Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, DuPont, and Monsanto shrug their shoulders at the systemic complexity, as if the mystery were too complicated. They advocate no change in pesticide policy. After all, selling poisons to the world's farmers is profitable.
Furthermore, wild bee habitat shrinks every year as industrial agri-business converts grasslands and forest into mono-culture farms, which are then contaminated with pesticides. To reverse the world bees decline, we need to fix our dysfunctional and destructive agricultural system.
Apis mellifera – the honey bee, native to Europe, Africa and Western Asia – is disappearing around the world. Signs of decline also appear now in the eastern honey bee, Apis cerana.
This is no marginal species loss. Honey bees – wild and domestic – perform about 80% of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but the best and healthiest food – fruits, nuts, and vegetables – are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90% of the world's nutrition, are pollinated by bees.
Tonio Borg, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, calculates that bees "contribute over €22bn ($30bn US dollars) annually to European agriculture." Worldwide, bees pollinate human food valued at over €265bn ($350bn). The bee collapse is a challenge to human enterprise on the scale of global heating, ocean acidification, and nuclear war. Humans could not likely survive a total bee collapse.
Worker bees (females) live about 6 weeks in summer, and several months in the winter. Colonies produce new worker bees continuously during the spring and summer, and then reproduction slows during the winter. Typically, a bee hive or colony will decline by 5-10% over the winter, and replace those lost bees in the spring. In a bad year, a bee colony might lose 15-20% of its bees.
In the US, winter losses have commonly reached 30-50% and in some cases more. In 2006, David Hackenberg, a bee keeper for 42 years, reported a 90% die-off among his 3,000 hives. US National Agriculture Statistics show a honey bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60% reduction.
The number of working bee colonies per hectare provides a critical metric of crop health. In the US, among crops that require bee pollination, the number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90% since 1962. The bees cannot keep pace with the winter die-off rates and habitat loss.
Europe responds, US dithers
In Europe, Asia, and South America, the annual die-off lags behind the US decline, but the trend is clear, and the response is more appropriate. In Europe, Rabobank reported that the annual European die-offs have reached 30-35% and that the colonies-per-hectare count is down 25%.
A European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) scientific report determined that three widely used pesticides – nicotine-based clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam – pose "high acute risks" for bees. The nicotinoid pesticides – used in soils, on foliage, and embedded in seeds – persist at the core of the toxic pesticide cocktail found in bee hives.
A Greenpeace scientific report identifies seven priority bee-killer pesticides – including the three nicotine culprits – plus clorpyriphos, cypermethrin, deltamethrin, and fipronil. The three neonicotinoids act on insect nervous systems. They accumulate in individual bees and within entire colonies, including the honey that bees feed to infant larvae. Bees that do not die outright, experience sub-lethal systemic effects, development defects, weakness, and loss of orientation. The die-off leaves fewer bees and weaker bees, who must work harder to produce honey in depleted wild habitats. These conditions create the nightmare formula for bee colony collapse.
Bayer makes and markets imidacloprid and clothianidin; Syngenta produces thiamethoxam. In 2009, the world market for these three toxins reached over $2bn. Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto, and DuPont control nearly 100% of the world market for genetically modified pesticides, plants and seeds.
In 2012, a German court criminally charged Syngenta with perjury for concealing its own report showing that its genetically modified corn had killed livestock. In the US, the company paid out $105m to settle a class-action lawsuit for contaminating the drinking water for over 50 million citizens with its "gender-bending" herbicide Atrazine. Now, these corporate polluters are waging multi-million-euro campaigns to deny responsibility for bee colony collapse.
In May, the European Commission responded, adopting a two-year ban on the three necotinoid pesticides, and later added the non-neonicotinoid fibronil. Scientists will use the two years to assess the recovery rate of the bees and a longer-term ban on these and other pesticides.
Meanwhile, the US dithers and supports the corporations that produce and market the deadly pesticides. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to allow the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, in spite of a US Department of Agriculture report warning about the dangers of the bee colony collapse.
Also in May, US president Obama, signed the now infamous "Monsanto Protection Act" – written by Monsanto lobbyists – that gives biotech companies immunity in federal US courts from damages to people and the environment caused by their commercial compounds.
Common sense actions could restore and protect the world's bees. Experienced bee keepers, apiculturists, farmers, the European Commission, and the Greenpeace report have outlined these solutions. In summary:
- Ban the seven most dangerous pesticides
- Protect pollinator health by preserving wild habitat, and
- Restore ecological agriculture
Ecological Farming is the over-arching new policy trend that will stabilise human food production, preserve wild habitats, and protect the bees. The nation of Bhutan has led the world in adopting a 100% organic farming policy. Mexico has banned genetically modified (GM) corn to protect its native corn varieties. In January, eight European countries banned GM crops, and Hungary has burned over a 1,000 acres of corn contaminated with GM varieties. In India, scientist Vandana Shiva and a network of small farmers have built an organic farming resistance to industrial agriculture over two decades.
Ecological, organic farming is, of course, nothing new. It is the way most farming has been done throughout human history. Ecological farming resists insect damage by avoiding large monocrops and preserving ecosystem diversity. Ecological farming restores soil nutrients with natural composting systems, avoids soil loss from wind and water erosion, and avoids pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
By restoring bee populations and healthier bees, ecological agriculture improves pollination, which in turn improves crop yields. Ecological farming takes advantage of the natural ecosystem services, water filtration, pollination, oxygen production, and disease and pest control.
Organic farmers have advocated better research and funding by industry, government, farmers, and the public to develop organic farming techniques, improve food production, and maintain ecological health. The revolution in farming would promote equitable diets around the world and support crops primarily for human consumption, avoiding crops for animal food and biofuels.
The plight of the bees serves as a warning that we still may not quite understand ecology. Ecological farming is part of a larger paradigm shift in human awareness. The corporate denialists appear just like the Pope's shrouded inquisitors in 1615, who refused to look through Galileo's telescope to see the moons of Jupiter. Today's denialists refuse to recognise that Earth's systems operate within real limits. However, the state religion in this case is money, and the state religion won't allow it. The denialists cling to the presumed right to consume, hoard, and obliterate Earth's great bounty for private profits. But hoards of money won't reverse extinction, restore lost soils, or heal the world's bee colonies.
A great reckoning awaits humanity if we fail to awaken from our delusions. Earth's delicately balanced systems can reach tipping points and collapse. Bees, for example, work within a limited range of marginal returns on the energy they exert to collect nutrition for their colonies. When winter bee deaths grow from 10% to 50%, the remaining bees are weakened by toxins, and the wild habitats shrink, that thin, ecological margin of energy return can be squeezed to zero. Surviving bees expend more energy than they return in honey. More bees die, fewer reach maturity, and entire colonies collapse. This crisis is a lesson in fundamental ecology.
Rachel Carson warned of these systemic constraints 50 years ago. Ecologists and environmentalists have warned of limits ever since. Bee colony collapse now joins global warming, forest destruction, and species extinctions among our most urgent ecological emergencies. Saving the world's bees appears as one more necessary link in restoring Earth to ecological balance.