To Bee or Not to Bee

At one time in the not-so –distant past my backyard would be teaming with honeybees foraging for pollen and nectar from a variety of wild and cultivated flowers. Now I get excited if I spot one solitary honeybee homing in for a landing on a clover blossom. Some 60 years ago the great folk singer, Pete Seeger, in his classic anti-war song, asked: “Where have all the flowers gone?” The flowers are in bloom but now the question is: where have all the honeybees gone?

When we think of bees, we usually associate them with honey (or the threat of being stung). The economic importance of honey is a minute fraction when compared to the essential role bees play in the pollination of our food supply. The U.S. has about 4,000 species of native bee pollinators but the honeybee is not one of them. They were introduced to the New World by the colonists who brought them over from Europe. There are about 100 crop species that account for 90% of the world’s food supply and 71% of these plants are dependent on honeybees for their pollination and reproduction. One third of all the food we consume is reliant on honeybee pollination. The economic relevance of honeybees to the United States’ annual agricultural output has been estimated at about 15 billion dollars. These figures do not include the importance of honeybees in maintaining the diversity of natural plant communities in a variety of ecosystems throughout the world.

So why have we lost over 40% of the honeybee population in the U.S.? (In 2015, Massachusetts lost 46% of its honeybees.) A perfect storm of pesticides, parasites and pathogens have decimated our most important pollinators, leading to a phenomenon referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder which began in 2006. It should be noted that this occurred shortly after the EPA approved the usage of a new family of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These pesticides are systemic neurotoxic poisons that are sprayed on seeds and get incorporated into the stem, leaves and flowers of a plant, including the nectar and pollen that the bees depend upon for their food supply. Neonicotinoids are also persistent pesticides, sometimes taking years to break down in the environment. Bees that survive sub-lethal doses and make it back to the hive will contaminate other bees and the larvae with tainted nectar and pollen.  The bee’s compromised immune system makes them more susceptible to the ravages of varroa and tracheal mites, Nosema fungal disease and a variety of viruses and bacteria. Even supposedly bee-friendly plants sold at home and garden centers are often pre-treated with neonicotinoids, turning them into alluring bee killers. To add insult to injury, 250 million pounds of glyphosate, the primary component of Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide, are being sprayed indiscriminately on weeds and genetically engineered crops including vast fields of soybeans, corn and canola each year. German and Argentinian researchers found that glyphosate disrupts the bee’s navigational skills by altering their spatial learning abilities. In essence, the bees lose their internal “compass” and become disoriented. They can’t forage properly and in many cases, can’t even make it back to the security of the hive. Glyphosate has also been implicated in the 90% decline in Monarch butterflies due to the loss of milkweed which the caterpillars feed on.

The big chemical corporations including Bayer, Dupont, Dow, Syngenta and Monsanto use deceptive public relations tactics to push their own agendas. Michele Simon, a public health attorney, states: “These pesticide companies use PR tactics straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook to manufacture doubt about science and fool politicians and the public, while they keep profiting from bee-killing pesticides.” In 2015, six major chemical corporations spent 33 million dollars lobbying our law makers, stalling any meaningful legislation banning the use of these insidious chemicals that threaten our very existence.

What to do: Contact your local legislators and encourage them to pass pollinator protection laws like Maryland and Connecticut have, restricting consumer use of neonicotinoids.

  • Go Organic- Organic farms support 50% more pollinators than conventional farms.
  • Avoid all toxic chemicals in your home and yard.
  • Plant a bee garden with untreated plants and thank the bees for the bounty on your dining table.