The honeybee is a powerful symbol of nature’s generosity given that these industrious critters pollinate crops around the world. Green activist groups and others are capitalizing on that symbol to spread fear and misinformation—to advance an unrelated crusade against agrochemicals. Unfortunately, if regulators continue to accept activist-generated spin, not only will food production suffer, honeybees will as well.
This issue has blossomed into a media frenzy during the past several years as activists declare, “Beepocalypse!” They blame a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids for Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which worker bees disappear usually after hibernation, leaving behind the queen and honey.
Yet CCD is not that significant of a problem, according to a 2010 United Nations study. About 7% of hive losses are attributed to CCD, and the remaining 93% to other causes.
A real concern is compromised hive health, which is affected by a combination of factors, including: diseases and parasites, poor queen bee health, hive transport for pollination services, and nutritional issues. Pesticides are the least among the factors affecting bees and neonicotinoids the least among those, if they have any impact at all.
Nonetheless, the European Union placed a moratorium on neonicotinoids that took effect on December 1, 2013. Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informed agrochemical companies that it will hold off on approving new uses of these chemicals. And the White House will soon release a “National Pollinator Health Strategy” developed by its “Pollinator Task Force.” The strategy is to include actions by federal agencies intended to “save” the honeybee. Bans and restriction of neonicotinoids may well be among the action items.
Policymakers need to gain a more balanced understanding of the issue before taking such rash actions. Consider some of the facts.
Beekeepers are working to address hive health issues, which are significant but are not causing a global population decline, as some media reports suggest. According to United Nations Food Agricultural Organization (FAO) statistics, the number of beehives kept globally has grown from nearly 50 million in 1961 to more than 80 million in 2013. American and European commercial hives have decreased largely because honey production moved to other nations, where the number of hives have grown substantially.
Hive health challenges do exist in the United States and Europe, but survival rates have improved in recent years, much closer to what beekeepers consider normal. This occurred largely because of better hive management and despite continued use of neonicotinoids.
Meanwhile, the best data and research indicate that neonicotinoids are not a cause of, or even a significant contributor to, hive health challenges. In fact, there is no pattern associated with neonicotinoid use and hive health issues. In many places where these chemicals are used widely, such as in Australia, hives are doing fine. And in Europe and the United States during the winter of 2013-2014, hives survived well even where neonicotinoids were used in 2013.
In addition, there are no studies showing that honeybees have suffered ill effects from “field-relevant” neonicotinoid exposures. Only studies that feed bees unrealistically high levels of the chemicals show adverse effects, and these are not particularly useful for drawing conclusions.
It is clear that farmers need agrochemicals to protect their crops and produce the world’s food supply. Because of the ban on these chemicals that took effect in Europe during 2014, farmers in the UK reported losses of 20 to 50% of their crops, while in Germany some farmers have completely pulled up their crops and replaced them, as reported by Delta Farm Press. The only controls that farmers have left are more damaging to honeybees than neonicotinoids.
The U.S. Agricultural Research Service explains on its website: “The neonicotinoids were developed in the mid-1990s in large part because they showed reduced toxicity to honey bees,” compared to other pesticides.
In fact, neonicotinoids do not require regular spraying of plants. Applied mostly to seeds, the chemicals become part of the plant and insects are exposed when they chew on the plant, keeping exposure low to non-target species. But now European farmers have to spray the older chemicals into the environment because they no longer have access to neonicotinoids. It will be a shame is U.S. farmers have to do the same thing.
The answer to hive health challenges is not regulation, but rather private collaboration among beekeepers, farmers, non-profit groups, industry, and even home gardeners. Such efforts are already progressing, without any government prompting. Federal regulators need to leave this process alone, because their efforts will do more harm than good.