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How We Could Prevent Massive Bee Deaths and Save Our Food

Despite scientific evidence indicting certain common pesticides, the EPA continues to allow their use.
 
 
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Photo Credit: StudioSmart/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

If you like almonds, then 2013 brought some bad news. Each year, honeybees from across the country make the trek to California, which grows 80 percent of the world’s almonds, to pollinate the almond crop. But bees have been dying in unusually large numbers for several years now, and this year appears worse than most.

The problems we face if we don’t have healthy populations of pollinators, particularly honeybees, extend beyond almonds. Three fourths of the top crops grown in the world require animals – mostly insects – for pollination. Odds are that most of your favorite fruits, nuts and melons are pollinated by honeybees.

Across the pond, the European Union has made major strides in shedding light on the role of certain pesticides in honeybee deaths. In fact, the European Commission has proposed a two-year ban on these pesticides. Meanwhile, at home, beekeepers remain frustrated that the U.S. government is not as forward-thinking. And, for another year, the saga of bee deaths continues.

The pesticides in question are called neonicotinoids. It’s a mouthful, but the root word is “nicotine,” because they are chemically similar to the addicting tobacco compound. The most common of these is a pesticide called imidacloprid. Two others are clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

New York beekeeper Jim Doan ended last year with about 700 hives. He began the year with 900. But those numbers hide larger losses. A beekeeper can increase his or her number of hives by splitting them. Doan did so, building up to 2,300 hives by mid-June.

For a beekeeper, splitting your hives means a certain amount of sacrifice, because two smaller hives replace each larger one, and you must let each hive build up its numbers and its honey before you harvest any yourself. “Now this will be the seventh year of extraordinarily high losses. Every year we're making up bees but at the sacrifice of not making honey. So both ways you've taken a beating and a loss,” says Doan.

From mid-June onward, Doan watched his bees die. By October 15, he had only 1,100 hives. More than half of the colonies that were alive only four months before were now dead. What happened?

One can piece together part of the story based on the bees’ locations and their food sources. Although Doan is a New Yorker, his bees take a Florida vacation each winter. They only reside in New York from April to September. While there, they first pollinate apricots, then cherries, pears, apples, and finally, squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins.

In Florida, the bees spend some time in oranges, but Doan also puts his bees in a non-agricultural area for part of the year “to help build them up and to watch them die again,” as he cynically puts it. “We're in [parts of ] Florida where there's no agriculture. And that's the only time our bees really look good. They look like bees… But it's frustrating.”

Doan, for his part, is certain he knows what killed his bees. “The problem is corn dust. And I say that without any hesitation in my voice.” He’s referring to the dust expelled as exhaust from the machinery used to plant corn. His state, New York, bans a pesticide called clothianidin, which many blame for bee deaths, but it comes into the state anyway on pre-treated corn seeds. A whopping 94 percent of all corn seeds in the U.S. are treated with neonicotinoids.

“We had 148 hives killed by clothianidin,” says Doan. “We were sitting in apples and they planted field corn nearby and we lost those hives.” He moved his bees away from those apple orchards, but the bees continued dying – this time from a different but related pesticide.

 
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