We often don’t give much mind to bees, other than thinking of them as pesky little insects that seemingly sting us indiscriminately. In fact, they are one of the most important organisms on earth, responsible for producing 90% of the world’s nutrition and the very food that keeps us alive. Without bees, many plants and crop species would quickly disappear entirely. Albert Einstein once said: “If honey bees became extinct, human society will follow in four years.”
Many crops are pollinated by the wind, but the really healthy stuff—most fruits, nuts, and vegetables—are pollinated by bees. Pollination is the process by which pollen is transferred from the anther (male part) to the stigma (female part) of a plant, thereby enabling fertilization and reproduction. Bees are one of the most efficient and prodigious pollinators on earth. Honey bees gather nectar, a natural sucrose-laden watery solution produced by plants to attract pollinators, to make honey. While floating over the flowering part of a plant and sucking up its nectar, they also accidentally collect tiny pollen grains that stick to the underside of their bellies. These pollen grains are carried to another plant where they mingle with its stigma and begin the process of reproduction. In this manner of random cross-pollination, plant diversity is maximized, thereby producing the healthiest and most sustainable plants.
But in the last few years, something scary has been happening to our planet’s bees. They have begun dying off at an accelerating pace, en masse. Normally, only about 10 percent of bee colonies fail to survive the winter months. Since 2006, this number has steadily risen to more than 33%. The reservoir of bees is dwindling to the point where ratios are dangerously out of kilter, with the US reaching the most extreme imbalance. Pollinated crop output has quadrupled since 1961, yet bee colonies have halved. The bee-per-hectare count has fallen nearly 90 percent. If the trend continues, sustainable crop production will soon be compromised and Einstein’s prophecy may come true. A recent USDA report concluded: “Currently, the survivorship of honeybee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops.”
This near-extinction event, termed ‘colony collapse disorder’ or CCD, has perplexed scientists and biologists as to the cause. Some place the blame on a new generation of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, which harm the memory of bees making it difficult for them to return to their hives and also reduces their resistance to fungal pathogens. Others believe it could be a parasitic mite called Varroa Destructor that has been found in decimated bee colonies. Any number of viruses or bacterial diseases could also be to blame, including the European foulbrood that has found its way into many U.S. bee colonies. Some observers think the problem has to do with the way beekeepers handle their managed colonies. Many keepers feed their brood high fructose corn syrup during the winter months in order to generated higher honey yields, while others transport their bee crates on bouncy trucks to warmer climates in the winter to take advantage of the earlier pollination season in the south. Since the population collapse happens mostly over the winter, some have speculated the cause to be depleted honey stores within the hive, which bees feed on when they can’t forage during cold months. Or it could be a combination of these factors, working together to break the bees’ back.
A closer examination of the facts, however, allows us to winnow this list quickly. Colonies infected with the European foulbrood disease are normally characterized by spotty, punctured, and foul-smelling capped larvae cells, and most CCD-afflicted bee colonies are left with a full and healthy capped brood. Similarly, Varroa mite infestation is usually characterized by the presence of dead adult bees lying on the bottom board of the colony alongside the tell-tale red oval shapes of the mites that feed on them, and this is not found either. The feeding of bees in managed colonies with high fructose corn syrup doesn’t explain why wild honey bee colonies are exhibiting a similar pattern of colony collapse. Shipping bees south for the winter as a possible cause doesn’t explain why the same problem is occurring in many other countries that don’t practice this migratory behavior. Virtually all of the possible causes for CCD can be ruled out one way or another—except one: neonicotinoid insecticides.
Neonicotinoids were first introduced in the mid-90s by two large European agrochemical companies: Bayer CropScience and Syngenta. They are a newly engineered class of insecticides that work by impairing the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death in large doses. But they have a unique effect on certain insects in sub-lethal doses: an embedded neurotoxin damages their navigational capabilities by impairing their memory, effectively causing them to get lost. If bees cannot find their way back to the hive, they cannot bring the essential nutrients back which are necessary for sustaining the colony and its honey production. In fact, honey bees are a perfect measuring device for gauging the health of the environment. Bees are very sensitive to pesticides, and some pesticides have been shown to effect honey bees with devastating and deadly results with only several parts per billions in contamination.
This unique neurotoxic effect explains virtually all of the hallmark characteristics of colony collapse disorder. It explains why only adult bees are missing from CCD-decimated hives: only the adult worker bees forage for nectar and pollen, whereas the unaffected queen and juveniles stay within the hive, unexposed to the pesticide. It explains why only honey bees and bumblebees are affected and not wasps or hornets: the former directly collect and feed on neonicotinoid-sprayed crop nectar and pollen, whereas the latter mostly feed on other insects. It explains the initial timing of CCD in the United States: neonicotinoids were first approved for use as a coating on GMO seeds in 2004, exactly one crop season before the sudden and precipitous fall in bee populations the following winter. And it explains almost precisely the locations where CCD is most prevalent.
Colony collapse disorder was first observed in the United States and Europe, then quickly spread to Canada and certain parts of Asia, including China. But not all parts of Europe and Asia are affected: France, Germany, Ireland, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are notably absent or have very low CCD rates. What is common about all of these unaffected countries compared to all of the affected countries? There is only only common denominator linking all of these widely separated and culturally different countries: the use of GMOs in the affected countries—particularly GMO seed sprayed with neonicotinoids.
When neonicotinoids were first brought to market, they were initially sprayed directly on crops to eradicate insect infestation. But this caused rapid and drastic die-offs in countries such as Germany and Italy, which subsequently implemented widespread bans on neonicotinoid crop spraying. Subsequently, Monsanto began working closely with Bayer, developing a unique (and patented) protocol for spraying the pesticide on GMO seeds only, thereby reducing its concentration level enough to prevent direct lethal exposure levels while still enabling the toxin to infuse all parts of the plant and control most crop-killing insects such as aphids and beetles. However, these supposedly sub-lethal doses were still enough to compromise the navigational memory capabilities of super-sensitive honey bees. Plus, the specific crop seeds that Monsanto applies the neonicotinoid treatment to—corn and soy—are favorite sources of necessary protein for bees.
The recent Canadian experience with colony collapse disorder reveals a particularly telling picture. Although neonicotinoid pesticides are currently used extensively on many crops in Canada, the only situation where high numbers of bee mortalities have been directly linked to neonicotinoid pesticide use is through exposure to dust from some types of planting equipment while planting neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seeds. In addition, 70 percent of dead bees collected during the corn and soybean planting periods in 2012 and 2013 had neonicotinoid residues present, while the majority of live bees did not have residues present. These bee incidents were similar to reports from Europe where planting of treated corn seed also resulted in bee mortalities.
The two maps below, one showing the unique locations of CCD infestation in Canada and the other where neonicotinoid GMO seed corn is grown, show an alarming and virtual mirror image of overlap:
All of this evidence points a damning finger at neonicotinoid pesticides, and Monsanto GMO seed crops using these pesticides in particular, as the predominant cause of rapidly declining and food supply threatening colony collapse disorder. Recently, after its own extensive review, the European Union implemented a two year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids in member states. While the results won’t be reviewed until later this year, if you didn’t already have enough reasons to avoid buying and eating GMO-grown food (in addition to all the other toxic herbicides and pesticides that are infused into every crop that finds its way into your food), think about your future and those of every other inhabitant of our biosphere. Do you really want to mess with the natural order that has enabled the incredible biodiversity which works together so intricately to feed and sustain us? Ultimately, there is only one way to protect yourself and your planet from being potentially destroyed by man-made agri-chemicals: just say no to GMOs and eat certified organic products. It’s your body—live long and live naturally!
By Reid Jenner
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