I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’m afraid of bees. They don’t induce the level of terror in me that clowns do, but I am still the one that closes my eyes when a bee comes near me and pretends like a toddler that I am invisible to what I can’t see.
It’s for this reason that I have largely ignored headlines about the plight of bees. With so much to worry about in the way of factory farming and GMOs, how could I possibly add bees to my list of concerns? Turns out, bees are an important part of our food chain. Not just important, but essential.
Insects pollinate $18 billion to $27 billion worth of U.S. crops each year, which amounts to essentially a quarter of the American diet. The number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. has steadily declined from a high at the end of WWII, but starting around 2005, that decline has accelerated rapidly.
Colony collapse disorder has wiped out between 40 and 50 percent of the honeybee colonies that pollinate our fruits and vegetables. Scientists don’t know exactly why this is happening, but more and more researchers and beekeepers are attributing this disorder to the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on crops. In particular, a class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, derived from nicotine, is blamed (at least by European regulators).
Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, which means the chemical is embedded in the seed, so that the plant contains the chemical that kills the pests that eat it. Because neonicotinoids don’t degrade as quickly as other pesticides, bees which keep coming back to the same plants (as they are wont to due) keep picking up more and more pesticide to bring back to their hives. This creates a build-up of the pesticide that in small doses might be harmless, but in large dosages are lethal.
Of course pesticide industry-sponsored research has concluded that the neonicotinoids are safe. The European Union, which is typically much more concerned with strict agricultural standards than the U.S., recently failed to pass a ban on neonicotinoids, though individual nations in the EU have passed their own bans.
Beekeepers and partner organizations in the U.S. just sued the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) asking them to immediately suspend use of two specific neonicotinoids. (Read more about the lawsuit here.) There are already not enough bees available to pollinate California’s almond crops (a very large export and staple in California’s economy).
Even if you don’t have an interest in the welfare of the bees as creatures that don’t deserve to feast on chemicals, there is an economic factor involved for all of us who eat American fruit and vegetables. Crop failure means smaller harvests and higher food prices. The costs that farmers have to pay for bees to pollinate is also increased when the supply of bees is low, which translates to higher food prices as well.
Remember when you were in elementary school science classes, learning about ecosystems? How damage in one part of the ecosystem affects another? Protecting our ecosystem from those who would seek to exploit it (I’m looking at you, pesticide manufacturers) is the job of the EPA. We need to call upon them to recognize that the welfare of all of the parts of our ecosystem matter, and that includes bees.