The economic impact of honey bees exceeds $40 billion per annum — not including the revenue drawn from actual honey sales.
Last winter, nearly 31.1 percent of the nation’s honey bee colonies were wiped out, or about 800,000 colonies in total. Depending on the beekeeper and the area, losses could range from a modest 15 percent to an astronomical 75 percent — a phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder.”
Honeybees are the chief pollinators for the U.S. agricultural community. Specialized crops, such as almonds, apricots and cherries are almost exclusively serviced by honeybees. It is estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that honey bees are responsible for more than $20 billion in salable agriculture per year. In addition, national milk and beef production indirectly relys on honeybees; the bees pollinate the grasses used to feed cows.
With this factored in, the economic impact of honey bees exceeds $40 billion per annum — not including the revenue drawn from actual honey sales. In 2012, bees yielded 56.1 pounds of honey on average per colony, the lowest level in eight years. This represents a 53-million-pound decrease in honey harvest from 2002 to 2012.
“We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” said Jeff Pettis, the USDA’s lead bee researcher.
The USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have marked “multiple factors” as being behind the population decrease, including the extended cold, parasites, disease, poor nutrition and exposure to pesticides.
Bill Huser, vice president of research development at the Sioux Honey Association, believes that the problem may be genetics. “Over the years bees have been bred to be more tame and higher producers of honey and when they have zeroed in on those two traits they may have reduced their disease resistance or some other factors that make them more hearty,” he said.
There may be another explanation, however.
Neonicotinoids and colony collapse disorder
On April 29, the European Union, despite fierce opposition from the U.K., approved a two-year ban on the use of insecticides containing neonicotinoids. The measure — which 15 of the 27 EU member nations approved — affords the European Commission the time it needs to consider and push through a ban neonicotinoids for crops attractive to honeybees.
The ban will extend to imidacloprid and clothianidin — produced by Bayer — and thiamethoxam — produced by Syngenta. Before the April 29 vote, France already had banned imidacloprid for sunflower and corn seeds, Germany banned clothianidin for corn seeds, and both Italy and Slovenia had in place temporary bans.
Neonicotinoids, based on the natural insecticide nicotine, is a family of chemicals which causes insects’ nervous systems to over-excite, which in turn causes eventual paralysis and death. As they bind to a specific site on the insect’s nervous system, the insects cannot develop a resistance to the chemical.
Up to 90 percent of all corn seed sold in the United States and an increasing portion of soy is coated with neonicotinoids. The coating is absorbed into the new plant and is manifest in all parts of the plant, including the flowering plant’s pollen.
Clothianidin and imidacloprid can be used on corn, grapes, canola, rice, tobacco, cotton, potatoes, most green vegetables and pecans. Thiamethoxam is water-soluble, so it can be used in soil treatments and as a foliar treatment. The call to ban the use of these chemicals were triggered by the release of two studies in March of last year in Europe for the journal Science showed that bumble bees treated with nonlethal levels of neonicotinoids “had a significantly reduced growth rate and suffered an 85% reduction in production of new queens” compared to non-treated colonies.
“Bumble bees have an annual life cycle and it is only new queens that survive the winter to found colonies in the spring,” the authors noted. “Our results suggest that trace levels of neonicotinoid pesticides can have strong negative consequence for queen production by bumble bee colonies under realistic field conditions, and this is likely to have a substantial population-level impact.”
The studies also revealed that treated honeybees had an impaired homing sense, meaning that the foraging honeybees are less likely to make it back to the hive quickly and are two or three times more likely to die away from the colony. This could lead to colony collapse in as little as three weeks.
“Our study raises important issues regarding pesticide authorization procedures,” stated Mikael Henry, co-author of a study on honey bees. “So far, they mostly require manufacturers to ensure that doses encountered on the field do not kill bees, but they basically ignore the consequences of doses that do not kill them but may cause behavioral difficulties.”
“There is an urgent need to develop alternatives to the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides on flowering crops wherever possible,” the authors of the second study on bumble bees added.
The powers that be
Of course, not all agree with this assessment. In January, a Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture report highlighted that if neonicotinoid seed treatments were no longer, the impact could be €17 billion to the EU economy with at least 50,000 farm jobs lost and a significant increase to the pest population.
“These figures demonstrate the value this technology brings to EU farming,” Friedhelm Schmider, director general of European Crop Protection Association, said. “They contribute more than €2 billion annually to commodity crop revenues, and reduce production costs by €1 billion across the EU,” he added.
Bayer CropScience disputed the recent research in a press release. “Imidacloprid and neonicotinoid insecticides, generally, remain safe and effective management tools to control a wide range of destructive insect pests,” the release reads. “Throughout the many years that imidacloprid has been commercially available and used, there has been no credible scientific evidence demonstrating a link between this active ingredient – or other neonicotinoids – and increases in honeybee colony losses and declining honey bee colony health. This latest study is no exception.”
Most damningly, however, is the hard reality that Monsanto overwhelmingly controls the corn seed market. Farmers who wish to buy untreated corn seeds find themselves out of luck, particularly in part due to the fact that the USDA is not scheduled to review the possibility of a ban on neonicotinoids until 2018, the estimated end of a study into the safety of the pesticide.
This may be due to the fact that Monsanto spent more in lobbying last year — about $6.3 million — than any other agribusiness company besides tobacco company, Altria. Among Monsanto’s targets were the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the EPA.