Starting in 2006, individual worker bees in previously healthy colonies began to disappear. They would leave their hives to collect nectar but fail to return, leaving the queen bee and larvae without the support necessary to sustain the colony. Bees began dying, and whole colonies began deteriorating. Beekeepers, farmers, and scientists watched as this trend spread across the country with alarming speed. Because the severity of this new epidemic had no precedent, a new term was coined to describe the phenomenon: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Since the first reports of CCD, bee populations have tanked. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of wild bees fell almost one quarter from their historical population, and the numbers are worse for bees in colonies managed by beekeepers. According to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly 35 percent of all managed bee colonies died off between 2013 and 2014. The following year, beekeepers lost another 42 percent of their colonies.
The consequences of such a collapse within the bee population affect us all, from regular consumers who a enjoy dash of honey in their tea to bakers who use honey to concoct delicious desserts. But more critically, farmers depend on as many bees and other pollinators to pollinate their crops. For farmers, heavy bee losses equates to lower crop yields. In all, pollinators contribute to $24 billion annually to the U.S. economy, which is put at risk as CCD decimates pollinator populations.
Initially, scientists struggled to learn why the condition had become so prevalent. However, recent discoveries have highlighted that a specific family of widely used pesticides, known as neonicotinoids (or neonics), has played a large role in the collapse of bee colonies, wild or otherwise, throughout the country.
Neonics are a relatively new collection of pesticides. Multinational chemical corporations including Bayer and Syngenta introduced them about two decades ago as upgrades to pesticides already on the market. While neonics are highly lethal to plant life’s most notorious pests — i.e. thrips, borers and beetles — they do not directly kill bees, but rather dramatically alter bees’ behavior. The nectar a bee collects can get contaminated by these pesticides, which then accumulate and become toxic to the bee’s brain chemistry, compromising its navigational instinct. As more worker bees become disoriented, fewer retain the sense of direction so vital to finding their way back to the colony.
Despite thoroughly assembled government and independent reports outlining the ways in which neonics are harming our pollinators, ecosystems, and economy, both Bayer and Syngenta have remained reluctant to acknowledge any link between their products and CCD. Then in January, following an EPA report determining that imidacloprid (one neonic) was toxic at levels observed within specific crops, Bayer finally admitted, after two decades, that their product was in fact harmful to bees. Yet even after this breakthrough, neither company has shown any impetus to remove neonics from the market.
In the absence of action from Bayer and Syngenta, coalitions of environmental activists, scientists and concerned citizens have rallied to get neonics taken off the shelves, and the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund is proud to be part of this cause.
LCVEF is supporting beekeepers and other allied environmental organizations in the “Keep the Hives Alive Tour,” which is traveling to cities across the country. On the tour, beekeepers will share their knowledge and talk about their experiences on the frontline of CCD, helping to raise public awareness of the pollinator decline.
Thanks in no small part to the organized protests spearheaded by American consumers, we have begun to see small steps of progress towards eliminating neonics in the United States. Major chain stores including Home Depot and Ace Hardware, along with pest-control brand Ortho, have agreed to phase out the sale and distribution of neonics in both their products and inventories. Just this year, Maryland became the first state to pass legislation banning the use of neonics within its borders.
However, we still have a long way to go towards the nationwide neonic ban necessary to allow bee populations to recover from such devastating losses. The EPA’s ongoing investigation into neonics has so far only conducted one limited assessment into the toxicity of one specific neonic and has years to go before concluding their research and taking any actions to reduce the harmful impacts of this family of pesticides. Pollinator champs in Congress like Rep. Earl Blumenauer from Oregon and Rep. John Conyers from Michigan have introduced legislation to ban neonics, but Congressional leaders have yet to take action on the issue.
LCVEF is excited to continue working with our passionate allies in defense of one of the most important pollinators in the country. We are especially eager for the “Keep the Hives Alive Tour” that is crisscrossing the country to build widespread support for pollinator protections. Together, we can keep bees healthy. And healthy bees mean a healthier economy and better food security of all of us.