U.S. honey bee colonies are declining by an annual rate of 30 percent.
Experts believe pesticides, parasites and habitat loss are likely culprits. Since bees and other pollinators are needed for more than two-thirds of all crop species, the lives of bees and humans are intricately connected. In fact, even cheese, milk and butter depend on bees. They are even essential to the reproduction of clover and alfalfa -- staples in the diet of grazing animals.
"Honey bee pollination supports an estimated $15 billion worth of agricultural production, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet," says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The future security of America's food supply depends on healthy honey bees."
The bee crisis is already impacting some types of crop production, including almonds. Large orchards in California bring in numerous bee colonies to pollinate the flowers.
“Other crops don’t need as many bees as the California almond orchards do, so shortages are not yet apparent, but if trends continue, there will be,” said Tim Tucker, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation. "Current [bee] losses are not sustainable. The trend is down, as is the quality of bees. In the long run, if we don’t find some answers, and the vigor continues to decline, we could lose a lot of bees.”
Many companies are showing their support by partnering with the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that protects pollinators and their habitat. Whole Foods, General Mills, Burt's Bees, Boiron, Annie's, Cascadian Farm, Celestial Seasonings and Talenti are among the long list of supporters, having donated more than $100,000 to the Xerces Society. Whole Foods stores are also hosting “Human Bee-In” events and “Give Bees A Chance” promotions. The White House even announced the creation of a Pollinator Health Task Force, a multi-departmental effort for "understanding, preventing, and recovering from" the rapid declines in the U.S. honeybee population.
While some companies are launching campaigns to protect pollinators, Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta are trying to draw attention away from the link between neurotoxic pesticides (neonics) and the bee crisis. These pesticides have been shown to kill a variety of species, including bats, ladybugs, dragonflies and lacewings. Neonics are typically applied to the surface of plants and found in the nectar and pollen. They are widely used on corn, soy, wheat and canola seeds. As a result, the European Commission implemented a two-year continental ban on the three most common neonics -- imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.
"These industry public relations strategies come straight from the tobacco industry’s playbook, and were used for years to mislead the public about the danger of their products by manufacturing and magnifying uncertainty about the cancer risk of cigarettes," according to a recent report by Friends of the Earth. "Coincidentally, neonicotinoids are synthetic derivatives of nicotine, a toxin produced by the tobacco plant."
Despite dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies linking bee collapse to pesticide use, Syngenta's website states: "Since we do not believe pesticides cause bee losses, banning them will not make any difference to bee health. This is also the view of the Swiss and other governments ... Banning neonicotinoids might remove one of the possible causes of bee losses in the sense that accidental misuse by farmers of neonicotinoids-based seed treatments could not then occur if the product was not available."
It is completely logical that food companies are launching campaigns to save pollinators, while pesticide companies dispute evidence. Each is acting in their own best interest. Perhaps Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta even have something to gain from food scarcity.
Image credit: Whole Foods
Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Green Building & Design, Triple Pundit, Urban Farm, and Solar Today. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.