Scientists have investigated a number of factors to help explain colony collapse disorder (CCD) and have offered a variety of explanations. The primary theory seems to be that CCD is caused by a variety of imbalances in the environment, secondary to current agricultural and industrial practices.
Bees are sensitive to the constant flood of man-made chemicals into their system, especially pesticides, many of which accumulate over time. Honeybee colonies are further stressed by the “factory farming” style of beekeeping employed by the commercial bee industry. They are being raised using unnatural practices, artificially inseminated, and fed cheap, sugary nectar substitutes instead of their natural food.
EPA Blamed for Failure to Protect Bees
A general consensus among beekeepers is that the bee die-offs are most definitely related to toxic chemicals. Increasingly, a systemic type of pesticide called neonicotinoids is being blamed for bee die-offs. Neonicotinoids are now used on most of American crops, especially corn. This newer class of chemicals is applied to seeds before planting, allowing the pesticide to be taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows. As a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant.
These insecticides are highly toxic to bees because they are systemic, water-soluble and pervasive. They get into the soil and groundwater, where they can accumulate and remain for many years and present long-term toxicity to the hive.
Neonicotinoids affect insects’ central nervous systems in ways that are cumulative and irreversible. Even minute amounts can have profound effects over time. One of the observed effects of these insecticides is weakening of the bee’s immune system. Forager bees bring pesticide-laden pollen back to the hive, where it’s consumed by all of the bees. Six months later, their immune systems fail, and they fall prey to secondary, seemingly “natural” bee infections, such as parasites, mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria.
The disappearance of bee colonies began accelerating in the United States shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed these new insecticides on the market in the mid-2000s. In March, beekeepers and environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the agency over its failure to protect bees from these toxic pesticides.
Meanwhile, France has banned Imidacloprid for use on corn and sunflowers after reporting large losses of bees after exposure to it. They also rejected Bayer’s application for Clothianidin, and other countries, such as Italy, have banned certain neonicotinoids as well.
The EPA acknowledges that “pesticide poisoning” may be one factor leading to colony collapse disorder, yet they have been slow to act to protect bees from this threat. The current lawsuit may help spur them toward more urgent action, which is desperately needed as the food supply hangs in the balance.
In March, the EPA sent Jim Jones, overseer of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, to talk to California almond growers and beekeepers. But although beekeepers said Jones got the message that bees are in serious trouble, they were dismayed by the fact that he seemed more interested in finding new places for bees to forage rather than addressing the issue of toxic pesticides.
As usual, at the core of the problem is big industry, which is blinded by greed and enabled by a corrupt governmental system that permits the profit-driven sacrifice of our environment. Unfortunately, this motivation reflects an extreme shortsightedness about the long-term survival of the human race, as well as of our planet. Clearly, if the goal of pesticides is to increase food yield to more easily feed 7 billion human beings, this goal falls flat on its face if it leads to the collapse of our food chain.
Do You Trust Monsanto to Save the Day?
Another forerunning theory of colony collapse disorder is that it’s being caused by genetically engineered crops—either as a result of the crops themselves or the pesticides and herbicides applied on them, such as Roundup. In one German study, when bees were released in a genetically engineered rapeseed crop, and then fed the pollen to younger bees, scientists discovered the bacteria in the guts of the young ones mirrored the same genetic traits as ones found in the GE crop, indicating that horizontal gene transfer had occurred. Chemical companies like Monsanto are clearly seeking to take as much control of the food supply as possible by controlling virtually every aspect of crop production, so research implicating their business as the cause of bee die-offs would definitely cause harm to the company’s bottom line. Monsanto has received increasing amounts of bad publicity over their potential role in the devastating demise of bees around the globe.
To better field such lines of inquiry, the company appears to have taken measures to control the direction of the research into their products’ effect on bees by purchasing one of the leading bee research firms— one that, conveniently, lists its primary goal as studying colony collapse disorder. Monsanto bought the company, called Beeologics, in September 2011, just months before Poland announced it would ban growing of Monsanto’s genetically modified MON 810 maize, noting, poignantly, that “pollen of this strain could have a harmful effect on bees.”
How You Can Help Honeybees
The documentary film Vanishing of the Bees recommends four actions you can take to help preserve our honeybees:
Support organic farmers and shop at local farmers markets as often as possible. You can “vote with your fork” three times a day. (When you buy organic, you are making a statement by saying “no” to GMOs!)
Cut the use of toxic chemicals in your house and on your lawn, and use organic pest control.
Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant a garden. Lawns offer very little benefit for the environment. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide good honeybee habitats.
Become an amateur beekeeper. Having a hive in your garden requires only about an hour of your time per week, benefits your local ecosystem, and you can enjoy your own honey!
“ If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” —ALBERT EINSTEIN
To Bee or Not to Bee
The other day, my husband and I were out walking in our garden-filled yard, appreciating the new flowers and anticipating the many other perennials we expected to come into bloom. “Where are all the bees?” he wondered. Our garden is usually a buzzing haven for bees and butterflies, and his observation tuned my ear to the eerie stillness.
Then, yesterday at Trader Joe’s, I overheard someone asking, “Where is the almond butter?” Although the manager’s reply—“Our producer went out of business”—perked my attention just a bit, there was a nagging sensation I couldn’t shake. We have been replacing peanut butter for years with the much healthier almond butter, and I wondered how serious this shortage was.
I was doing some online research later that day and came across the bleak report that nearly one-third of all U.S. honeybees did not make it through the last winter. Colony losses are acceptable up to 15 percent, but the 20–60 percent losses beekeepers are reporting this year have been unprecedented.
These large-scale losses, due to an unexplained phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, have been setting off red alerts because of our dependence on bees to pollinate 71 percent of the world’s crops. And yes, you guessed it, almonds are among them.
As it happens, the following morning the health website Mercola.com included this write-up about bees in its newsletter, which answered my questions.
—Jeanne Ohm, D.C.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #39.
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