The Continuing Threat to Bees and Our Food Supply

By Gary Frederick (Chair of the Raritan Valley Group;

The next time you bite into a crisp apple, or pop a few almonds into your mouth, or savor a refreshing cucumber, consider what fruits and vegetables would be left if bees and other pollinators disappeared. Not much. Honeybees, for example, pollinate nearly $200 million of fruits and vegetables every year, including major New Jersey crops such as cranberries, blueberries and apples. When you add in other pollinating insects, the USDA estimated in 2014 that pollinators contributed more than $24 billion to the US economy. Worldwide, it’s estimated that pollinators make possible an astonishing 35% of global food production.

Alarmingly, bee populations have seen devastating declines since 2006, with many hives each year not surviving the winter. Estimated wintertime bee loss in New Jersey was 28.6% in 2010/11, 53.6% in 2015/16 and 41% in 2016/2017. Obviously, these declines are not sustainable, and they have been occurring worldwide.

Many culprits are suspected, but scientists have zeroed in on two big ones. The varroa mite has been ravaging bee colonies since 1986. These pinhead-sized parasites live inside hives, sucking the blood from bee larvae, which pupate into bees that are weak and die prematurely.  The mites spread easily from hive to hive.

The second culprit is pesticides. Particularly deadly is a class known as neonicotinoids, which are 1000 times more toxic than DDT. These chemicals were developed to protect crops from harmful insects, but scientists have long suspected they also kill bees and other pollinators. Major producers, such as Bayer and Syngenta, have denied this, but two studies released refute those assertions. One controlled field trial was performed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydology in the U.K.

The second study, conducted in Canada, showed that low levels of neonicotinoids remain in the environment for a long time, and that these levels were high enough to kill bees at a younger age than a control group. “I think it’s reached a point now where no reasonable person would deny that these chemicals are impacting on bees one way or another,” said University of Sussex bee biologist Dave Goulson, who was not involved in the research, but reviewed the data for The Scientist magazine.

The U.S. EPA has been studying the effect of neonicotinoids, but the study has been slow, and there’s no guarantee that any action will ensue.  The good news is that a California federal court ruled that the EPA had violated the Endangered Species Act when it gave a 15-year conditional approval to 59 different pesticides between 2007 and 2012, despite the lack of safety reviews. The lawsuit was brought in 2013 by the Center for Food Safety, along with a coalition of beekeeping and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.

Other slim but encouraging news is that the USDA reported that U.S. honeybee populations increased 3% in the period April 2016-April 2017. But that was largely due to beekeepers adding new bees to their stocks from commercial sources. It is estimated that there are only 2.9 million bee colonies remaining in the U.S., down drastically from 4.5 million in 1980.

Sierra Club members have been alarmed and incredibly active about the bee crisis, convincing major retailers like Home Depot, Walmart and True Value to pull neonicotinoid-laced products from their shelves.