Death of the Birds and the Bees Across America
Birds and bees are something most of us take for granted as part of nature. The expression “teaching about the birds and the bees” to explain the process of human reproduction to young people is not an accidental expression. Bees and birds contribute to the essence of life on our planet. A study by the US Department of Agriculture estimated that “…perhaps one-third of our total diet is dependent, directly or indirectly, upon insect-pollinated plants.”1
The honey bee, Apis mellifera, is the most important pollinator of agricultural crops. Honey bees pollinate over 70 out of 100 crops that in turn provide 90% of the world’s food. They pollinate most fruits and vegetables–including apples, oranges, strawberries, onions and carrots.2 But while managed honey bee populations have increased over the last 50 years, bee colony populations have decreased significantly in many European and North American nations. Simultaneously, crops that are dependent on insects for pollination have increased. The phenomenon has received the curious designation of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), implying it could be caused by any number of factors. Serious recent scientific studies however point to a major cause: use of new highly toxic systemic pesticides in agriculture since about 2004.
If governments in the EU, USA and other countries fail to impose a total ban on certain chemical insecticides, not only could bees become a thing of the past. The human species could face staggering new challenges merely to survive. The immediate threat comes from the widespread proliferation of commercial insecticides containing the highly-toxic chemical with the improbable name, neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. They act on the central nervous system of insects. But also on bees and small song birds. Recent evidence suggests they could also affect human brain development in newborn.
“Available data indicate that clothianidin on corn and canola should result in minimal acute toxic risk to birds. However, assessments show that exposure to treated seeds through ingestion may result in chronic toxic risk to non-endangered and endangered small birds (e.g., songbirds) and acute/chronic toxicity risk to non-endangered and endangered mammals.”4
Alarming UK results
A private UK research organization, Buglife and the Soil Association, undertook tests to try to determine cause of the bee death. They found that the decline was caused in part by a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids.5 Neonicotinoids are “systemic” chemicals that kill insects by getting into the cell of the plant. In Britain it’s widely used for crops like oilseed rape and for production of potted plants.
Indeed in March 2012 Sir Robert Watson, Chief Scientist at the British Government’s Department of Environment announced that his government was reconsidering its allowance of neonicotinoid use in the UK. Watson told a British newspaper, “We will absolutely look at the University of Stirling work, the French work, and the American work that came out a couple of months ago. We must look at this in real detail to see whether or not the current British position is correct or is incorrect. I want this all reassessed, very, very carefully.”8 To date no policy change has ensued however. Given the seriousness of the scientific studies and of the claims of danger, a prudent policy would have been to provisionally suspend further uise of neonicotinoids pending further research. No such luck.
In the United States the government agency responsible for approving or banning chemicals deemed dangerous to the environment is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2003, over the clear warnings of its own scientists, the EPA licensed a neonicotinoid called Clothianidin, patented by the German Bayer AG together with a Japanese company, Takeda. It is sold under the brand name Poncho. It was immediately used on over 88 million acres of US corn in the 2004 crop and since that time, the shocking death of more than one million beehives across the corn prairies of the Midwest has been reported. 9
Renowned Dutch toxicologist, Dr. Henk Tennekes reported that, unlike claims from Bayer and other neonicotinoid manufacturers, bees living near maize fields sprayed with the toxic pesticides are exposed to the neonicotinoids throughout the entire growing season, and the toxin is cumulative. Tennekes noted, “Bees are exposed to these compounds and several other agricultural pesticides in several ways throughout the foraging period. During spring, extremely high levels of clothianidin and thiamethoxam were found in planter exhaust material produced during the planting of treated maize seed. We also found neonicotinoids in the soil of each field we sampled, including unplanted fields.” 13
Effect on Human Brain?
But most alarming of all is the evidence that exposure to neonicotinides has horrific possible effects on humans as well as on birds and bees.
The most alarming part of the neonicotinoid story is that governments and the EU to date are content to take little or no precautionary steps to stop even suspected contamination from neonicotinoids pending through long-term tests that would determine finally if they are as dangerous as considerable and growing scientific evidence says.
Bayer AG and neonicotinoids
In early 2011 the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report on bee mortalities around the world. Bayer neonicotinoids, Poncho and Gaucho, are listed there as a threat to numerous animals.
The German pharmaceutical giant counts among its historic achievements one it prefers today to forget– the first synthesis of something it marketed as cough medicine in 1898 under the trade name, Heroin, taken from the “heroic” feeling it gave to Bayer workers on whom it was tested. 18 According to the German citizen watchdog group, Coalition against BAYER Dangers, Gaucho and Poncho have been among BAYER’s top-selling pesticides: “In 2010, Gaucho sales were valued at US$ 820 million while Poncho sales were valued at US$ 260 million. Gaucho ranked first among BAYER’s best-selling pesticide, while Poncho ranked seventh. It is striking that in the 2011 Annual Report no sales figures for Gaucho and Poncho are shown.”19
Ban in many EU Countries
Unlike the United States, several EU countries have banned use of neonicotinoids, refusing to accept test and safety reports from the chemical manufacturers as adequate. One case in point was in Germany where the Julius Kühn-Institut – Bundesforschungsinstitut für Kulturpflanzen (JKI) in Quedlinburg a state-run crop research institute, collected samples of dead honeybees and determined that clothianidin caused the deaths.
Dutch toxicologist Tennekes and Alex Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health are among a growing number of scientists around the world calling for an immediate and global ban on the use of the new neonicotinoid pesticides.25 Professor Lu calls for a very simple test: “I would suggest removing all neonicotinoids from use globally for a period of five to six years. If the bee population is going back up during the after the ban, I think we will have the answer.” That should be more than food for thought in Washington, Brussels and elsewhere.
1 S.E. McGregor, Insect pollination of cultivated crop plants, 1976, USDA Agriculture. Handbook 496, p. 1