Sunday, 23 January 2011

Bee Afraid

Colony Collapse Disorder of bee hives has killed tens of billions of bees over the last decade or so. Beekeepers across Europe and North America have found each summer their hives empty or filled with dead bees - as much as 40% of the total bee population. In the absence of any obvious cause, there has been wide ranging speculation about climate change, viruses and mites, and pesticides.
Bees - Nature's free service to humanity
We depend on bees pollinating crops for a huge proportion of our food - some estimates suggest as much as 70% is dependent on pollination by bee and other pollinators such as various weevils and beetles, birds and bats. Bees are particularly important as they carry out about half of this "free service" from Nature, as farmers refer to the pollination process.

ALL of these species are mysteriously declining across Europe and North America - notably, there are fewer to no instances of colony collapse disorder in countries where these chemicals are still largely absent from their agriculture (although there is a risk that, if they are banned country by country in the rich nations, the chemical companies will try to foist them on poorer nations, spreading the contamination). If the decline is not arrested, the brutal truth is that it will not be long before a domino effect could follow with significant declines in food production in the northern hemisphere when food prices are already at record levels. No one can realistically guess how far the process could go and the serious social, economic and health problems that could result.

A two year old North American study, as yet unpublished but seemingly verified by recent work by French scientists, confirms the adverse toxic impact of nicotinoids (including a specific type called Imidacloprid). A range of experiments have shown that, even with tiny dosages which cannot eventually be traced in their bodies, bees exposed to nicotinoids are very substantially more likely to contract illnesses which kill them. Although the pesticide itself may not destroy them, there appears to be a strong link between it and bee deaths, perhaps through damage done to the immune and/or nervous systems.

The pesticides are used to target mites attacking agricultural crops, but once a plant is treated with them, they are highly invasive, seeping into the plants' structure rather than remaining as a coat on the surface. Consequently, bees taking pollen from the plants, even sometime after the pesticide treatment, are likely to be ingesting the toxins and, by then feeding the pollen back into their hives, spreading its effect to other bees, including unhatched larvae and the Queen Bee.

The German company Bayer is the largest manufacturer of nicotinoids, which were deployed over a quarter of Britain's agricultural land last year. Bayer insist these are safe "when used correctly" - even although the tests they have used previously to establish this safety stamp have been criticised by some in the scientific community as not valid.

But perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of this has been the lobbying Bayer has done with the British Beekeepers' Association to try to head off criticism of nicotinoids - the Co-op has banned their use on its suppliers' farms and the Soil Association has petitioned to make them illegal. As well as supplying speakers to run sessions at last year's BBKA conference to reassure about the supposed safety of nicotinoids, Bayer have managed to secure BBKA endorsement of some of its products as bee-friendly, in spite of the strongly voiced reservations about the toxins impact on bees voiced by some very well-qualified BBKA members.

The BBKA has been criticised by members over its financial relations with the agrochemical industry in the past, but in the wake of the latest furore it had now promised to break these off. However, the fact remains that, although nicotinoids and their derivatives have been banned in many European countries, they remain widely used in Britain and the USA. Bayer and other manufacturers such as Syngenta remain busy at work justifying the continued use of their products.

International action by the Food &Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations is urgently needed to arrest the spread of these dangerous chemicals and tackle the decline in pollinator populations. Further confirmation of the study's findings is needed, but in the meantime, nicotinoids should be prohibited internationally as a precaution. Our biosphere and the creatures that inhabit it (humans included), all linked in ways so complex we cannot even begin to comprehend, are too fragile and too precious to put at any further risk simply for the sake of the shareholders of agrochemical giants like Bayer and Monsanto.

There is a quote attributed to Einstein, that claims:
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” 

The words, contrary to myth, are not his and they may exaggerate the speed of impact - but in a world with such incredible co-dependency between the species, we ignore their salutary warning at our peril.

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