Monday, May 18, 2009

Beehive Failure Explained

The mystery of the disappearing honeybees, which has puzzled scientists and beekeepers for the past four years and alarmed environmentalists, since a world without bees is basically a world without food, has finally been explained. Via Salon:
Beekeepers have singled out imidacloprid and its chemical cousin clothianidin, also produced by Bayer CropScience, as a cause of bee die-offs around the world for over a decade. More recently, the same products have been blamed by American beekeepers, who claim the product is a cause of colony collapse disorder, which has cost many commercial U.S. beekeepers at least a third of their bees since 2006, and threatens the reliability of the world's food supply.

Whew, that’s a relief. Glad we got to the bottom of THAT little mystery. I’m sure the EPA will get right on banning that product, seeing as how the manufacturers’ own testing shows lethal doses of the insecticide in nectar and pollen.

Oh, wait:

Bayer CropScience spokesman Jack Boyne says his company's pesticides are not to blame. "We do a lot of research on our products and we feel like we have a very good body of evidence to suggest that pesticides, including insecticides, are not the cause of colony collapse disorder," he says. "Pesticides have been around for a lot of years now and honeybee collapse has only been a factor for the last few years." (Imidacloprid has been approved for use in the U.S. since 1994 and clothianidin has been used since 2003.)

Actually, it seems like colony collapse has been a factor for years, just reaching alarming proportions in 2006. That seems to have matched the more widespread use of this product over the past few years. And by widespread, I do mean ubiquitous: this shit is used everywhere, for termite control, on golf courses, even on flea collars for the family dog. It gets worse:

And the product's patent expired a few years ago, paving the way for it to be sold as a generic insecticide by dozens of smaller corporations. In California alone, imidacloprid is the central ingredient in 247 separate products sold by 50 different companies.

It seems obvious that the more widespread this toxic chemical’s use, the more honeybees have died. What I want to know is, why was this stuff even put on the market in the first place? Shouldn't we have determined whether it is safe a little sooner?

It would be really nice if we had a government agency charged with protecting the environment, you know, some group of scientists and policy makers who could help set some standards, some kind of, oh, I dunno, regulatory guidance for the use of toxic chemicals which could potentially destroy our entire agricultural economic base.

Sadly, no:

EPA critics suggest that the agency allowed economic considerations to take precedence over the well-being of honeybees when it approved imidacloprid for sale in the U.S. 15 years ago. "I think the EPA and USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] have been covering up for Bayer, and now they're scrambling to do something about it," says Neil Carman, a plant biologist who advises the Sierra Club on pesticides and other issues. "This review should have been done 10 years ago. It's been found to be more persistent in the environment than was reported by Bayer."

Yes, that would be nice, to test products thoroughly before releasing them into the environment, instead of treating the entire food supply as one giant laboratory:

Back in 2003, they point out, the EPA reported that clothianidin was "highly toxic to honeybees on an acute contact basis," and suggested that chronic exposure could lead to effects on the larvae and reproductive effects on the queen. Although the EPA asked Bayer for further studies of its effects on honeybees, it nevertheless authorized the chemical for market.

Thank you very fucking much.

In the interest of full disclosure, the story does state that other factors must be at play besides imidacloprid, because some bees are exposed to the chemical and do just fine. But come on, some people are able to smoke cigarettes for 50 years and not get lung cancer. That doesn’t mean smoking isn’t bad for you.

Some suspect that the death of honeybees isn’t considered a big deal to folks at the EPA, who I guess don’t realize that without God’s own little pollinators, stuff doesn’t grow.

Now is the time to pressure our Democratic White House and Democratic Congress to create an EPA that is more responsive to the concerns of environmentalists and advocates, and less a rubber-stamp for the chemical industry.

Anyone think that can happen?