The honey bees are still dropping dead. Nearly seven years after a sudden and unexplained drop in the bee populations of North America and Europe first made international headlines, these vital pollinators are still at risk. In the U.S., beekeepers reported the loss of one-third of their colonies each year from 2006 to 2011. Much of Europe has witnessed similar declines—not good for a species that pollinates 90 percent of the food we eat, at a value of €153 billion ($204 billion) globally to farmers.
For food science researchers, finding the culprit for bee colony collapse disorder has become the equivalent of discovering a cure for cancer. The plausible suspects are varied. Some scientists have fingered globalization; others pointed to climate change. Nasty new viruses, parasites, and pollution have also been blamed. The use of certain pesticides by farmers, the agricultural industry, and gardeners has also long been suspected of possibly killing bees, or at the very least fouling up their foraging instincts, confusing them to a point at which they cannot be relied upon to pollinate acres of almond groves or cherry orchards.
Recently, Europe’s food safety watchdog, the European Food Safety Authority (ESFA), issued a declaration that three specific common pesticides pose an acute risk to honeybees. Now the European Commission has proposed a two-year ban on these pesticides, which could be ratified as early as this month. It would require a majority vote by EU member states; if it passes, the restrictions will take effect in late spring.
This is a controversial move. Thousands of jobs and billions in crops are at stake, with no assurance that pesticides are to blame. Colony collapse disorder, as it’s called, has been observed in bee populations at intervals over the least 100 years, and pesticides certainly wouldn’t have explained it in the early 1900s, for example. ESFA acknowledges that it cannot link the chemicals directly to bee colony collapse syndrome. Still, it says the research is strong enough to pull the chemicals off the market.
The research is the work of Italian biologist Marco Lodesani, director of a honeybee and silkworm research institute in Bologna. From 2009 to 2011, Lodesani and his team conducted countless autopsies on bee carcasses and continuously saw the same thing: something toxic was killing the bees. They traced the suspected poison primarily to maize seeds coated in an insecticide meant to keep sap-sucking pests from destroying the crop.
Lodesani’s team then conducted a battery of experiments to determine the neurological impact of the most common insecticides linked to the seeds. They found that even at recommended usage levels, the chemicals are putting the survival of bee colonies at risk.
“Our findings show that the bee colonies are dying off in such large numbers, and that the link is pesticides,” says Lodesani. He added that the “pharma” link, as he calls it, is strong enough to rule out other suspected causes, such as a deadly virus, as a principle cause for colony deaths.
The group wrapped up its findings in 2011 and persuaded Italy to ban certain neonicotinoid pesticides, a relatively new kind of insecticide chemically related to nicotine. France has since introduced a ban on seeds treated with a specific neonictinoid, imidacloprid, which is thought to be the most widely used insecticide in the world. (Slovenia and Germany have imposed similar temporary bans in the past.) Lodesani says the bee death numbers in Italy are well down since the Italian ban was put in place, though, it must be noted that the death rate started to stabilize just prior to the ban’s introduction.
The makers of the insecticides—Bayer CropScience (BAYN:GR) and Syngenta (SYT)—say the regulators’ conclusions are highly flawed. The ban of these three types of insecticides would do more harm than good, they contend, costing Europe’s agricultural sector €17 billion in lower crop yields over a five-year stretch and putting 50,000 jobs at risk. Spooked by such numbers, Europe’s powerful farmers’ unions are opposed to an immediate ban. Across the Atlantic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting its own research, which won’t be complete until 2018 at the earliest.
This is only the beginning, Lodesani says: “Modern farming requires a complete change of thinking, away from a reliance on chemicals and back to a respect for biodiversity.” In other words, he says, when we talk about bees and crops, we are really talking about canaries and coal mines.