Einstein Was Right: Honey Bee Collapse Threatens Global Food Security

The bee crisis has been treated as a niche concern until now, but as the food prices hit an all time-high, it is becoming urgent to know whether the plight of the honey bee risks further exhausting our food security.

Colony collapse is economically significant because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by bees. Without a thriving bee population produce prices would skyrocket and the food industry could lose billions of dollars. Photo: Bjorn Appel/Wikimedia Commons

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live,” Albert Einstein, who liked to make bold claims (often wrong), famously said. Most people don’t realize that almost a third of global farm output depends on animal pollination, largely by honey bees.

In the past six years, the annual die-off of those little pollinating insects responsible for fertilizing plants – a process essential for maintaining our food supply – has become increasingly dramatic. It is a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).

While such disappearances have occurred throughout the history of apiculture, the term colony collapse disorder was first applied to a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of Western honey bee colonies in North America in late 2006.

Colony collapse is economically significant because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by bees. Without a thriving bee population produce prices would skyrocket and the food industry could lose billions of dollars.

It’s for this reason that mounting reports of CCD has beekeepers, naturalists and government scientists concerned. The causes of the syndrome are not yet fully understood. There have been a number of possible explanations for CCD including urbanization, disease, water pollution and parasitic mites.

The agri-business lender Rabobank said the numbers of the U.S. bee colonies failing to survive each winter has risen to 30% to 35% from an historical norm of 10%. The rate is 20% or higher in much of Europe, and the same pattern is emerging in Latin America and Asia.

However, Rabobank said Albert Einstein’s ‘apocalyptic scenario’ is overblown. The staples of corn, wheat, and rice are all pollinated by wind.

But animal pollination is essential for nuts, melons and berries, and plays varying roles in citrus fruits, apples, onions, broccoli, cabbage, sprouts, courgettes, avocados, cucumbers, coconuts, tomatoes and broad beans and etc, as well as coffee and cocoa.

Many researchers and beekeepers however, now suspect the introduction of systemic neonicotinoid pesticides as a possible catalyst for the vanishing bees.

Initially introduced to food production in 1994, naonicotinoid pesticides are absorbed into every part of a plant, including the roots, stems, leaves and pollen. When bees pollinate, they carry the pesticide chemicals back to their hives.

Although there has always be concerns about the possible harmful affects and residues left by these chemicals, clothianidin, manufactured and marketed by chemical giant Bayer CropScience in 2003, is considered highly toxic and now suspected as the agent responsible for the demise of honey bee hives around the world.

Prior to its registration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expressed concerns about clothianidin’s affect on bee populations and suggested the chemical include a label warning that “this compound is toxic to honey bees. ” In spite of the agency’s reservations, the EPA agreed to a conditional registration of clothianidin.

Last December, the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) joined other environmentalists and beekeepers in calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a stop-use order for the neonicotinoid pesticide clothianidin.

This action was in response to the disclosure of an internal memo describing a 2-year-old study by researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory and Penn State University.

The yet to be published study found that extremely low “microscopic” concentrations of clothianidin, capable of weakening honey bees and thus making them vulnerable to death.

In the letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, the groups cited the memo in which the agency’s own scientists questioned the validity of a scientific support study used to justify the registration of the pesticide and asked Jackson to “exercise the Agency’s emergency powers to take the pesticide off the market.”

Although Bayer CropScience, the manufacturer of most neonicotinoid insecticides, insists their products are “safe,” their use has been limited or banned in a number of countries including Germany, Italy, France and Slovenia.

Both the U.S. and Britain however, continue to allow the use of neonicotinoids. Today clothianidin is widely used on corn seeds and other crops such as wheat, soy and sunflowers.

Tests conducted by the Pesticide Action Network have found clothianidin in watermelon, peaches, cherries, strawberries, spinach, summer squash, tomatoes and potatoes.

A number of documentaries have been produced in which possible causes of CCD have been explored. “Silence of the Bees” (Oct. 2007) is a part of the Nature television series and covers several recent investigative discoveries.

The 2009 documentary ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ pointed to neonicotinoid pesticides as being the most likely culprit, though the experts interviewed concede that no firm data yet exists.

The 2010 feature length documentary “Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us?” features interviews with beekeepers, scientists, farmers, and philosophers. [Wiki via The Telegraph (UK), Fox News and The Guardian (UK)]

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