Over the past 15 years, there has been a precipitous decline in honey bee populations. Most apiaries have seen their bee colonies decrease in size by 30 to 90 percent.
This past winter alone represented the greatest loss of bees since 2006 with a nearly 40 percent decline nationally. 25 percent had once been the maximum rate of mortality in northern states that had significant cold-weather die-offs.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a winter thing anymore. This century’s losses have been occurring everywhere and anytime — during the spring and summer when temperatures are perfect and food is plentiful.
Scientists and beekeepers chalk it up to colony collapse disorder, a large umbrella of diagnoses that covers everything from parasitic mites to deadly pesticides.
It was determined in 2011 by independent studies released in prominent journals like Science and Nature that a primary cause of honey bee deaths was the family of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. In 2012, those findings were affirmed just across the border by Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs which discovered that 70 percent of the dead bees across the province showed exposure to neonicotinoids.
This nerve agent had been used in increasing abundance on corn since 2005 after entering the market in the 1990s (as recently as 2015 it was used on most all commercial corn in the United States). That timeline of pervasiveness aligns perfectly with the sudden decline in bee populations.
Produced by Bayer, Syngenta and Valent, neonicotinoids are applied directly to the seed and thus become a part of the adult plant, including the nectar and pollen upon which the bees feed. The chemical doesn’t kill bees outright, but it seriously impairs their development and behavior, which accounts for the inability of the bees to feed properly, maintain their colonies and replenish them through adequate reproduction.
In response to this, in 2018, Canada announced a ban on the 2 of the 3 most popular forms of neonicotinoids used there. A gradual phase-in of the new standards won’t begin until 2021.
A more powerful means of suppression happened in the European Union. There, neonicotinoids have been banned since 2018, which had followed moratorium in place since 2013.
It’s a different story here. There hasn’t been a similar sense of urgency.
Even though federal studies link neonicotinoids to colony collapse, including a report released by the USDA and EPA in 2013, the government didn’t plan to make any serious inroads until a major, multi-year study on the impact of neonicotinoids was made available from the EPA in 2018.
As out an outcome of that study and many more, the Trump Administration announced a ban of 12 neonicotinoids in May.
It was a win, but it was not big enough: Two of the substances made by Bayer aren’t even used in the States and 47 products containing the compound can still be used here (Fortunately, those nearly 4 dozen poisons have to be re-registered by 2022, so there’s still some time for beekeepers, farmers and environmentalists to have their say.)
While the Trump Administration had made some progress that President Obama’s couldn’t with neonicotinoids (Obama’s ban on them on wildlife refuges only hardly addressed the larger problem) it’s still one step forward, two steps back with Trump and honey bees.
In early July, the Department of Agriculture announced it was suspending its collection of data regarding honey bee colonies, a critical report that allowed the USDA, beekeepers, and scientists to compare quarterly losses, additions, and movements and to analyze the data on a state-by-state basis. Without that data, we don’t know if bees are dying off or rebounding.
Then, weeks later, the Environmental Protection Agency rescinded a ban on bee-killing Sulfoxaflor saying it has a lower environmental impact because it disappears from the environment faster than neonicotinoids. Never mind that it still spends time in the environment and still has an impact.
The indifference and laissez-faire attitudes expressed by Trump — and Obama before him — to the plight of bees is a national security issue. Without bees we would suffer significant losses in food supply and we’d have to get many fruits and vegetables from other countries.
That’s because bees do a lot more than make honey.
If bees were wiped out, or something close to it, fruits and vegetables wouldn’t get the pollination they need. Estimates show that the total loss of crops would exceed $20 billion per year. Just consider the 30 million bushels of apples produced here in New York every year. And then, on the other side of the country, there’s California’s almond crop which yields 80 percent of the worldwide almond production and is 90 percent dependent on bees (a rate of bee need identical to that required by cherries and blueberries).
It may be asking a lot for an administration that has loosened many environmental standards, but the Trump needs to deliver a Plan B for their Plan Bee. We need to have the tools to study their populations and we need the laws in place to prevent their poisoning and mitigate their population declines.
Without bees, our agricultural economy would be a mess and consumers wouldn’t be able to get the affordable, domestically-grown nourishment we need.
Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.