Scientists may have finally solved mystery behind honey bee decline

FEATURE – The beekeeping industry has faced a number of obstacles to healthy bee management, and for years, the world has been asking the question: What’s killing the honey bees? Now, after a four-year study, scientists believe they have solved the mystery.

Over the past two months, a series of studies appearing in scientific journals suggest that the culprit behind the death and decline of bees is widely-used pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics.

On June 24, a statement issued by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, a group of international scientists formed in response to concern around the impact of systemic pesticides on biodiversity and ecosystems – in connection with their analysis known as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment to be published in the peer-reviewed Journal “Environment Science and Pollution Research” – said it has found that there is clear evidence of harm sufficient to trigger regulatory action.

“Concern about the impact of systemic pesticides on a variety of beneficial species has been growing for the last 20 years but the science has not been considered conclusive until now,” the statement said.

One of the most detailed assessments of the insecticides to date, was released in a report in June by Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex. The four-year study also concluded that neonicotinoids, on which farmers spend $2.6 billion annually and apply routinely, are threatening the world’s food supplies.

Oh honey

Most people recognize honey bees for the sweet honey that they produce. However, honey is of only minor importance compared to the benefits afforded humans by honey bee pollination.

Honey bees are important pollinators of the nation’s crops. Pollen adheres to bees’ bodies when they visit flowers in search of nectar. As they travel from blooming crop to blooming crop, they transport the pollen to flowering blossoms, enabling them to swell into ripened fruit. Flowers that are adequately pollinated produce fruit, vegetables, or nuts. Higher fruit production per acre, larger fruit size, uniformly-shaped fruit, and an enhanced and better taste are all indications of successful pollination.

“The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century,” U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a 2011 United Nations report.

Of 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, Steiner said in the report, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.

Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature,” Steiner said. “Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to seven billion people.”

The sting

Beekeepers around the United States have reported higher-than-usual colony losses since the fall of 2006. Some beekeepers have lost 50-90 percent of their colonies, often within a matter of weeks translating into thousands of dead colonies and millions of dead bees.

The bee decline, which is sometimes referred to as colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is a problem that has been threatening the beekeeping industry over the last eight years and has gained considerable national and international attention. By 2009, CCD had been reported in 36 states around the country, leaving beekeepers facing bankruptcy and farmers substantially losing crops.

In a country where honey bees contribute billions of dollars in added revenue to the agriculture industry, bee losses cannot be taken lightly.

Bee concerned

The situation is so serious that on June 20, in a presidential memorandum President Obama announced plans for a “Pollinator Health Task Force” to help save bees from their mysterious decline.

The administration said:

Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.

The buzz

Unlike other pesticides, which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, systemic pesticides are taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues – leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as pollen and nectar. They are increasingly used as a prophylactic to prevent pests rather than to treat a problem once it has occurred.

The metabolites of neonics and fipronil – the compounds which they break down into – are often as or more toxic than the active ingredients to non-target organisms. Environmental concentrations can build up, particularly in soil, over months or years, increasing their toxicity effects and making them more damaging to non-target species like bees.

According to the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, neonics are a nerve poison and the effects of exposure range from instant and lethal to chronic. Even long term exposure at low, or non-lethal, levels can be harmful. Chronic damage can include: impaired sense of smell or memory; reduced fecundity; altered feeding behavior and reduced food intake including reduced foraging in bees; altered tunneling behavior in earthworms; difficulty in flight and increased susceptibility to disease.

“The evidence is very clear,” Jean-Marc Bonmatin, of The National Center for Scientific Research, said. “We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT. Far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperiling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

In its conclusion, the Task Force study said:

The authors strongly suggest that regulatory agencies apply more precautionary principles and further tighten regulations on neonicotinoids and fipronil and start planning for a global phase-out or at least start formulating plans for a strong reduction of the global scale of use.


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  • bob July 21, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    You’d think people would learn, but they just don’t…

  • Themistocles July 21, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Well written story by Miss Scott. Now we have some answers and the thing that angers me is, for the last 3 years, many so called ‘scientific experts’ have been saying the Bee population devastation has been due to ‘Global Warming’.. So sick of the lies and Alarmists !!

  • Gracey July 21, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    Themistocles, global warming is contributing to bee decline too. Where there is drought (no flowers growing), flood and fire, bees won’t thrive. Like fossil fuel companies promote denial that CO2 emissions are trapping heat near the earth, pesticide companies are refuting the scientific evidence that their product is in a large measure responsible for killing bees. If the polluters don’t stop putting profit before health, I think that more than the bee population will decline!

  • Spire July 22, 2014 at 12:57 am

    While the article is good and the use of neonicotinoids absolutely must be reduced—or better yet eliminated—the article is suggesting there is a singular, primary cause for Colony Collapse Disorder. Talk to long time beekeepers. They will tell inform you that there is a list of factors which are contributing to the decline of not only honey bees, but native bees, wasps, butterflies, and a host of plant pollinators which are as important as the honey bee for the survival of the world’s plants and ultimately, us.

    These include refined sugars used as feed.

    Pathogens: Among others, scientists are considering Nosema (a pathogenic gut fungi), Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, and possibly unknown pathogens as possible culprits in CCD. ARS research has indicated that no one pathogen of any class directly correlates with the majority of CCD incidents. Rather, a higher total pathogen load of viruses and bacteria correlates more directly with CCD than any one specific pathogen.

    Parasites: Varroa mites are often found in honey bee colonies that are affected by CCD. It is not known if the Varroa mites are directly involved or if the viruses that Varroa mites transmit (similar to the way mosquitoes transmit the malaria virus) are a factor in causing CCD.

    Management stressors: Among the management stressors that are possible contributors to CCD are poor nutrition due to apiary overcrowding and increased migratory stress brought on by the honey bees being transported to multiple locations across the country.

    Environmental stressors: Such stressors include the impact of pollen/nectar scarcity, lack of diversity in nectar/pollen, availability of only pollen/nectar with low nutritional value, and limited access to water or access only to contaminated water. Stressors also include accidental or intentional exposure to pesticides at lethal or sub-lethal levels.

    For all of these reasons, bees and insects have a high chance of a lowered immune system, making them susceptible to all of the above. Humans are always looking for one answer and a quick fix. Nature doesn’t work that way. Nature is complex and each complex element is within the context of other complex elements.

    Do your part, plant a wildflower garden of native plants to encourage pollinators. Grow your own vegetables. Encourage your friends to do the same. Stop using harmful chemicals of any type (even organic) in your landscape and garden. Seek Integrated Pest Management practices. There are other ways.

    Vote with your fork by purchasing organic produce. Visit your local farmer’s market to support your local farmers. Learn more about all pollinators. The Xerces Society is a great place to start.

    • bob July 22, 2014 at 12:31 pm


  • St Georgenative July 22, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Maybe scientists should look into what’s going into those “chemtrails” all over the skies that then coat the crops. Or maybe they are the same scientist who developed them?

  • JOSH DALTON July 22, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I think the iphone is causing the decline.

    • ladybugavenger July 22, 2014 at 4:19 pm

      Is there an app for this?

  • bill July 23, 2014 at 6:53 am

    a balanced, well-researched article would have addressed the points made in this wall street journal article.

  • PATTYLOU August 2, 2014 at 11:31 am


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