The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 21, 2014

Our View: Get serious on threat to honey bees

Why it matters: Collapse of honey bee population may put food supply, environment at risk.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Recently a Rhode Island grocery store temporarily removed all produce that comes from plants dependent on pollinators, such as honey bees. They pulled 237 of 453 products from shelves — 52 percent of the department’s normal product mix.

The absent produce included apples, carrots, lemons, cucumbers and cantaloupe.

The demonstration was a vivid example of why protecting the honey bee population is so important.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than a third of the nation’s honey bees have died in each of the last several years. That alarming collapse can’t continue without seriously threatening the food supply and environment.

Some of the reasons for the decline are because there are fewer flowering plants on the landscape and because of increased disease problems among bees.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is developing guidelines aimed at improving habitat for pollinating insects and by working in more flowering plants on state-owned land.

But most of the focus — and contention — is on insecticide use.

Scientists say there is a growing body of evidence that pollinating insects are affected by even low levels of insecticide. While widespread use of chemicals on farm fields and in yards has long been a concern on a number of environmental and health levels, much of the focus in the bee decline is on the neonicotinoid insecticide, the most widely used insecticides for farm crops and some urban landscapes.

When first approved for use by the EPA just a decade ago, the new insecticides were seen as beneficial in that they were less toxic to people, mammals and birds than previous insecticides. And they are water soluble so they can be sprayed on the ground and on plants and are taken up by the plants, reducing the risk of drift.

But evidence is piling up that the insecticides are much more dangerous to pollinating insects than first believed. Last year the European Food Safety Authority stated the neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees. And they said the the studies relied on to approve the insecticides, which were sponsored by chemical company Bayer, may be flawed.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also found that the neonicotinoids disrupt the immune systems of bees, making them susceptible to viral infections, which would explain the higher disease levels seen in bees.

Bee keeping groups and others have been filing lawsuits calling for the EPA and some states to ban the insecticide.

For its part, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture told the Legislature last week it will do a year-long study of insecticides linked to bee deaths.

If the science continues to back the conclusion that the insecticide is devastating pollinators, the EPA will need to make changes. Of course, simply banning insecticides is not a reasonable solution. Chemicals have removed plague and pestilence as a common part of life. That’s why chemical companies and researchers also need to step up efforts for better alternatives.

Until then, individuals can do some things to help the bees: Plant a variety of flowering and native plants in a yard or garden, lay off the home use of pesticide, don’t buy garden seeds coated with the systemic pesticide clothianidin (check the seed label), and buy your honey from a local bee keeper who is increasing the local bee population.