Are honey bees being stung by Neonicotinoids?

Honey: An immune system booster, an athlete’s best friend, and a sweet treat with a thousand different uses. It’s difficult to imagine a world without this sticky nectar.

However, since 2006 honey bees have been shown to be dying off in the thousands. This rapid decline is being blamed on — in part at least — relatively new types of insecticide on the market: neonicotinoids. But are they really to blame?

Neonicotinoids — literally meaning “new nicotine-like insecticides” — are chemically similar to nicotine, and have been used over the past 20 years to control various pests including sap-feeding insects and root-feeding grubs.

Safer for people compared to legacy pesticides such as organophosphates and carbamates, they have been widely adopted for pest control in agriculture, commercial and residential landscapes. Benefitting farmers, the insecticide stays active in plants for months, providing protection for crops throughout the entire growing season. Virtually all commercial corn seed is now treated with neonicotinoids.

Bees are subtly affected by the pesticide, which has been shown to have an effect on their foraging efficiency and ability to raise their young.  As systemic pesticides, rather than sitting on the surface of the plant, they are taken up by whichever plant they are applied near and are transported throughout the plant’s tissues. Bees are exposed while going about their daily pollination rituals.

Once in a bee’s system, like nicotine, neonicotinoids act on receptors in the nerve synapse, which is thought to render victims more susceptible to parasites and pathogens, including the intestinal parasite Nosema, which disrupts the bee’s ability to digest food.

Certain NGOs and environmental organizations have been increasingly highlighting the issue over the past 4 years, and honey bee health is now at the forefront of policy makers’ minds.

In 2013, the EU banned neonicotinoids for two years. In 2014, Barack Obama stated in his Presidential Memorandum that:

“Given the breadth, severity, and persistence of pollinator losses, it is critical to expand Federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses…”

Leading to a ban of a certain class of neonicotinoid in the US in 2015.

But, do we really have enough evidence that neonicotinoids are causing honey bee decline? Or are there other factors coming into play?

Lynn Dicks, Natural Environment Research Council Knowledge Exchange Fellow, has suggested that the reaction to neonicotinoids has been blown out of proportion, stating:

The assertion that a ban on neonicotinoids in Europe will save bees from extinction is absurd.” 

Although there’s no doubt that reducing the use of neonicotinoids will help bee populations, it’s not the “be all and end all” for bee survival, and there are other factors at play.

Despite what environmental groups may be telling us, Dicks states that most species of bee are not on the verge of extinction – especially not the honey bee.

We don’t yet have a silver bullet to stop bee deaths, but talking about bee health in relation to pesticides is an important element. The jury is still out on neonicotinoids, but there’s no doubt that the subject continues to be an area of active research and policy relevance.



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