By Elena Day
An article in the June 30 “Local Living” section of the Washington Post implicates neonicotinoid insecticides (“neonics”) in the decline of honeybees. Varroa parasitic mites and loss of forage also contribute to the current yearly loss of 44 percent of our honeybee colonies or Colony Collapse Disorder. Previously, beekeepers could expect to lose 10 percent of their hives.
Although there has been no comprehensive tracking of how our 4000 species of native bees respond to this new pesticide assault, there is agreement that about one half of our bumblebees are in decline. Populations of Bombus affinis, the rusty-patched bumblebee, endemic to North America and widespread in the East and upper Midwest, have decreased by close to 90 percent.
Neonics and the widespread Roundup-ing of highway banks and huge acreages to prepare for GM (genetically modified) soybean and corn plantings have taken their toll by decreasing bee (and Monarch butterfly) forage plants. There is also evidence that Nosema bombi, a parasite that arrived with European commercially produced bumblebees for greenhouse tomato pollination, has infected the rusty-patched bumblebees. Canada awarded B. affinis Endangered Species status in 2015. The U.S. has to date not acted on the Xerces Society’s petition to list the B. affinis as endangered. B. affinis pollinates wildflowers, cranberries, plums, apples, alfalfa and onion seed.
The EPA recently confirmed that the neonicotinoid imidacloprid is a threat to “some” pollinators. Its testing of three other heavily used neonics—clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and dinotefuran—is not projected to be released until December. In 2013 when evidence implicated neonicotinoids in honeybee colony collapse, the European Union immediately suspended their use until studies were conclusive. On July 12, 2013, Rep. John Conyers introduced the Save the American Pollinators Act to suspend the use of the above-mentioned neonics. The bill was assigned to committee on July 16, 2013, where it remains. In December 2015, Montreal banned all neonics without exception.
Bayer, the German multinational chemical company, manufactures imidacloprid and clothianidin. The Swiss agrochemical company Syngenta makes thiamethoxam. (Neonics are banned in Switzerland.) Many companies sell dinotefuran.
Neonics are water-soluble chemical compounds that break down slowly. They are absorbed by plants and provide protection from insects as the plant grows. Neonics photodegrade. The half-life of neonics is 34 days. Without sunlight or microbial activity the neonics are estimated to break down much more slowly (3.8 years) and some researchers suspect their accumulation in aquifers. Older organophosphate and carbamate pesticides break down very quickly. Because the neonics were biologically active at lower concentrations, applications lower in volume were effective and seed treatments rather than foliar sprays were deemed environmentally friendlier. Neonics were deemed less toxic to mammals and birds.
Imidacloprid is the most widely used of the neonics and the most widely applied pesticide worldwide. It’s been around a long time. It was first registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1994. It has been used on 95 percent of corn and canola, a majority of cotton, sorghum, sugar beets, and 50 percent of soybeans. It is used on a majority of our fruits and vegetables. It works well, but it kills bees which are necessary to pollinate 35 percent of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. Corn, wheat and rice are wind-pollinated. Soy and other beans are self-pollinated. If one wants to exclude fruits, vegetables and nuts from the diet one can advocate for the continued use of neonics.
Today, U.S agriculture uses Roundup (glyphosate) to rid acres and acres of farmland of weeds that are forage for both honeybees and native bees. Roundup and the GM seed business came about as a way to halt runoff from plowed fields by instituting “no till” agriculture. In the 21st century it appears that what was a great idea to increase moisture and organic matter in soils and decrease erosion has morphed into more chemically dependent agriculture. If one gazes over those Roundup-ed fields, one notices that there is no green organic matter that plant microbes can process. (In fact, one reads about the availability of microorganisms in Ag magazine that a farmer can buy to reinvigorate the soils he or she has chemically doused with herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides. These fields are planted with GM corn and soy resistant to Roundup. The seeds may be treated with imidacloprid or other neonics or emergent plants are dusted up with the pesticide. Forage is reduced and bees suffer death by paralysis from the neonics.
The U.S. exports GM corn and soy to China for their expanding factory farms. In return, the Chinese ship us the greater proportion of honey we consume, often tainted with antibiotics. Our honeybees die because of the farming practices associated with corn/soy agribusiness. Meanwhile consumers are demanding organic corn and that corn is currently imported from Romania (33 percent), Turkey (19 percent) and the Netherlands (18 percent). Welcome to globalization and the increased use of fossil fuels for shipping!
It is ironic that Monsanto, which manufactures Roundup, the most widespread herbicide used worldwide, and Bayer, which manufactures neonics, may be merging. Although Monsanto rejected Bayer’s $62 billion takeover offer in late May, both companies are open to continued negotiations. The merger of Bayer and Monsanto would create the largest global supplier of agricultural products, of both GM and traditional seeds and of a broad range of pesticides and herbicides. Earlier this year ChemChina offered Swiss-based seed and pesticide manufacturer Syngenta $43 billion. Syngenta sells a lot of pesticide and GM seeds in the U.S. Despite the lukewarm protests of lawmakers like Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa about Chinese inroads into U.S. markets, the deal is likely to go through.
Back to the bees. In 2013 the EU suspended sales of neonics or limited use to crops bees avoided.
In the U.S. in 2013 Monsanto hosted an industry conference on bee health, Bayer CropScience, based in Durham, N.C., built a 5,500-square-foot “bee health center” and Syngenta floated a “comprehensive action plan” for bee health. Currently Bayer out of N.C. has a pollinator initiative program called “Feed a Bee.” It has given away 200,000 packets of wildflower seed mixes to individuals and groups. It has 40,000 left for this season. (It may be too late to plant these.) Wildflower mixes aren’t as easy as opening the packet and watching them grow. There is preparation involved for which most recipients haven’t planned. It’s a great idea and many homeowners are willing.
The agrochemical companies downplay pesticides or don’t mention them. It remains largely unknown that products containing neonics approved for home garden and lawn use are applied a rate 32 times higher than those approved for agricultural use. Bayer CropScience prefers to talk about the invasive insects, fungal and viral diseases plaguing bees and loss of natural habitat.
One does notice this year that many more highway banks and medians abound with daisies, black-eyed Susans and even penstemon. In Crozet there are multiple plantings of coreopsis and rudbeckias on Jarmans Gap Road and in Old Trail. Let’s hope there are pollinators as well.
On July 1, Vermont’s GMO labeling law went into effect. On July 6 (after The Crozet
Gazette has gone to press) the Senate will vote on another version of the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” Robert-Stabenow bill that, if passed, will overturn Vermont’s law. It is a bill designed by and for Monsanto. The right of states to pass their own food safety and labeling laws will be curtailed. Even Vermont’s seed labeling law, which has been in existence for 12 years, will be overturned. Food companies will “disclose” GMO ingredients using barcodes, websites or refer consumers on the packaging to an 800 number. Companies will not be penalized for noncompliance. Even the Food and Drug Administration has said the bill excludes many products from ever having to be labeled, including some of the most common GMO ingredients, like soybean oil and GMO sugar beets.