11 amazing reasons to save the honeybees
Earthjustice is representing the beekeeping industry writ large in the first case challenging the EPA’s approval of a known bee-killing pesticide, sulfoxaflor. We are arguing this case as the beekeeping industry across the country struggles for survival and faces the costly effects of pesticides on their businesses. Here are 11 reasons we are fighting for the bees.
Everything’s Better With Bees: Honeybees and other pollinators are game-changers for self-fertile crops. They simply make things better. Exhibits A-D: When honeybees and other pollinators pollinate oil seed crops, they increase oil content. When honeybees and other pollinators pollinate fruits, the fruits are more nutrient-rich and aromatic. They increase fruit sets and reduce fruit drops. And they also enhance plants’ resistance to diseases and adverse climate factors.
Our Food Systems Depend Upon Bees: One in every three bites of food depends on bees for pollination, and the annual value of pollination services worldwide are estimated at over $125 billion. In the United States, pollination contributes $20–$30 billion in agricultural production annually. And in California alone, almonds crops—entirely dependent on bees for pollination—are valued at over $3 billion.
The Queen Bee Runs the Baddest Matriarchy the World Has Ever Known (Sorry, Beyonce): She lives for up to five years. She lays up to 2,000 eggs a day. The whole hive revolves around her. The other females, all the worker bees, do all the important work. They live for several weeks, produce all the honey, and vastly outnumber the males. The males are the drones. They are kept around for mating, and once that’s done, they’re kicked out of the hive. When the queen bee dies or gets sick, the rest of the females choose a baby successor with traits of a queen and feed her a special concoction of pollen and natural secretion called “royal jelly.” The queen bee mates once and rules and expands her empire for the rest of her life. Read more on Backyard Beekeepers' website.
Behold the Bee’s Effects on Avocados, Blueberries and Cucumbers: According to the Pollinator Stewardship Council, when honeybees and other pollinators pollinate avocado, they increase the plant’s fruit yield by 350 percent and fruit weight by 18 percent. Blueberries in New Jersey can see an increase in gross revenues of $112 per acre if one acre of vacant land is available to native pollinators. A honeybee hive working a hectare of cucumbers can yield 3 times more fruits than plots without bees.
They Would Fly 55,000 Miles Just to Bee…: Bees fly an average of 55,000 miles to produce one pound of honey, but they don’t know how to make honey when they are born. They learn it in the hive.
They Have Phenomenal Eyesight: Bees use their five eyes to see an incredible amount more than humans. They can perceive movement at a rate six times that of humans. If bees were watching a movie with humans, they’d see it one frame at a time, where all the frames run together for us. Bees can also see ultraviolent light, which is invisible to humans. See like a bee here, and look at flowers through the eyes of a bee here. Read more fascinating bee vision facts here.
Who knew bees love caffeine?
They Love Caffeine as Much as We Do: Science tells us that caffeine is actually a chemical that a plant produces to repulse harmful insects… except for bees, which are attracted by it and therefore help the plant with pollination. The caffeine helps bees find the flowers to pollinate.
They Know How To Benjamin Button, and They Can Teach Humans How To Unlock the Secret to Brain Youth: In 2012, a team of scientists out of Arizona State University discovered a wild phenomenon in bees: They can age backwards. “Honeybees effectively reverse brain aging when they take on nest responsibilities typically handled by much younger bees,” reported the scientists. Their findings show that “tricking older, foraging bees into doing social tasks inside the nest causes changes in the molecular structure of their brains.” The proteins in the bees’ brains actually changed. Scientists found a protein also found in humans that can help protect against dementia – including diseases such as Alzheimer’s – and another protein that protects from brain damage caused by stress. Researchers are hard at work now trying to figure out ways to recreate these effects in new drugs to treat Alzheimers and dimensia.
They Could Out-Dance Michael Jackson: Bees have invented a dance scientists call the “waggle dance” to communicate with each other about where to find the best sources of food. The bees even take into account the angle of the sun, and by moving their midsections in figure eights at specific angles, they inform their hive mates of the distance and precise location of the forage. “We realized that the honeybee truly is the only animal who can tell you where it has collected good food," apiculture scientist Dr. Margaret Couvillon of the University of Sussex in England told National Geographic. "Listening to the bees could therefore give us information relevant to helping not just them, but also a wide range of pollinators."
Frank & Mies & Walter & Corbu … Have Nothing on the Bees: NPR took a fascinating look into why bees store their honey in the hexagonal honeycomb. Their honeycombs are not just composed of hexagon-like shapes, they are perfect hexagons, each angle at 120 degrees. NPR explains that in 36 B.C., Roman scholar Marcus Varro cracked the math and postulated in his "Honeybee Conjecture” that hexagons, of all shapes, can hold the most honey with the least amount of structural material, aka wax.
Honeycombs endure today as muse to all sorts of modern architectural applications. Evolutionary biologist, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry expert Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD, writes, “The ancient Greeks understood that modular hexagonal honeycomb makes the most storage possible with the least amount of material. Architects and designers are tapping this for all sorts of applications. Panelite, in New York, offers hexagonal ClearShade insulating glass. It passively regulates heat, while still letting in lots of light. The Sinosteel skyscraper in Tianjin, China uses honeycomb windows the same way.”
Bees Are In Trouble, and They Need Us To Save Them: Nearly one-third of all honeybees in the United States have died in the last few years. Scientists don’t know the exact cause, but a growing body of independent science links a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics) to widespread bee die-offs, both alone and in combination with other factors like disease and malnutrition. Twenty-nine independent scientists conducted a global review of 800 independent studies and found overwhelming evidence of pesticides linked to bee declines. The U.S. EPA continues to rubberstamp approval of these pesticides, even though there’s enough scientific evidence to force a second look and further research.
Pretty incredible, aren't they?
Earthjustice is also representing a coalition of food safety and environmental health groups in a case against the state of California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation for its approval of neonicotinoid pesticides and failure to study the science around harms to bees. Acccording to environmental horticulturist Laura Anne Sanagorski, less than 5% of the world’s insects are harmful to humans or crops, meaning that 95% of insects killed by blanket applications of pesticides are not pests and may even be beneficial.
Help us save the bees!
See this infographic:
THE CASE OF THE VANISHING BEES
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
On a fine June morning last year at a Target store outside Portland, Oregon, customers arrive to a startling sight: the parking lot was covered with a seething mat of bumblebees, some staggering around, most already dead, more raining down from above. The die-off lasted several days.
It didn't take long to figure out that the day before a pest-control company had sprayed a powerful insecticide on surrounding Linden trees to protect them from aphids; but nobody warned the bees to stay away. In the end, an estimated 50,000 bumblebees perished.
The tragedy at Target wiped out as many as 300 bumblebee colonies of bees no longer available to pollinate nearby trees and flowers.
The deadly pesticide is one of a fairly new family known as the neonicotinoids—“neonics” for short—developed a decade or so ago to replace organophosphates and carbamates, which are also highly toxic but dissipate far more quickly.
Scores of plants—fruits, vegetables, ornamentals—are sprayed with neonics. The chemical penetrates the leaves and is taken up by the plant’s vascular system, turning the plant poisonous to insects eating the leaves, pollen and nectar. Alternatively, the plant’s seeds are soaked or the soil is treated with the chemical, with the same result. This is convenient for keeping beetles off your roses. It is lethal for bees and other pollinators.
And even if it doesn’t kill directly, as happened at the Target lot, sub-lethal doses interfere with the bees’ immune systems and make them vulnerable to pests. They can also damage the bees’ ability to navigate back to the hive.
Several of the neonics, incidentally, are made by Bayer, the same Bayer that made the aspirin in your medicine cabinet. Bayer is a German company; yet, since 2013, neonics may not be used on bee-attractive crops in Germany or any other country in the European Union.
This prohibition on use in the EU is a manifestation of what’s known as the Precautionary Principle, a fancy way of saying “Look before you leap.” In the United States we do it backwards: Chemicals are deemed innocent until proven guilty, sometimes with disastrous results.
She has been domesticated by humans for some thirteen millennia. She is the only creature besides us who manufactures food for humans. She stings only in self-defense. She pollinates a substantial fraction of the plants humans consume. One calculation has it that every third bite of food you eat was pollinated by a bee.
The use of ‘she’ here is deliberate. All worker bees are female, as is the queen. The only guys are the drones, a fraction of the total in a hive that has sixty to a hundred thousand individuals. The drones’ only job is to impregnate the queen, which may sound like a cushy gig but he dies in the act. Come fall, the remaining drones are unceremoniously evicted from the hive to save the precious winter resources for the worker bees.
Domesticated bees are around two thirds of the total bee population in the world, the rest are wild. Butterflies pollinate too, and other insects, and hummingbirds, even bats in the tropics. In the United States, Europe, and elsewhere domesticated bees are a major player in agriculture.
The population of bees, domestic and wild, fluctuates considerably from year to year. Drought will reduce the amount of wild food the bees need to survive. Storms can wipe out colonies. Natural diseases can ravage populations. But bee colonies are resilient and can bounce back from adversity. At least it used to be that way, until the winter/spring of 2006/2007.
COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER TAKES HOLD
In that season, the die-off of domesticated bees was so bad bee researchers coined a new phrase: Colony Collapse Disorder. Where the normal annual loss of colonies ran around 10 percent, that year it was over 30 percent, with some beekeepers losing more than 80 percent. And even those stats underestimate reality.
Jeff Anderson, a beekeeper in Minnesota and California points out that the official statistics from the federal Department of Agriculture counts only wintertime die-offs, but in the new bee-unfriendly world there are die-offs all year round: Now he loses half or more of his bees in most years. Other beekeepers have similar stories.
And what makes these die-offs different is that frequently the bees just vanish. A beekeeper will open a hive to find only brood—developing bees—and a queen, maybe a few drones. The worker bees have disappeared. Anderson calls this the Perfect Crime—no bodies, no murder weapon, no bees.
One prevailing theory is that a chemical has damaged the bees’ ability to find their way home; they simply get lost, run out of gas and die.
Bill Rhodes, a former professional football player turned beekeeper, lives in Umatilla, Florida, where his bees pollinate citrus orchards. In the summers his bees go to North Dakota or Wisconsin to prepare for winter. In the spring he trucks his bees to California’s Central Valley where they help pollinate almond orchards.
Beekeeping is a huge business—it takes an estimated million and a half hives to pollinate the almonds each year, producing a crop worth $6 billion give or take, twice what California’s wine industry is worth. A major fraction of all commercial bee hives in the U.S. make the journey to the almond orchards every year.
Beekeeper Bill Rhodes in a Florida citrus orchard.
Beekeeper Bill Rhodes in a Florida citrus orchard.
MELISSA LYTTLE / EARTHJUSTICE
Rhodes started noticing some problems about 10 years ago. The bees simply weren’t behaving the way they should. At first he thought, he was just a “piss-poor beekeeper,” but soon he knew that wasn’t right. Something had changed in the bees’ lives.
In 2004, he trucked 16 semi-trailer loads of bees to California. “I got paid for two.” The bees just weren’t performing, which was as bad for the orchardists as it was for the beekeepers, not to mention the consumers of almonds.
Rhodes phoned a friend in the pest control business and learned about a chemical called imidacloprid that was used on termites. “The termite becomes disoriented. It lowers its immune system. Viruses will kill him. I also learned that the stuff was used on sunflowers. Sunflowers were the last thing to bloom in South Dakota where my bees had been for the summer. It was suddenly starting to make sense.”
Zac Browning raises bees in Idaho and North Dakota and, like many of his colleagues, trucks them to California in the spring when almond orchards are in bloom. He outlines a phenomenon that has combined with pesticides and other bee hazards to make life extremely difficult: the conversion of bee-friendly areas—or as Browning calls them, “beetopias”—to vast swaths of industrial soybean and corn fields.
Both soybean and corn are almost exclusively genetically modified to be resistant to the deluge of pesticides sprayed on the fields to kill weeds. Corn and soy provide very little food for bees even without all the poisons.
Browning describes yet another problem: “In North Dakota a calm day is a 20-mile-an-hour sustained wind,” he says. The herbicides are sprayed on huge fields. They drift all along the periphery of the field, across the road ditches, next to the waterways, and “everywhere imaginable where bee forage would be. The bees are starving. The herbicide kills all the natural forage, and then the bees are concentrated only on crops that have insecticide applied to them.”
Erin MacGregor-Forbes is an accountant in Portland, Maine, who raises bees for fun and a little profit. She is also a serious student of bee politics and bee science. What worries her most is the fact that many of the plants you buy at Home Depot or another big supplier have been treated with neonics.
“Homeowners are planting flowers in their yards thinking they’re helping bees and they’re basically planting poison plants,” MacGregor-Forbes says. The phenomenon holds true for lawns as well: Lawn fertilizers frequently contain weed-killing substances. Bees don’t care about lawns, but the chemical will persist in the soil for three years, so if someone tears out a lawn and plants flowers or vegetables, those will be poisonous to bees.
Susan Kegley, a self-described rookie beekeeper, is a PhD chemist and head of the Pesticide Research Institute in Berkeley. She has dug into data collected by the federal Department of Agriculture and the USGS, and has been helping Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie as digs into the law surrounding pesticides and bees. Her charts are dramatic and stunning. As pesticide use has soared, honey production has plummeted. Likewise, as massive new plantings of corn and soy have blanketed the upper Midwest, honey production has fallen as bee deaths have climbed.
On May 9, 2014, the Harvard School of Public Health released a chilling new study suggesting that even small amounts of neonics can significantly harm honeybee colonies and cause mass wintertime die offs. In the study, the Harvard scientists found that hives of bees exposed to two forms of neonics were much more vulnerable to Colony Collapse Disorder than unexposed hives.
“We demonstrated again in this study that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD in honey bee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter,” said lead study author Chensheng (Alex) Lu of Harvard in a statement.
AND SO TO COURT
The law known as FIFRA, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, is supposed to protect people, bees, and other wildlife from dangerous chemicals. It has never worked all that well, in part because the companies seeking permission to get chemicals to market are the entities who do the lab tests and field tests of the chemicals, then submit their findings to the EPA for product approval. This is clearly a process with ample opportunity for abuse.
Using inadequate science, the EPA approved a neonic made by Dow called “sulfoxaflor” for use on a wide variety of crops in early 2013. Earthjustice, which has been involved in successful efforts to protect people and the environment from dangerous chemicals for nearly 40 years, is currently representing the beekeeping industry in a lawsuit against the EPA for its approval of sulfoxaflor.
In their case, Earthjustice attorneys Greg Loarie and Janette Brimmer cite EPA studies that found that the chemical is “very highly toxic” to honeybees and the EPA’s own risk assessment, which concedes that the “absence of incident [reports] cannot be construed with absence of incidents.”
Case in point: Dow cites an example when sulfoxaflor was used on cotton to kill a new pest called the Tarnished Plant Bug with no reports of bee death. Susan Kegley points out that there were no reports of death because many years earlier, in the early 2000s, a different pesticide had already succeeded in eradicating both weevils and the bees from the cotton belt. Many bees perished, and any beekeeper who wanted to keep his bees alive had already moved them away from cotton.
Earthjustice and its beekeeper clients also argue that the EPA’s science doesn’t dig deep enough to consider the true effects of neonics on bees.
“You can think about bees in two ways. You can think of individual bees or you can think of the colony, the superorganism,” MacGregor-Forbes says. The EPA has only measured the amount of a given poison that will kill an individual bee or many individual bees, but has neglected the overall effect on the colony.
Jeff Anderson, the Minnesota-California beekeeper who is a plaintiff on the sulfoxaflor lawsuit, argues that 95 percent of the applications of the neonics are unnecessary and uneconomic.
Zac Browning insists that the switch to genetically modified soybeans and corn must be reversed. And there are far more benign pest control strategies. The benefits of getting off the pesticide bandwagon would be enormous: more honey (there’s a worldwide shortage at present), more reliable pollination of fruit and nut trees and vegetables, less chance of harm to humans and a myriad species of wildlife. And less chance that that lovely shrub you planted to help the bees in your neighborhood will actually be a killer of bees and other productive insects.
At least one city—Eugene, Oregon—has outlawed the use of the neonics; others could follow. States could step up as well, as Earthjustice is asking California to do. And it’s conceivable that the EPA could do the right thing. The agricultural chemicals industry is extremely powerful and influential, but if Europe can ban neonics, why can’t we?
Bees, Beekeepers, and the U.S. Food System Need Your Help! Bees are dying in record numbers -- help us fight back! earthjustice.org/fight4bees.
Written by Tom Turner
Published on May 2, 2014
Update: In April of 2015, Earthjustice went to court twice on behalf of the honey bees.
On April 10, lead attorney Greg Loarie asked a California court to force the state Department of Pesticide Regulation to stop approving the use of neonicotinoids until it completes its review of the effects of these nicotine-derived pesticides on honey bees. Earthjustice represented Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, and Pesticide Action Network.
On April 14, Earthjustice, representing the beekeeping industry writ large, asked a federal judge to force the EPA to take a second look at its approval of sulfoxaflor, a neonicotinoid insecticide.
Decisions for both cases are expected soon.
Why Bees Probably Can’t Avoid Pesticides Even if They Wanted To
Apr 27, 2015
Pesticides such as as neonicotinoids are already under close scrutiny because research appears to show that, certainly for honey bees at least, they may interrupt the insect’s normal behaviors and they are suspected to play a part in colony collapse disorder.
One of the ways in which the pesticide industry has fought back against those claims is to point out that such studies have always involved much higher doses of neonicotinoid exposure than would occur in the wild, saying that the bees would flit between crops and flowers, some of which will have the pesticides, some of which won’t, and that even if they were negatively affected, the bees would learn to avoid particularly problematic areas.
Two separate studies published this month in the journal Nature appear to show that pesticides may have an affect not just on honeybees but other wild bees, while a second study shows that bees may have developed a preference for nicotine-like pesticides.
The first study was conducted by researchers at Lund University in Sweden. To counter claims by pesticide companies that the artificial set-up of experiments has affected past results, they attempted to create a real world experiment where they analyzed the activity of bees in eight fields of oilseed rape sown with seeds treated with the insecticide clothianidin per the manufacturer’s instructions, and eight fields that were not treated.
The researchers found that bumblebee hives stopped growing, meaning the number of bees was less than those in the untreated fields, and they produced less queens who would then go on to set up their own colonies. That said, the honeybees, which are our chief pollinators for crops, did not appear to be affected, but researcher Maj Rundlöf told Nature in a separate report that the honeybees may not be more resilient, it could just be the fact of their greater numbers. The study her team conducted could only account for a population reduction greater than 20 percent in overall colony size, so it might be that the honeybee die-off was shielded by their greater numbers but that they still suffered a potentially significant change.
This may help to clarify a long-standing issue with bee studies. Scientists had supposed that honeybees would be reflective of the general population, but that might not be true. Also, this might be why bee studies into insecticide exposure have shown mixed results when counting overall population numbers. Further investigation into these issues will be needed to determine if that is the case, but it certainly is a cause for interest.
The second study released in Nature this past week was conducted by researchers from Newcastle University in the UK, and specifically looked at whether, as pesticide makers have claimed, bees will avoid plants that have been treated with harmful pesticides.
To do this the researchers confined a sample of honeybees and a sample of bumblebees to separate boxes and then provided them with nectar that was unaltered and nectar that had been laced with one of three insecticides: imidacloprid, thiamethoxam or clothianidin.
The bees did not appear to show a preference for the unaltered nectar and instead showed a significant preference for the nectar samples containing imidacloprid or thiamethoxam. Pesticide companies have claimed that the bees’ behavior could have been modified by the experiment as it wasn’t a natural setting and, in the interests of strict scientific rigor this is something the researchers also acknowledge, but the preference appears to be quite marked and this certainly is a blow to companies that defend pesticides by saying the bees will simply avoid that which is not good for them.
In a further blow to that argument, the researchers also analyzed how the bees taste neurons react to different concentrations of neonicotinoids. They found that the bees can’t taste the neonicotinoids at any concentration, and so they couldn’t avoid it if they wanted to. As to why the bees prefer insecticides, we don’t yet fully understand the cause but the researchers have suggested that neonicotinoids may interfere with the bees’ normal brain activity to generate what is essentially the beginnings of an addiction to the insecticide-laced nectar, something that has been shown in rat studies.
Neonicotinoids are currently banned in Europe despite individual governments like the UK saying that there is not enough evidence to suggest that pesticides harm our pollinators. While this research won’t convince skeptics–indeed, the pesticide industry has reportedly brushed these studies off as being flawed–many researchers seem to agree that insecticides are changing bee behavior, and increasingly with harmful effects.
Link to report by Maj Rundolf: