By Liza Field
Something is scrambling the brains of bees, and two pesticide giants are suing the European Commission.The two stories are related, but in our day of quick news bytes, it can be hard to connect the dots. Human brains are getting scrambled as well.
Before we study the bees, in fact, it may help to look at our minds, whose disconnect I’d been noticing as a teacher.
Maybe it’s data overload, the misinformation siege or simply indoor life cutting humans off from nature’s continuum of reality. Whatever the cause, it’s getting harder for us to see basic connections. Between people and pollinators. Fruit and blossom. Smoke and fire.
It matters, here in earth-school, because connecting dots is the very role of humankind.
That was the view of educators like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington Carver, who thought Americans should learn to connect the dots of this universe—from soil to supper, wisdom to behavior, private interest to common good. Cultivating this awareness, they realized, was vital to navigating the future.
This takes us back to our school here: the bees.
In winter 2012, a third of the U.S. honeybee colonies vanished—a 42 percent greater decline than the previous winter’s. This remarkable figure capped a decade of honeybee die-off, with worse declines likely among native pollinators—including fireflies, butterflies, even hummingbirds.
Immediately noticed culprits were mites and diseases. But why were bees succumbing so easily to these troubles now, versus previously? Several peer-reviewed studies had implicated neurotoxic pesticides known as “neonicotinoids,” or “neonics.” These chemicals—the most common pesticides now in the world—are often used to encase commercial seeds and they accumulate in soil.
The systemic neurotoxin is then taken up by growing plants, pervading even the blooms, and thus to pollinators, who visit the flowers. It works by deranging the brain wiring of insects. Thus, neonics disorder the vital navigational skills of bees.
Yet neonic use continued, as if no human brain had connected these dots.
Chemical manufacturers like Bayer CropScience maintained the research was “poor” and the jury still “out.”
The jury has a pattern of remaining “out” these days, whenever one party wants to evade a particular dot-connecting verdict. Self-interest has a way of occluding clear connections.
This June, however, more evidence mounted.
Fifty thousand dead bumblebees were seen plummeting into a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, Ore. Landscapers were spraying the neonic dinotefuran on trees the helpful insects were pollinating. A hailstorm of bees fell to the ground.
Then, July brought news that 37 million honeybees were found dead around a farm in Ontario, Canada, killed by dust-drift from local plantings of neonic-slathered seed corn.
If this weren’t enough to link the dots between insect poison and poisoned insects, an August report sent the bad news home. With flowers.
Pesticide Research Institute (PRI) released the results of a pilot study analyzing common retail landscaping plants across the United States—the flowers, tomatoes and squash sold by home-improvement centers like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Partnering with the nonprofit Friends of the Earth, PRI researchers found seven out of 13 samples (each consisting of one to three plants) contained neonics—at levels able to poison bees.
“Unfortunately, these pesticides don’t break down quickly,” said researcher Timothy Brown of PRI. “They remain in the plants and the soil and can continue to affect pollinators for months to years after the treatment.”
The finding is startling, because growers want to help pollinators, not lure them toward extinction.
“What we’d like, as home gardeners, is to have gardens be a place of refuge for bees, not another area that’s poison for them,” said Susan Kegley, the Ph.D. chemist (and beekeeper) who founded and directs PRI.
“We hope that gardeners, landscaping companies and others…will take this information to their nursery suppliers and request systemic pesticide-free plants,” she said.
“In the meantime,” she added, “EPA should reconsider the wisdom of allowing such widespread use of pesticides that essentially remove plants from the food web.”
The European Commission did just that, in April, imposing a two-year ban on these insecticides for bee-pollinated crops.
But manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta are now suing the commission, calling the moratorium “disproportionate” and “unjustified.”
“Bayer remains convinced neonicotinoids are safe for bees, when used responsibly and properly,” a Bayer spokesman said.
But how do humans connect “responsibly” with a bioaccumulative poison? That’s the real brain-scrambler nobody has resolved.
Liza Field writes from Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.