THE BLOG

Honeybees on the Verge of Extinction

Nov 25, 2013 | Updated Jan 25, 2014

In my 25-year experience at the US EPA, nothing illustrated the deleterious nature of "pesticides" and "regulation" better than the plight of honeybees.

Here is a beneficial insect pollinating a third of America's crops, especially fruits and vegetables, and we thank it with stupefying killing.

Poisoning of honeybees became routine in the mid-1970s with the EPA's approval of neurotoxins encapsulated in dust-size particles that took days to release their deadly gas.

Some of my EPA colleagues denounced such misuse of science and public trust. They told their bosses those encapsulated neurotoxins were weapon-like biocides that should have no standing in agriculture and pest management. Indeed, one of those EPA ecologists discovered the neurotoxic plastic spheres in the honeybee queens' gut. This meant poison in the honey.

EPA acted with fury. It forced the scientist out of his laboratory and into paper pushing in Washington. Approval of the industry's neurotoxins expanded to cover most major crops. This meant honeybees had less and less space to search for food without dying.

The blowback of this almost criminal policy is the massive death of honeybees all over the country. Government officials and industry executives cooked up an obscure name, "colony collapse disorder," to cover up the pesticide killers of the honeybees.

Meanwhile, the mission of EPA of protecting public health and the environment almost disappeared. I don't mean that EPA acted on its own out of callousness or indifference for honeybees. No. Industry used Congress and the White House in perverting EPA, making it alien to its noble purpose.

That's why EPA had no trouble in adding more neurotoxins against honeybees. It "registered" the German neurotoxins known as neonicotinoids.

Just like in the mid-1970s EPA said yes to known deadly substances for the convenience of farmers and for the profit of a handful of chemical companies, EPA repeated its misguided policy in the early 2000s. Now the neonicotinoids are spreading death to honeybees all over America and the world.

I have known about this tragedy for some years, but I always hoped honeybee keepers and reasonable farmers would minimize the harm. I was wrong.

A few days ago I called up a beekeeper inviting him to an environmental conference planned for June 2015. He declined because, he said, there would be no honeybees left in another year or two.

I was stunned. I asked him to explain.

"Scientific evidence mounts almost daily confirming the decades-long observations of beekeepers that pesticides are playing a major role in the dramatic decline of honeybees and other pollinators," he said to me.

"Singled out for special condemnation is the neonicotinoid family of pesticides, systemic neurotoxins which are the companion technology of genetically modified crops and which have contaminated hundreds of millions of acres. Characterized by some as 'The Plutonium of Pesticides,' they are pervasive and pernicious; persistent in the environment with half lives of years.

"These products," he continued, "are water soluble and migrate readily with ground and surface water to be taken up by non-target plants [weeds, crops] at toxic levels, and if the research of some [scientists] is accurate, the effects on insects' nerve synapses are cumulative and irreversible, which means that there is no safe dose, however small.

"Exposure," he concluded, "as low as one tenth of a part per billion can be fatal to honey bees."

A part per billion is like pouring an ounce of chocolate syrup in 1,000 tank cars of milk. Yet such miniscule amounts of certain chemicals kill organisms like the honeybee.

The beekeeper, who prefers anonymity, is right on the deadly effects of neonicotinoids. He was angry and eloquent in describing the pesticide calamity all around him. He remembered the encapsulated neurotoxins and said he used to find "piles" of dead honeybees. "But," he said, "my honeybees recovered then. Now there's no place for them. I resent taking care of my honeybees only to discover they disappear or to see them dead."

"I speak to the state and federal elected officials and they pat me on the head and do nothing. As for EPA, only the word "agency" is true in its name," he said.

Talking to this deeply wounded beekeeper, I relived countless memories from my work. Listening to my colleagues citing data, cases of deadly results from allowing farmers to spray their crops with neurotoxic chemicals.

Yes, honeybees are insects. But they give us honey, a divine-like food. Honeybees are also extremely valuable because they make some of our food possible. Moreover, they are behind those gorgeous wildflowers.

A world without honeybees would be unpleasant and sterile. Add to that rising temperatures and you have a nightmare world. Not only such a world will have less food. It will surely be more toxic for all life, including us.

The tragedy of my beekeeper friend is American tragedy written large. Time has come to say no to the poisoning of our world.

In a civilized society there should be no chemical warfare anywhere, particularly in raising food.