Bees and Pesticides

Bees and Pesticides

bee on flower

There are over 1600 types of native bees in Canada and most of them are solitary ground dwellers. Honeybees are essential for fruit, nut and vegetable crops. They can learn and communicate and have incredible sense of smell, however they have a low resistance to pathogens and their bodies don’t have a good detox system.

You know those times where a certain thing will come into your life multiple times within a short timeframe? Well, that’s how it was with me and the bees. I happened to take a webinar on Olfaction and the Honeybee, I received a couple of research studies about bees and essential oils, and I came across a book that I was instantly drawn to. For the rest of this article, I will give you the “Coles Notes” version of “A Spring Without Bees” by Michael Schacker (2008). I highly recommend giving it a read.

Starting in 2005 bee die-offs were reported in the US in 36 states. With mites and viruses, a beehive dies a slow death. Mites have been around and causing problems for years. A bad infection can kill a hive in a couple of months to four years. With pesticide poisoning, bee bodies would pile up on the ground below the hive. However, bees had flown off and never returned. Honey and pollen were left in the hive and not stolen by other bees or insects. This later became known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). And this can happen in as little as a week. Most cases happened close to corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, sunflower, apples, and pumpkin crops.

Soon other European countries were reporting the same thing. So, what was going on?

It seems it was pesticides that farmers were using on their crops to get rid of pests. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can approve barely tested chemicals through the loophole of a “temporary emergency authorization”. Hundreds of these get one- or two-year extensions without any further testing. Additionally, these chemical companies give universities huge research grants and donations in exchange for teaching how to use the toxin safely. And dare I say, some advice on what research to focus on.

Organic beekeepers do not use chemicals, instead of miticides they use essential oils. And to be organic they must be in the middle of nowhere, far from places using pesticides.

However, back in 1994, beekeepers in France had noticed CCD. They realized that a new insecticide had just been released and was being applied to sunflowers and it was known to be highly toxic to bees. The suspected ingredient was imidacloprid (IMD) which is like DDT. Bees lose their desire to feed, and they disappear from their hives. In 1994 the beekeepers asked Bayer for a study on how sublethal doses may affect honeybees. Bayer’s original test documents said only the plant’s roots would absorb IMD and that it would never reach the flowers. Additionally, they said 5000 parts per billion (PPB) was lethal to bees. They revised these documents to say the lethal dose for bees was 50-100 PPB. They declared it safe for bees since any nectar would never reach 50 PPB. The beekeepers found flaws in Bayer’s research and honey production was plunging in France, so they appealed to their government. The Agricultural Ministry had close ties to the agrochemical industry. The government spent money on studies to resolve the conflict and the researchers got down to testing less than 1PPB. They discovered that 6PPB could make the bees groggy, impairing their short-term memory and normal foraging.

The beekeepers claimed that the heavy use of IMD coincided with areas of CCD outbreaks. However, the department decided it could not resolve the “contradiction” between their own scientists’ research and that of Bayer so they continued trials for another year as “more study was needed”, a common delay tactic.

The beekeepers were losing their hives and had one last chance. They held a protest to try to convince the agriculture minister to overrule. The protest worked. The minister suspended use of IMD on sunflowers until it could be proven safe.

Bayer defended itself and sued to have the decision cancelled. Bayer lost. They lost again in 1999 when the Netherlands found that IMD persisted in the soil too long, small birds eating the IMD painted seeds got lethal doses and that the honeybee toxicity did not meet safety policies. Bayer fought back, giving the Dutch government mountains of paper and university professor’s opinions, claiming new scientific data. Unfortunately, they won that round.

Oh, how I detest the big bad corporations.

Research continued and it was found that when the seed was painted with IMD, the nectar itself could have an unsafe level at 5PPB. They also found that IMD degraded into even more toxic metabolites. The French changed their focus to bioavailability. Corn syrup used to feed the bees was contaminated with IMD, along with the nectar they collected as well as the tainted pollen they picked up on their legs. They were drinking IMD contaminated water and eating contaminated honey and pollen.

In 2001 Bayer conducted more of its own studies, but over a short period, in a lab, and found no effects at 20PPB. They swear their products are safe!

French studies detected the presence of IMD in the soil where only one treatment was applied two years prior.

After IMD was suspended for three years, the bees didn’t come back immediately in 2003 and 2004. Bayer said the missing bees was proof that it wasn’t IMD. However, another insecticide, containing fipronil (and sold by BASF), was now being used on sunflowers. Additionally, IMD was being applied to many other crops and was retained in the soil for years.

A case of bee mortality was reported due to fipronil use so the beekeepers demanded its use be suspended too. In 2004, the government extended the suspension of IMD on sunflowers and now corn as well.

In 2004, Bayer and BASF were being investigated in France because the chemicals lacked the proper authorization for widespread use (they were still using that emergency loophole). Bayer’s lawyers delayed the court case and finally handed over evidence in 2007.

Meanwhile, other countries were finding out about these chemicals. Germany turned down the IMD ban request despite the results of the French studies.

In France in 2005, the bees started coming back! In 2006, the loss of bees had stopped. However, the beekeepers continue to fight as Bayer attempts to introduce new insecticides.

Other European countries which hadn’t banned IMD were starting to suffer their own losses from CCD. But these big bad businesses claimed a disinformation campaign, then introduced other theories on mites or viruses, or bee management or a combination of things saying that more study was needed. The industry denied any link between their products and damage to bees. The UK and Canada governments both denied they had CCD despite major losses of hives.

Australia and New Zealand had no CCD and this is backed up by the beekeepers themselves. Both countries stress integrated pest management, which relies on biological controls and the use of pesticide only when counts demand it.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Americans have not been told what’s happening as the press favours sensationalist reporting. A CNN reporter asked where have all the bees gone – nobody knows was her report. No mention of the studies in France. The EPA thinks CCD is a mystery. In 2002, during the Bush administration, pesticides were basically deregulated, and tolerance levels were increased by the EPA, violating their own guidelines. They basically removed the 10X safety factor to protect children and embryos. The public was never told, and neither were the beekeepers. When it was discovered, the EPA was sued.

Ten states without CCD also don’t use IMD. The remaining states use very little IMD. Why does the US claim uncertainty and schedule 5 year long studies while France has perfectly good research? Well, those donations seem to allow corporations to pick and choose the research the university will undertake. And these corporations influence the government through their campaign donations. In France, corporate influence is much weaker.

The EPA held a meeting in 2005 with pesticide industry representatives. Meeting notes show that goal number one was to create loopholes in testing regulations so that children could actually be used for chemical exposure experiments!

This was tried before in Florida in 2004 before it was cancelled. The EPA announced an experiment in Florida where 60 children would be exposed to pesticides and other household chemicals for two years. In exchange, parents would receive $970, some children’s clothing and a camcorder.

Luckily the loophole was caught and no testing of children occurred.

The EPA, without public notice, closed its special library of pollution and test data used by staff scientists to approve or reject chemicals. Those wishing to sue over illegal actions were also cut off. The studies were thrown in boxes and stored in a basement cafeteria. They claim to be digitizing the documents but have no budget or timetable.

In 2007 it’s the beekeepers who took on the entire Establishment, some of the most powerful people in the world. They wrote a letter to the growers’ association, pleading them not to spray before the bees arrived but many growers refused to stop spraying. Beekeepers are hired to bring their bees to a grower’s field and let them go pollinate. As a result, some apiaries refused customers if they planned to use or used IMD. Since then, these apiaries have seen an increase in hives.

So, to make a long article longer, I wondered what had happened in the last 15 years and poked around. Apparently, the EPA’s special library digitization project is still a plan (they’ve been planning since 2006). The EPA says that reported cases of CCD have declined substantially. So much so that they stopped reporting on it in 2014. US beekeepers lost 44% of bees in 2015-16 in a national survey of beekeepers supported by various agencies.

France banned fipronil in 2005 and Europe banned it in 2013. Europe banned IMD in 2018. Fipronil was also banned in Canada and the US. In 2021, Bayer tried to overturn the European ban from 2018 but it was dismissed.

In Canada in 2013, pesticides were found in 70% of the dead bees tested by Health Canada.  In 2014, CBC reported that scientists said that pesticides linked to bee death must be banned. Canadian beekeepers sued Bayer in 2014 over pesticides and bee death. Canada was going to ban IMD in 2016 but they received “new information and research” and changed their mind. They did however increase restrictions to protect bees in 2019 (timing of application and restricted areas). As of 2021 it is still in use, with restrictions. This article in May 2022 talks about how we’ve lost 45% of our bee population right here in Alberta.

I found Canada Agriculture and Food Museum’s website that stated CCD started in the early 2000s in Canada and the cause is still a mystery!

How you can help:

  • Plant blooming plants for each season, especially blue, purple and yellow (daisies, cosmos, zinnias, dahlias, mint)
  • Allow ‘weeds’ (unless they are prohibited noxious weeds)
  • Water trees during drought
  • Don’t use pesticides
  • Visit organic golf courses
  • Build bee habitats
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1 comment

Small contribution to your article in the form of drawings, French visual artist I produced a series on bee mortality by pollution from chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture. This series is presented at the Geneva Museum at the exhibition “Tout contre la Terre”. To discover:

But also in direct link “Hommage à Magritte”:


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