Plight of the bumble bee

I saw a bumble bee, leg sacks bulging with bright orange pollen, buzzing from one dandelion to another yesterday. The fat, yellow and black striped bees were a common sight in my lawn and garden at one time. I don’t know when they started to disappear, but they have become rare enough that yesterday’s sighting surprised me.

A recent study by Cornell University estimates the value of crops pollinated by honey bees and other pollinators like my lone bumble bee, to be more than $29 billion. Bees pollinate apples, almonds, cherries, blueberries and hundreds of other fruits. They carry  pollen from one sunflower to another. Alfalfa, canola, sugar beets, carrots, squash and a long list of other crops all need insects for the production of either fruits or seeds.

Besides being essential for pollination of hundreds of crops, honey bees have the added economic benefit of producing honey.

These little bugs are important.

Keeping bees, like any livestock production, has challenges. A few years back the main concern for beekeepers was the spread of mites which lived on the bees. Weakened by the parasite, bees are more susceptible to diseases, resulting in loss of production and the death of many bees.

In the last couple of years, bee keepers have experienced large losses of bees to what has been called “colony collapse disorder.” The worker bees seem to leave the hive and never come back, abandoning the queen and her brood. Since it is hard to find the bees once they leave the hive, it is difficult to do an autopsy on the missing insects. Some beekeepers have lost significant percentages of their hives and agronomists are concerned that the loss of the bees will significant economic effects on the crops they pollinate.

Scientists have studied all kinds of possible causes for CCD. They have looked genetically modified crops, bee diseases and parasites and even things that seem improbable, like cell phone towers. They are still studying. Recently, however, there have been multiple studies that raise concern about a commonly used form of insecticide called neonicotinoids. These insecticides are used as sprays and as seed and soil treatments to protect plants from nematodes, flea beetles, aphids, cut worms and more. They are used on corn, sugar beets, canola, cereal crops, sunflowers and vegetables. The insecticides work by disrupting the target insects’ nervous systems. They were a replacement for other insecticides that had greater toxicity to humans.

A new study by scientists at Harvard University, seems to affirm the connection between the death of millions of bees and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Bees are contacting the chemical in fields when they are sprayed, in the pollen and nectar of treated plants, in dust from planters used to plant treated seed. Trace amounts of the chemical have even been found in corn syrup which is used to feed bees in the winter.

Critics of the research say the levels to which the bees are exposed are well below the levels which should kill them. Others assert that long-term, low level exposure may make the bees more susceptible to disease and parasite infections.

The neonicotinoid class of insecticides has been banned in several European countries because of the possible effect on bees. There seems to be growing evidence of a connection between a practice that helps farmers on one hand to the destruction of another essential part of growing the very crops being sprayed on the other.

Our ability to understand the consequences of our actions is profoundly near sighted. We, all too often, cannot see or choose to ignore the unintended effects of what we do. We find solutions to our immediate problems and fail to ask, “And then what.” Because we don’t look far enough ahead of us, we often find we created a problem bigger than the one we tried to solve.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains