Pesticides killing bees that pollinate our food

February 20, 2011 

Vanishing of the Bees will be shown free at the Kentucky Theatre Thursday.

Currently, the U.S. loses one in every three beehives for a variety of reasons: poor nutrition, poor quality of queens, pathogens such as mites, difficult winters and lack of pollinator habitat.

But industrial pesticides tend to be the problematic "elephant in the room." Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidizes corn and soybeans so heavily (and the Food and Drug Administration is not subsidized nearly enough) pesticides tend to fall into areas of very little oversight — until major bee kills happen. Honey bees pollinate 30 percent of the food we eat, and pollinators provide 75 percent of the reproduction needed for flowers.

For this reason, the documentary Vanishing of the Bees is a must-see for anyone interested in food and environmental issues. It will be shown at the Kentucky Theatre Feb. 24, at 5 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m., as part of the One World Film Festival. In addition to the film, sponsors such as Good Foods Market and Café, Natasha's, Whole Foods, Coal Country Beeworks and Bluegrass Beekeepers Association will be providing snacks and information about local bee schools.

The documentary's producers, Maryam Henein and George Langworthy, highlight a pesticide produced by Bayer Pharmaceutical company called clothianidin (product name "Poncho"). Clothianidin is of the neonicotinoid family of systemic pesticides. Systemic pesticides are taken up by a plant's vascular system and expressed through pollen, nectar and gutation droplets from which bees then forage and drink.

Neonicotinoids are of particular concern because they have cumulative, sublethal effects on insect pollinators that correspond to neurobehavioral and immune system disruptions.

Clothianidin has been widely used as a seed treatment on many of the country's major crops for eight growing seasons under a "conditional registration" granted in 2003. This registration was granted while the Environmental Protection Agency waited for Bayer Crop Science to conduct a field study assessing the insecticide's threat to bee-colony health. Originally approved for use as a seed coating on corn and canola, clothianidin is now being approved for a growing list of other crops as well.

But the field study was problematic according to Tom Theobald, a 35-year beekeeper. The field study was too limited, focusing on two crops, canola (primarily grown in Canada) and corn (planted too far away from the bees). It also was just one year, primarily during a time when the effects of clothianidin would not show up immediately in the hives.

Scientists are equally concerned about clothianidin. According to James Frazier, a professor of entomology at Pennsylvannia State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, "Among the neonicotinoids, clothianidin is among those most toxic for honey bee ... Our own research indicates that systemic pesticides occur in pollen and nectar in much greater quantities than has been previously thought, and that interactions among pesticides occurs often and should be of wide concern," he said. The most prudent course of action would be to take the pesticide off the market while the flawed study is being redone.

In the film, migratory beekeepers David Hackenberg and Dave Mendes tell their stories of hive losses, structuring the beekeepers' search for pesticide information into cinematic chapters. Both men form a charismatic friendship, a contemporary Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

The movie's larger global backdrop is the European Union, France in particular, which didn't approve clothianidin after learning of bee kills suspected to be caused by the product in Germany.

The movie's conclusion is predictable enough: that until the United States takes responsibility for its pollinators, honey bees and the national food supply remain very much at risk.

Stronger measures need to be taken by all citizens to incorporate pollinator awareness into the civic ethos. Chicago, Denver and New York have sponsored urban beekeeping gardens on top of buildings. Perhaps it is time for Lexington to consider such an initiative.

Certainly, most of us could landscape with wildflowers, donate to a bee foundation such as North American Pollinator Partnership Campaign and the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, and support local beekeepers. Churches, civic organizations and individuals could also host screenings of Vanishing of the Bees.

Another showing will be at Eastern Kentucky University April 14 at Crabbe Library, 5:30 p.m., to celebrate its Pollinator Week.

At the very least, we need to reduce pesticide use.

"This is the Deepwater Horizon in agriculture," warns beekeeper Theobald. "America's farmland is awash in these questionable chemicals as surely as the shorelines of the Gulf Coast are awash in crude oil, and for many of the same reasons."

This movie shows why and makes you wonder why there isn't as much outrage about pesticides as there is about oil spills.

About the author Tammy Horn is a researcher at Eastern Kentucky University's Environmental Research Institute and author of Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation.

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