Colony Collapse Disorder and Neonicotinoid Insecticides

Last month Maryland’s Senate passed a partial ban on neonicotinoids, also known as neonics, a relatively new type of systemic pesticide which has been used to control sap-feeding insects, such as aphids and grubs.  Three different types of neonicotinoids were previously banned in the EU in 2013 because of the risk they posed to bees after large-scale field trials in Hungary, Germany and the UK have demonstrated a link between neonicotinoids and Colony Collapse Disorder.  The bill proposed in Maryland will still allow farmers to use neonicotinoids on crops but it will ban their use by retail consumers in their home gardens.  This bill, SB 198, has been sent to the House, and if passed, Maryland would become the first state in the United States to create such a ban, potentially saving the local apiculture.

Of greater significance, France’s National Assembly has recently established a total ban effective as of 1 September 2018 allowing farmers an appropriate amount of time to change over products.  The French ban is promising because its proposal  has begun a string of now individual businesses in neighbouring countries banning them. For instance, the Aldi Süd supermarket chain in Germany has undertaken a ban, Aldi UK has come under increasing pressure to ban neonicotinoids as well and is currently reviewing its pesticide policy. Additionally there are local authorities that have taken action such as Devon County Council which has recently announced that it will ban neonics on its land which, although it excludes its agricultural land, does pertain to its country parks and nature reserve.

And just two weeks ago a great victory was scored against neonics when the National Farmers Union was denied permission to use banned neonicotinoid pesticides on oilseed rape this autumn; however, the NFU has already made an emergency application for use of neonicotinoid seed treatments on oilseed rape crops.

Colony Collapse Disorder is still highly debated among scientists with Purdue University entomologist, Tom Turpin, denying that this disorder exists.  While Turpin admits that neonicotinoid insecticides kill honeybees, he does not believe that this insecticide alone is responsible for the death of bee colonies, adding, “Several factors including diseases, mites, exposure to insecticides, and unusually warm winters have contributed to colony death.” While many scientists acknowledge that Colony Collapse Disorder is not necessarily uniquely limited to pesticides, the fact that Turpin’s own department is neck-deep in Monsanto funding, to include a gift under the moniker of the “Honey Bee Club,” makes any research coming from that department on this subject suspect.   Monsanto does business with Nippon Soda and Sumitomo Chemical, the producers of three different neonicotinoids,  and Monsanto is currently evaluating the takeover of the companies that produce three neonicotinoids, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta.

Despite Turpin’s negation of Colony Collapse Disorder, most scientists agree that there is a link between the disappearance of bee colonies, call it what you like, and these insecticides. There is hard scientific proof to back up these claims to boot, beginning with evidence showing the damage these pesticides do to the queen, other studies which show how these neonics reduce the growth of the colony, and a study from Harvard which replicated a 2012 study showing a link between Colony Collapse Disorder and low doses of two neonics, imidacloprid and clothianidin, whereby bees abandon their hives over the winter months and eventually die. And one solid review of the scientific literature, “Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees?” by The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation states:

Research shows that bees experience detrimental sublethal effects such as changes in foraging behavior or delayed development at the residue levels recorded under some applications. In contrast, residue levels in some ornamental plants far exceed the level of lethal concentration for honey bees, and during industry-run studies dead bumble bees were found under treated shrubs, which suggests that non-agricultural use of neonicotinoids poses high risks to bees.

Ultimately, this report recommended:

Applications of neonicotinoids  should be limited until we have data on how neonicotinoid use on a specific plant may be managed to provide pest protection without expos- ing beneficial insects to sublethal or lethal levels in nectar and pollen”.

While this report does not provide clear evidence of the causal relationship between neonics and Colony Collapse Disorder, it does point to the potential negative impacts of neonicotinoids insecticides to honey bees and other important pollinators while making recommendations as to how we can possibly protect bees.

As with climate change and the arguments related to global warming such as the link between volcanos and glacier melt in places like Iceland and Peru which creates “devastatingly destructive rivers” and the  controversy surrounding the melting of Arctic ice are all incontrovertible.  The facts speak for themselves and in the UK alone, managed honey bee colonies fell by 53 per cent between 1985 and 2005 and “wild honeybees are thought to be nearly extinct throughout the British Isles” (Carreck, 2008). The intensification of agriculture has removed the wildflower population which has resulted in a diminishment of feeding resources for bees which together with “herbicide use, along with high nitrogen inputs, can reduce the availability of forage to bees within already homogenised landscapes” (Kleijn et al, 2009).

Without such political changes, we risk facing further ecological destruction as current studies demonstrate that 51% of commercial nursery plants contain neonicotinoids ranging from 2 to 748 micrograms per kilogram (∝g/kg) in flowers and 2 to 1,945 ∝g/kg in stems and leaves. The fact is that companies like Monsanto have the money to spend to propagandise how these products are harmless and how they divert the discussion.   We need to take heed from Maryland’s actions and urge our local and national politicians to ban neonicotinoids.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.