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For some time now, the media has been issuing dire warnings of the coming “bee- pocalypse.” Time magazine ran a cover story titled, “A World Without Bees.” A headline in the London Telegraph proclaimed “Honey bees in US facing extinction.” CBS warned of the drastic threat to our food supply if these essential pollinators are lost. Yet reports of bees’ catastrophic demise are greatly exaggerated.
Activists with an anti-pesticide agenda have noticed the issue and are using it to call for a ban on neonicotiniod insecticides — “neonics” for short — which they claim are responsible for bee health problems. The most factual science does not support these allegations. Neither do the facts on the ground. Such a ban would damage entire sectors of U.S. agriculture and do more harm than good for bees. Despite this fact, legislation was recently introduced in Congress to prohibit this critical crop protection technology.
Members of Congress should consider the facts rather than the headlines. We are far from facing a world without bees. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of honeybee hives has remained more or less constant for the past 14 years, slightly increasing from 2.63 million colonies in 2000 to 2.64 million colonies in 2013.
Worldwide, there’s more good news. Surveys by the United Nations show Europe’s colonies have increased slightly since 2001. Canada’s government reports the largest numbers since the 1980s. Worldwide, the managed bee population has risen dramatically, from about 40 million in the early 1960s to more than 60 million today.
While the overall picture is much more optimistic than what is portrayed in the media, some beekeepers have experienced problems maintaining the health of their hives. Higher-than-normal losses of bees over the winter in some years have resulted in economic setbacks for some beekeepers, though the USDA found last year’s loss rate much lower. In reporting on these numbers, many journalists fail to recognize that worker bees only live for six weeks in the summer and hive strength can quickly regenerate to compensate for losses.
The USDA cites many factors afflicting bees, but the primary one is the epidemic spread of the varroa mite and the crippling diseases it vectors into the bee. Additional problems include lack of forage and the stresses of the transcontinental pollination business. As for pesticides, the USDA places them near the bottom of the list. In fact, the USDA is concerned about the miticides beekeepers themselves use to control varroa.
It’s clear from real world experience and extensive field studies that neonics are not a significant factor. Bees thrive in the millions of acres of neonic-treated canola grown in Western Canada and the pesticides are used extensively in Australia, a continent that has some of the healthiest bees in the world.
But while bees aren’t harmed by these popular pesticides, farmers — and consumers — would be if they were banned. Neonics are all that is saving the U.S. citrus industry from destruction by “citrus greening” disease. Without them, rice and cotton farming would become economically unviable throughout much of the U.S. Leafhoppers would devastate vineyards in California and the Pacific Northwest. Neonics are one of the most critical pesticides used in modern agriculture and safely utilized in the production of numerous crops, from corn and soy to vegetables of all kinds.
We must understand why activist organizations have decided to target neonics for elimination. They won the day in Europe, where the EU overrode the doubts of its own scientists and pushed through a political ban. As a matter of fact, the EU just conducted a survey to find out how bad the losses really are and were clearly taken aback by the findings. Seventy-five percent of the bee population experienced overwinter losses of 15 percent or less — a rate considered completely normal in the United States. High overwinter losses occurred among 5 percent of the bee population in the very cold north. Summertime losses were insignificant. The biggest danger to bees in the EU are the older classes of pesticides, especially the pyrethroids now used as a result of the neonic ban.
The activists want us to ban first and ask questions later. We should not legislate based on sensationalist and fallacious press accounts. The facts clearly don’t support the calls for a ban.