It’s a shocking statistic, but a recent study published in Science Magazine found that three quarters of the world’s honey is in fact infected with bee-killing pesticides.
There is a specific group of pesticides known to be especially harmful to bees and other insects. These are called neonicotinoids, and it is these in particular that this recent study focused on. Researchers took an analysis of 198 honey samples from across the globe and tested them for five of the most common neonicotinoids – thiamethoxam, acetamiprid, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and clothing. The results are distressing, with 75% of the honey samples containing at least one of these five pesticides; 30% of all samples contained one neonicotinoid, 45% contained between two and five neonicotinoids and 10% contained a staggering four or five neonicotinoids.
North America had the biggest contamination set, with 86% of their samples proving to be infected (interestingly, South America showed only a 57% contamination rate by comparison). Behind them was Asia with an 80% contamination rate and just one percent behind was Europe, with 79%. In fact traces of these chemicals appeared even from samples taken from islands that produce very little agriculture.
As ‘consumers’, we have no reason to worry just yet; the EU has set maximum permitted levels of these pesticides and so long as the concentration of pesticides in our honey remains below this level, it should not have any adverse effects on humans. However, two of the samples taken contained neonicotinoids in quantities above this maximum standard – which makes you wonder, just how much of the honey humans eat is indeed ‘safe’ for consumption? If ignored, how could this impact us in the future?
Whilst this may not have any direct effect on us as ‘consumers’, it should affect us as conscientious human beings. As the term ‘Bee Killing Pesticide’ indicates, these chemicals are more harmful to bees – and other insects – than they are humans. It has become a popular choice of pesticide despite first coming under scrutiny way back in the 1990’s where tests linked it to what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder. More recently in April 2013 the European Food Safety Authority highlighted the dangers posed specifically by neonicotinoids, following which the European Union called for a two year restriction on the use of this group of pesticides. Then in 2015, the first actual field study was conducted which drew a direct link between neonicotinoids and Colony Collapse Disorder.
To many the evidence is clear, but it is worth noting that the UK voted against the EU’s two-year ban stating that their scientific evidence doesn’t support the multitude of research which shows a clear link between neonicotinoids and the decline in the bee population. However, with the ban now up for review, the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove (appointed in role on 11th June 2107) has been vague as to whether or not they would back the ban this time round; or indeed if they would endeavour to take any preventative measures against the use of pesticides if we leave the EU. This has anti-pesticide and other conservation groups worried.
We need to understand just how these pesticides have spread so prolifically and what the effects are on bees. Pesticides, including neonicotinoids are generally sprayed not just across large fields of crops such as rapeseed and maize, but gardens and parks as well which in turn pass into the nectar and pollen of flowers. Bees pollinate these flowers, ingesting the pesticide and passing it on to what could be previously untainted crops, furthering the spread and the damage these pesticides can do. Pesticides can also contaminate water sources such as rivers and ponds by running off the crops or through a process called leaching, where they contaminate groundwater and puddles as they soak through the soil itself. Finally, they can be spread through a process known as volatilization which occurs when the pesticide turns into a vapour or gas after it has been sprayed and then travels through the air. Scientists believe that this process can allow pesticides to travel not just a few miles but in some cases hundreds. This is when pesticides become not just a problem for bees, but for fish, amphibians, insects and even birds.
Research published in 2015 which can be found here suggest that three of the neonicotinoids are more harmful than the rest to solitary bees and bumblebees than honey bees, although solitary and bumblebees are affected by lower concentrations of than the honey bee. But the effects these have on all types of bees are similarly horrific as further research here details; in some cases contact with the pesticide can cause instant death. In other cases it can take weeks, or even months to have any effect on bees. In the case of honeybees plants sprayed can metabolise the neonicotinoids and the products of this breakdown can be even more harmful than the pesticide itself. Even levels of neonicotinoids that aren’t quite lethal can give rise to symptoms which in themselves lead to fatal consequences, not just on individual bees but of whole colonies. They work by blocking neural pathways in the bees’ central nervous system and cause disorientation, issues with flight and navigation, a loss of taste and reduction of food intake and the slowing down of the ability to learn new tasks as well as making them more vulnerable to viruses and parasites.
What can be done? The pages and pages of research make for bleak reading. Even if we impose a blanket ban not just on neonicotinoids but on all pesticides, they can take years to leave the soil; in some cases traces of neonicotinoids have been found in woody plants up to six years after the soil has been drenched. The use of neonicotinoids is having devastating effects not just on bee populations but other wildlife too and if we don’t act now it will soon be too late to reverse the damage already done and save our dwindling bee populations.
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