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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bringing it all together: Our exhaustive research into honeybee colony collapse

Last summer was the first time I grew my own garden. It’s a bit strange that I’ve never grown a garden because my family have been farmers for decades if not centuries. I am actually the first generation who was not a farmer at some point in my life. Growing my own food has made me a bit more observant about “flowering insects” like the honeybee. I remember growing up stepping carefully though my yard in the 70s and 80s. Back then, if we didn’t have shoes on while walking through the grass, we were very likely to be stung by bees pollinating flowers –they were everywhere. This is also true of the less-famous pollinators, butterfly and other bee types. However, last year I didn’t see a single honeybee in my garden, not even on the rose bushes. It was as if they had all vanished. This got me wondering about how low the honeybee population has really sunk and just how screwed we are without them.

When talking about the extinction of honeybees, we are really talking about a total collapse of our food supply except for machine-pollinated veggies courtesy of large food firms such as Monsanto. No other option is available, only artificially pollinated crops; all other food sources will totally collapse. An incredible amount of agricultural crops are nearly, if not completely, dependent on honeybees for pollination. Those 90%-100% dependence on honeybee pollination are apples, avocados, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, kiwi fruit, macadamia nuts, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, onions, legume seeds, pumpkins, squash, and sunflowers. Additional crops that are heavily dependent on honeybees include apricot, citrus (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, etc.), peaches, pears, nectarines, plums, grapes, brambleberries, strawberries, olives, melon (cantaloupe, watermelon, and honeydew), peanuts, cotton, soybeans, and sugar beets. You get it: there are a lot of fruits and vegetables that need honeybees. Monetarily, honeybee pollination is estimated to generate $15 billion annually. Some estimates are even higher at $20 billion annually due to honeybees increasing yield and quality achieved from pollination and seed production.
That’s how screwed we are, now onto what the hell happened.
Reading several articles on the subject I’ve found a lot of misrepresentations of the phenomenon of “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD. Much of the confusion seems to be generated (purposefully or not) by how CCD is defined and what natural factors should not be considered a CCD event. Parasites, protein deficiency, immune problems, radio waves, and pesticides are some of the leading possibilities. Until some recent research from Harvard (which we’ll get to in a minute) none of these options could be proved to cause true CCD. And we’ll see why. Trying to sort out all these details can be confusing and overwhelming. Many of the causes have been trumpeted in a way that seems more convenient than fact-based. For example, viruses, fungi, and mites can all kill Honey Bees when the bees’ immune systems are deficient. Research that focused on the viruses, fungi, or mites however ignored the causal issue, “Why would honeybees have a deficient immune system in the first place?”
One such study from the University of California Davis posited the idea that radio waves interfered with the bees’ internal navigation system. This theory has two problems. 1) Honeybees use polarized light and landmarks to navigate, not radio waves. 2) Radio waves in the atmosphere are constant, but bee colony collapses happened randomly at varied spots and at different times. And there are still small bee colonies kept healthy and populated. How did radio waves (which are ubiquitous) not reach those particular bees? The answer is that the theory put forth by UC Davis stems from a misrepresentation of a German paper. Unfortunately, the misrepresentation persists to this day.
Another predominant line of thinking holds that parasites such as Nosema ceranae (fungal invader of adult bee intestinal tract) and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus are causing the collapses. On their surface, these look like excellent causes, a lot of research has shown that these intrusive diseases can indeed be fatal for a bee colony. Until we learn that these diseases have been found in bee samples years before the colony collapses began.
Additionally, mites have been cited as the source of colony collapse. The tracheal mites and varroa mites that can cause colony devastation are not present in high enough numbers –probably due to beekeeper mitigation through miticides. And, just like the parasitic diseases, the mites were also present in colonies for decades before the CCD crisis. Even though they put stress on the hives it is doubtful they have caused CCD as it is defined.
For example, according to the Congressional Investigation Report “Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder,” dated January 7, 2010: “[Varroa parasitism] is associated with viral pathogens and if left untreated can cause colony mortalities usually within six months to two years after the initial infestation.” Six months to two years? That is not a sudden collapse! This fact alone should be enough to debunk the mite theory. The report also (quite contradictory to its mite assessment) states, “How CCD Differs from Past Bee Colony Losses: Current bee colony losses seem to differ from past losses in that colony losses are occurring mostly because bees are failing to return to the hive (which is largely uncharacteristic of bee behavior); bee colony losses have been rapid; colony losses are occurring in large numbers.” The fact that CCD colonies seem to be susceptible to several pathogens point to a systemic problem that compromises the immune-system and not any single one of these pathogens.
Hello neonicotinoid insecticides!
The real culprits in the CCD events are two pesticides produced by Takeda Chemical Industries and Bayer AG. These pesticides are used and distributed by Monsanto. One of the pesticides is called Imidacloprid, the other is Clothianidin. The pesticides are “neonicotinoid” in that they’re very similar in structure to nicotine.
Clothianidin acts on the Central Nervous System. In particular, it’s an agonist of acetylcholine. (Agonist refers to propagating or potentiating activity of a neuron.) Basically, Clothianidin increases the firing or effects of that neuro-chemical Acetylcholine. Acetylcholine affects several areas of the brain and could easily affect a bee’s navigation system.
Germany suffered catastrophic colony collapses in 2007 after the use of Clothianidin, and more recently Imidacloprid, to halt a rootworm epidemic. After use of these pesticides, Germany experienced 330 million bee deaths. “According to the German Research Center for Cultivated Plants, 29 out of 30 dead bees had been killed, in the 2008 study, by direct contact with clothianidin.”
And, even small amounts of these pesticides harm bees. In a study appearing in the June issue of the Bulletin of Insectology from Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Alex Lu, conclusively links Imidacloprid to CCD. Talking about his study in the Harvard Gazette, Dr. Lu states, “[it] apparently doesn’t take much of the pesticide to affect the bees. Our experiment included pesticide amounts below what is normally present in the environment.”
The dangers of these pesticides have also been known for some time by the EPA. From a document obtained through Freedom of Information Act request we find that the EPA started studying neonicotinoids in 2000 and found that they may be harmful to bees as early as 2003. From one such study:
Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotiniod insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct RQ based assessments on non-target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.
In another action, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had to sue the EPA in order to get data that was being held that linked Monsanto and Bayer to CCD. From the letter:
EPA has failed to respond to NRDC’s Freedom of Information Act request for agency records concerning the toxicity of pesticides to bees, forcing the legal action … [I]n 2003, EPA granted a registration to a new pesticide manufactured by Bayer CropScience under the condition that Bayer submit studies about its product’s impact on bees. EPA has refused to disclose the results of these studies, or if the studies have even been submitted. The pesticide in question, clothianidin, recently was banned in Germany due to concerns about its impact on bees. A similar insecticide was banned in France for the same reason a couple of years before. In the United States, these chemicals still are in use despite a growing consensus among bee specialists that pesticides, including clothianidin and its chemical cousins, may contribute to CCD.
To further hide their tracks, on September 28, 2011 Monsanto bought out some of those bee specialists –specifically the leading research firm Beeologics, a company dedicated to the study and protection of honeybees.
There is another issue with Colony Collapse Disorder that is not readily apparent. Honeybees are the only insect we’ve so far noticed disappearing because of a multi-billion dollar industry surrounding their well-being. What other insect impacts are we causing? Are other pollinating insects, like the butterfly, also going extinct? What about environmental impacts on birds and other animals we depend upon? How about ourselves?
Let’s examine some of our own mysterious diseases. Could they be linked to the same neonicotinoid insecticides? Food allergies have increased in US children by two to five times in the past 30 years. Developmental disorders, including Autism, have increased by a similar percentage in the same timeframe. There’s so far no link to neonicotinoid pesticides and our own allergies and diseases. Seeing as how I’m a neuroscience researcher allow me to leave the reservation for a minute and get “science-y.” Acetylcholine release from peripheral parasympathetic system decreases the release of proinflammatory cytokines. This suggests that a mechanism for a neurotoxin in our food might affect our immune system during fetal development. I don’t know if that hypothesis will pan out, but at the very least, shouldn’t we consider investigating these questions? We should definitely halt the widespread use of these chemicals until bee populations recover and in the meantime we could study how they possibly harm us humans.
Here comes the politics.
Another question you may be asking yourself is how the government, specifically the EPA, knew about the chemically-induced Colony Collapse Disorder and allowed it to continue. Just like the research firm, Beelogics, everyone has their price –no matter if they’re Democrat or Republican. From, individual Monsanto contributions to politicians (only as of June of this year):
  • Aaron Schock (R)
  • Adam Kinzinger (R)
  • Adrian Smith (R)
  • Ben Nelson (D)
  • Bennie G. Thompson (D)
  • Billy Long (R)
  • Blaine Luetkemeyer (R)
  • Bob Goodlatte (R)
  • Bobby Schilling (R)
  • Bruce Braley (D)
  • Chuck Grassley (R)
  • Claire McCaskill (D)
  • Colleen Hanabusa (D)
  • Collin C. Peterson (D)
  • Cory Gardner (R)
  • David Loebsack (D)
  • Deborah Ann Stabenow (D)
  • Devin Nunes (R)
  • Emanuel Cleaver (D)
  • Frank D. Lucas (R)
  • Hal Rogers (R)
  • Jack Kingston (R)
  • James E. Risch (R)
  • Joe Courtney (D)
  • John Boozman (R)
  • Larry Kissell (D)
  • Lynn Jenkins (R)
  • Marlin Stutzman (R)
  • Mike Crapo (R)
  • Mike Simpson (R)
  • Pat Roberts (R)
  • Richard G. Lugar (R)
  • Rick Berg (R)
  • Roy Blunt (R)
  • Sam Graves (R)
  • Saxby Chambliss (R)
  • Steve Fincher (R)
  • Tim Huelskamp (R)
  • Timothy Johnson (R)
  • Todd Akin (R)
  • Todd Rokita (R)
  • Tom Harkin (D)
  • Tom Latham (R)
  • Vicky Hartzler (R)
  • William L. Clay Jr. (D)
How about our President of “change?” He’s appointed several Monsanto people to his administration. Let’s look at a lineup of who Obama promoted from Monsanto lackey to government overseer. As reported by Organic Consumer’s Association:
  • Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary: As Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack was a leading advocate for Monsanto, genetic engineering, and factory farming.
  • Michael Taylor, Senior Adviser to the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner on Food Safety: The Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto Corp. from 1998 until 2001, Taylor exemplifies the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that regulate it.
  • Roger Beachy, Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture: Beachy is a long time Monsanto collaborator who heads an institute which is effectively a Monsanto front.
  • Islam Siddiqui, Chief Agricultural Negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative: Islam Siddiqui…was Vice President of CropLife America, the notorious lobbying group that represents pesticide and genetic engineering companies, including the six multinational corporations that control 75% of the global agrichemical market: Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Dow and DuPont.
  • Elena Kagan, Supreme Court Justice: As President Obama’s Solicitor General, Kagan argued Monsanto’s side against organic farmers in the Roundup Ready alfalfa case … Kagan joined a Supreme Court that includes a former Monsanto lawyer, Clarence Thomas.
The conclusion: What can we do?
Nothing, you’re fucked. Monsanto owns the government, makes a profit now from honeybee-killing practices, and stand to make a huge payoff from honeybee extinction. Nothing will change that and it means total economic and food-supply devastation. After that, you need to learn to grow your own food and tend your own bees or at least know people who can.