What's All the Buzz About?
Many of the foods we need for healthy diets require bees for pollination, including many of our favorite fruits, vegetables and nuts. We have honey bees to thank for one out of every three bites of food we eat! But over the past decade we have witnessed alarming declines of honey bees. In fact, the number of managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. has dropped from over 5 million in 1940 to less than 2.5 million today. And while the honey bee is the primary pollinating species our food crops depend upon, native species of other bees and insects are also essential - without these species 70% of plants would be unable to reproduce or provide food. Unfortunately, these native pollinators are also in trouble. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now lists nearly 40 pollinator species as threatened or endangered, and several more are currently being considered. It goes without saying that healthy bee populations are directly linked to our food security. But we don't just need bees for food. Bees are also an indicator species - meaning their presence, absence, and well-being is indicative of the health of our environment as a whole. So the plight of the bees is our plight as well.
Why Are Bees Dying?
There are a number of different stressors facing pollinators, including habitat loss, parasites and diseases. But over the last several years, scientists have increasingly attributed pollinator declines to the indiscriminate use of systemic pesticides, most notably a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are up to 10,000 times more toxic to bees than other insecticides, and their use can have both immediate and long-term effects. This is because unlike traditional pesticides that are typically applied to the surface of plants, neonicotinoids are systemic – meaning they are absorbed and distributed throughout the entire plant system, including pollen and nectar (a big problem for bees). Viruses and pests have always been an issue for bees, but for decades beekeepers had been able to keep bee colony losses to 10-15%. In the early to mid-2000s – around the same time neonicotinoids gained a large share of the insecticide market and their use skyrocketed – this all changed. So while these bee-toxic pesticides are not the only cause of declining bee populations, they are a primary contributing factor and certainly one we must do something about—and fast.
What Can We Do?
To protect pollinators, we need to shift away from the pesticide-intensive industrial agriculture system we currently rely on in the U.S. and move towards organic and other forms of sustainable ecological farming that are protective of wildlife, people, and the environment. We must also take swift action to protect bees from the most lethal bee-killing pesticides. In April 2013, the European Union declared a two-year ban on certain neonicotinoids across the continent on crops that are attractive to bees – as well as banning the sale of products containing these pesticides. If Europe can do it, so can the United States, and we must all put pressure on the U.S. government to follow Europe's lead in protecting pollinators. We can also take action in our own backyards – literally. From our backyards and gardens to schools, public parks and farms – all of these areas play a crucial role in ensuring healthy and vibrant pollinator populations. We must work together to eliminate bee-killing pesticides and seed coatings on the farm and at home, and create pollinator-friendly habitats to help reverse their plight.
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