Bees and other pollinators are critical to the success of many agriculture operations. Annually bees pollinate approximately $201 billion worth of crops, including 70 percent of the crops that constitute 90 percent of the world’s food supply. Or, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rather colorfully explains, “[a]bout one mouthful in three … directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.”
But since the mid-1990s bee populations have dramatically declined all over the globe. From the United States to Europe to Japan to Africa bees are dying off and colonies are collapsing. While declines in bee colonies have happened in the past, the current rate of bee loss is staggering; in the U.S. between 2006 and 2011 bee losses averaged around 33 percent annually and around 22 percent last year.
The causes of bee deaths are numerous and, in the case of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), still not fully understood. However, there is mounting evidence that the world’s most commonly used class of insecticides- neonicotinoids- is helping drive bee declines. Beginning in the 1990s the use of neonicotinoids dramatically increased and today nearly all corn produced in the U.S. today is treated with them. A recent study showed that even low levels of exposure to a neonicotinoid can impair a bee’s navigation ability, making it difficult for the bee to find its colony. Additionally, British scientists showed that neonicotinoids decrease overall colony growth and inhibit the production of queen bees. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently released a report concluding that three neonictinoids pose “an acute risk” for bees. According to Frederic Vincent, a spokesman for the European Commissioner for Health and Consumers, bee colony collapse is “due to a combination of factors… [but] pesticides is one of the few we can control.”
And that is just what the European Commission set out to do when it released a proposal in January 2013 that recommended banning three types of neonicotinoids for two years. The ban would potentially go into effect this summer if a majority of experts from European Union member states vote in favor of the Commission’s proposal during a March 14th-15th meeting of the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH). It is unclear if the proposal will pass; Italy, France, the Netherlands and some smaller European countries are supportive of the proposal, but the United Kingdom and Germany are more reluctant.
A ban on neonictinoids in the European Union would set a meaningful precedent for other countries. The U.K parliament launched its own investigation into the impact of neonicotinoids on the health of bees and other pollinators. Meanwhile the Environmental Protection Agency is weighing approval of a new neonicitinoid for use in the U.S.