On Aug. 16, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates proclaimed Honey Bee Awareness Day in the City of Berkeley. This coincided with National Honey Bee Day. Folks across the nation and in several other countries celebrated the honey bee by educating the public on the contributions of these tiny pollinators and sharing information about how they are in danger of complete population collapse worldwide. They also actively protested against Bayer Corporation, Monsanto, Dow and other corporations that promote monocrop agriculture — growing a single crop year after year on the same land — and the extensive use of genetically modified organisms as well as pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to control pests on crops: all of which they produce.
Honey bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food that we eat — not to mention their contribution to the pollination of food crops for livestock — and impact the diversity of the ecosystem as a whole. Along with other native pollinators — honey bees were introduced from Europe in the 1600s — they are responsible for maintaining the pollination of most fruits and vegetables that we consume, as well as cotton, alfalfa, almonds, sunflowers, coffee…the list goes on.
There are many factors that are contributing to the population drop, including climate change, loss of habitat, potable water, limited diet, the varroa mite, pathogens and the overuse of pesticides on crops. One group of pesticides — called Neonicotinoids — is a big part of the problem.
In the U.S., Neonicotinoids are used on the majority of corn and canola crops, cotton, sorghum, sugar beets and about half of all soybeans. They’re also used on the vast majority of fruit and vegetable crops. They are systemic and persistent, which means they stay in the plant and make their way to the pollen and nectar. Bayer produces three of the common Neonicotinoids on the market — one of which, Imidacloprid, is the most widely used, found in most home-garden treatments and used on most crops. Interestingly enough, in 2012, Bayer voluntarily removed Imidacloprid from use on almond trees in California because of its high toxicity to bees.
Bayer and other chemical producers such as Dow and Syngenta, which also produce Neonicotinoids, blame this crisis on everything but their products. Profit is their bottom line. The research on bee health conducted by these corporations does not seem to be very holistic in the approach. The focus has been on control of bee pests — such as the Varroa and tracheal mites — with more chemicals and on the continued denial that their chemicals have any effect on the health of bees and other pollinators.
Several studies — from institutions including Yale University in 2013, Harvard University in 2014 and the Pesticide Research Institute in 2013 — have been published over the past couple of years, listing Neonicotinoids as one of the biggest factors in bee-population decline. The European Union has banned the use of Neonicotinoids and GMO seeds treated with Neonicotinoid.
Neonicotinoid exposure can kill bees within 48 hours. At lower doses, it will weaken their immune system, making them more susceptible to pathogens and pests. It is a neurotoxin that also causes disorientation, damaging a bee’s homing ability and its ability to feed. These are signs of Colony Collapse disorder.
I am part of a grassroots effort to bring this issue to the forefront and help people understand what we are up against. I want to encourage the public to vote with its checkbooks and support the pollinators by planting pollinator-friendly plants.
Buy from nurseries that sell organic or certified pesticide-free plants. Don’t buy plants from big-box stores such as Home Depot, Lowes, Orchard Supply Hardware or Wal-Mart, and don’t buy garden products produced by Bayer, Dow, Syngenta or Monsanto.
Also, write to your representatives in the state government. The California Assembly just passed AB-1789, a bill that aims to postpone investigation of the issues with Neonicotinoids until at least 2018, which means no regulatory changes to their use in California will come until 2020! This is a dangerous and shortsighted precedent, and Gov. Jerry Brown needs to be encouraged to veto this bill.
Bayer, Monsanto and other corporations say they want to make a difference, but all I see is a desire to make a profit at the expense of the rest of us. Instead of throwing more chemistry at the problem, it would be amazing to see a paradigm shift in attitudes and see some of the vast profits these corporations make put to discovering better ways to manage crops and to changing the way crops are planted. This will encourage biodiversity not only for honey bees but for other pollinators that are essential for a thriving food economy.
“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1962 helped ban the use of DDT, which was responsible for the decline of the birds and the fish at the top of the food chain. We are in the throes of another “Silent Spring” — this time affecting creatures at the base of the food chain, which will affect not only natural diversity but mankind and our ability to feed ourselves. It is time to empower the public to either take a stand or suffer the consequences.
Christine Rossi is a local Berkeley artist and Bee Swarm East Bay Organizer.