Are Honey Bees Our Proverbial Canaries in the Coal Mine?

Flickr: Luca Biada

Flickr: Luca BiadaRecent reports of mass bee deaths at single locations have raised alarm among environmentalists, entomologist and concerned citizens around the world.

The June 17th Wilsonville Oregon incident resulted in over 50,000 dead bumble bees, honey bees and other pollinators. The bees literally dropped dead while feeding on the blooms of flowering Linden trees in a Target parking lot, after the pesticide “Safari” was sprayed on the blooming trees. This catastrophic event was a grim reminder of the devastating consequences of the use of deadly poisons by humans in their attempts to control nature.

Then, on June 26th, it was reported in the Ontario, Canada Post that local beekeeper David Schuit had lost nearly 40 million bees at his family’s bee yard and hives in Elmwood, Ontario. A local organic farmer and apiarist, Schuit raises and breeds buckfast honeybees for pollination and honey production. This was the second year a massive sudden death of his bees had occurred; both times within weeks of the planting of chemically treated seed corn crops in his region.

Shortly after the first incident in 2012 an article in the Toronto Sun quoted, Schuit describing the condition of the bees:

“It killed the queens, it killed my drones, it killed my worker bees,” Schuit said.

“The workers, when they’re exposed to this chemical, it paralyzes the bees. They’re still living but they’re dying, and they’re in agony. The legs kicking, the tongue sticking out. Even the stinger sticks out and venom drops out. They just can’t control their bodies.”

This disturbing description of bees dying has been observed around the world from France to the U.S. Over the last decade beekeepers have faced accelerated losses of their bees in the wake of the expanding of the use and popularity of the class of pesticides introduced in the 1990’s known as neonicotinoids.

These pesticides, which manufacturers continue to claim are ‘not the culprit’ in the massive bee die offs, have now been linked to additional, even more serious effects from the Netherlands to California and throughout Canada and the Midwest United States.

The evidence is in and it’s far more condemning than anyone had imagined. Studies around the world have clear and distinct findings directly linking the persistent presence of neonicotinoids to serious environmental consequences. It turns out the bees are not the only ones in serious trouble.

A report published in January of 2013 issued by the American Bird Conservancy chronicles massive bird die offs in North America over the last decade, as well as a long list of failures in the permitting processes of these toxins. Co-authored by internationally renowned bird toxicologist Pierre Mineau and Cynthia Palmer, the Editor in Chief of the news service ‘Environmental Health News’, the report details specific findings of the toxicity of these chemicals to fish, invertebrates and birds. Here are just a few of the findings from the report:

“A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird.”

“Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid, can poison a bird.”

“As little as 1/10th of a corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction with any of the neonicotinoids registered to date.”

The report, which addresses the issue of neonicotinoids in aquatic environments and their effects on bird species, notes in its synopsis: “This report reviews the effects on avian species and concludes that neonicotinoids are lethal to birds as well as to the aquatic systems on which they depend.”

In the alarming, specific and highly detailed report, the authors chronicle a complete failure on the part of the U.S. EPA to accurately or effectively assess the risks of these new chemicals. Providing evidence that not only did the EPA fail in their regulation and safety analysis of the chemicals, they also  ignored their own scientists recommendations, and continued to allow expansion of the approved uses and production of these chemicals.

Chemicals which were originally approved for specific applications in agriculture have now expanded to become retail products available to homeowners and lay-persons across the U.S. and around the world.

In its condemnation of this regulatory failure, the report cites two scientific studies documenting severely declining bird populations in North America.

“The North American regulatory system needs to act rather than continue to ignore evidence of widespread environmental damage. There is evidence that US regulators waited far too long to impose needed restrictions on the toxic insecticides responsible for millions of bird deaths per year (Mineau 2004) and that this is one of the more plausible reasons for the decline of grassland/farmland birds in North America (Mineau and Whiteside, 2013).”

The American Bird Conservancy report comes two years after Dutch toxicologist Dr. Henk Tennekes published the findings of his studies chronicling the long term persistent and lethal effects of Imidacloprid to insects and birds in the Netherlands.

A systemic and persistent neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid has been found by Dr. Tennekes to build up in waterways and natural aquatic environments, to persist in those areas and to spread throughout natural habitats connected by waterways.

According to his studies, all of the waterways of the Netherlands are now contaminated and the cumulative effects of this long term toxicity are decimating bird populations. It is persistent, cumulative and lethal in these environments over time resulting in mass die offs within these eco-systems.

The Rachel Carson Council review of Dr. Tennekes’ book, A Disaster in the Making states:

“Dr. Tennekes’ findings indicate that Imidacloprid (and possibly other neonicotinoid-type insecticides) can bind irreversibly to critical receptors in an insect’s nervous system. If these receptors are permanently blocked, the insecticide would not follow a typical dose-response curve. He provides evidence that long term low-level Imidacloprid exposure can lead to neurological problems and eventual death of insects.”

He has also found that this persistence has led to a drastic reduction of insect biomass in the Netherlands, affecting the food chain.

Clearly, the toxic effects of the chemicals on birds are a major issue and must be addressed. However, this new development of massive losses of native insect populations in the estuaries and waterways where all other creatures depend on them as a food source is a frightening result never before contemplated.

It is not hard to imagine then that any chemical which is introduced to an environment and becomes persistent in that environment, with lethal doses accumulating over time in insects, invertebrates, fish and birds, could also be responsible for the massive deaths of honey bees and other bee populations.

In fact, European studies have come to the conclusion that these chemicals impact the honeybees’ ability to forage and survive.

A Purdue University study published in the journal PLoS One in January of 2012 directly linked honeybee deaths to seed insecticide exposure (

“Analyses of bees found dead in and around hives from several apiaries over two years in Indiana showed the presence of neonicotinoid insecticides, which are commonly used to coat corn and soybean seeds before planting. The research showed that those insecticides were present at high concentrations in waste talc that is exhausted from farm machinery during planting.

“The insecticides clothianiodin and thiamethoxam were also consistently found at low levels in soil – up to two years after treated seed was planted – on nearby dandelion flowers and in corn pollen gathered by the bees.”

Because these chemicals bind to receptors in the nervous systems of insects, birds and mammals, and because the manufacturers and scientists developing these chemicals were convinced that they could actually map them and ‘match them’ to specific insects, there has been a great expansion in their production.

In light of the current evidence, and massive environmental impact being seen as a result of their use, the questions now become, “How quickly can we assess what we have unleashed upon the earth, and can we undo the damage it has already caused? And, how can we prevent the damage it is continuing to cause and save these natural regions, watersheds and environments?”

The answers are not easily found when most of the world has not yet even admitted there is a problem, and the people in control are profiting so vastly from the production and application of these toxins that they are not interested in the deadly consequences of their products.

But it gets worse.

Another recent study conducted by Japanese researchers sought to “determine the effects of two distinct neonicotinoids, Acetamiprid (ACE) and Imidacloprid (IMI) on specific receptor sites, (nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs)) in mammalians”.

The study was designed to shed light on the effects of these systemic toxins on mammals, as their impact on insects is established, “but the question of their effects on mammals has never been studied”.

This statement alone should raise major alarm. When combined with the knowledge that neonicotinoid insecticides are now the most widely used chemicals in the world for insect control, and have moved from fields and farms into homes and gardens across the U.S. it becomes more than frightening.

The findings: The study is the first to show that “ACE, IMI, and nicotine exert similar excitatory effects on mammalian nAChRs at concentrations greater than 1 µM. Therefore, the neonicotinoids may adversely affect human health, especially the developing brain.”

So it looks as though these chemicals are not quite as species specific, or safe, as we were led to believe.

The method of action of neonicotinoids causes disruption of the communication transmission between neurons. Massive short term, or cumulative lower level long term exposure appears to cause a permanent blocking of the neuron receptors to acetylcholine. This means the function of the transmission and reception is tricked into a permanent ‘on’ signal.

The description by David Schuit of the condition of his dying bees correlates with such a situation. The nervous system is unable to ‘shut off’ the signaling leading to a kind of massive seizuring, paralysis and death.

To contemplate such a horrific result in insects is unpleasant at best. To consider the potential that this condition can be spread inter-species to invertebrates, fish and birds is worse. The idea that this can also occur in mammals and that the toxins are now prevalent throughout many regions of the world is almost unthinkable.

In Belgium, a review of research conducted from 1985 to 2011 from Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain determined that Parkinson’s disease was linked to occupational exposure to pesticides in farmworkers.

While these chemicals are not all identical, and their actions may vary; the clear indications are that long term exposure, whether by insects, amphibians, birds or people can be lethal.

Suddenly these neonicotinoids don’t sound like “the safest insecticides in the world,” as they were touted to be over two decades ago when they were introduced.

The pattern of discovering, by way of terrible consequences, the true lethal nature of chemical toxic insecticides and pesticides is not new.

After being promoted as the greatest safest new weapon in the war on bugs, the chemicals have turned out to be what they started as: poisons.

Perhaps it is time for us to wake up and realize that using the services of those companies who excelled at chemical weaponry and warfare to provide the tools for raising our food is just a bad idea.

It is time to stop trying to solve our problems by poisoning the earth. Hopefully, it is not too late to make that choice.

Additional Sources:

Bee Deaths a Result of Pesticide ‘Safari’ Count upped to 50,000 Insects

Post, Ontario Canada
Bees dying by the millions

Toronto Sun Article 2012:

June 20th 2010 letter to the President requesting suspension of neonicotinoids.
Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides

American Bird Conservancy Report on Neonicotinoids


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