Toxic Addictions

A study published this week adds further evidence that there is a direct correlation between the decline of honeybee populations and the ongoing use of certain pesticides, namely, neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids share some chemical similarity with nicotine. Like nicotine, they are both toxic and addictive.

They also have a similar trajectory in the media.

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

Fifty years ago, United States Surgeon General Luther L. Terry M.D. released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Years of research and thousands of articles definitively related smoking to cancer and bronchitis in humans.

It’s well documented that major tobacco companies knew about the lethal effects of their products on human health for decades, and yet continued to promote their products as beneficial. The science that underpinned health studies was questioned, consumer freedom of choice was touted, dire economic impacts were predicted should smoking be banned. And the effects of an outright ban would indeed have been dire – for the tobacco companies.

So cigarettes remained on the market – but a sea change in their perception had taken place. And while tobacco profits went down (at least in some areas of the world) for a very few tobacco-producing companies, the lowered cost of health care for tobacco-related illness has to be considered an overall economic gain for the vast majority of humans, smokers and non-smokers alike.

And so to the makers of neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been around since the 1980s, but only really gained widespread use in the 1990s.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

The European Union banned the use of some of these insecticides for a period of two years to see whether a ban would have any positive effect on declining honeybee populations in Europe. The United States has hesitated, citing a lack of evidence between bee declines and insecticides.

Insecticide manufacturers, having long claimed that insecticides couldn’t possibly be the sole cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, have also been warning of economic and crop collapse should the insecticides – which have only been in use for thirty years of the 10,000+ years of human agriculture – be discontinued.

I found one estimate that the estimated sales turnover for these products has increased ten-fold since their introduction, and they comprise one-quarter of crop control chemicals sold. The more profitable they are, the more resistance there will be to a ban.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

90% of the U.S. corn crop is currently neonicotinoid-treated, and as a crop protection mechanism, these products have been triumphant. Still, I have yet to see mention of major corn crop failures in the countries where neonicotinoids are banned.

The value of a healthy bee pollination infrastructure is far more difficult to estimate, because we only talk about economic value as it relates to crops and human interaction, not in the larger context of maintaining healthy ecosystems that include – but are not limited to – crop land.
For me, the similarities between neonicotinoids and nicotine are striking.

People started to quit smoking in the years and decades following the 1964 report on tobacco.When will the body of evidence lead to a sea change in public opinion when it comes to our toxic addiction to these insecticides?


Bees in the Eaves

Honeybees under the eaves Photo: PK Read

Honeybees under the eaves
Photo: PK Read

For the third year running, a bee colony has taken up residence in a roof corner of our house. We thought about having them removed, but thus far they don’t seem to be doing any harm. We don’t hear them, they don’t come into the house, and they can’t extend their realm by much because the wall upon which the roof sits is made of stone. We’ve had a couple of beekeepers offer to try and take the swarm before they settle in spring – one of these years, we might try that. For now, considering the stress bees are under right now around the world, we’re letting them stay. In the UK alone, bee populations have dropped by an estimated 10-15% over the past couple of years.

The European Union, over the objections of several member states (including the UK) the recent EU ban on neonicotonoid pesticides to assess the effect of these substances on honeybees – this will likely also have a positive effect on pollinators in general. Pesticide producers (including Bayer and Syngenta) are firm in their conviction that the banned products do not play a role in the undisputed decline of honeybees (and other pollinators), and cite industry-funded studies as proof of safety.

As it turns out, these products are relatively new. Neonicotinoids are the first plant-derived insecticide. Just fifteen years after their commercial introduction, neonicotinoids are most widely used pesticides on the planet, and generate over $2 billion in sales annually.

Studies show the concern of their safety to the environment, nonetheless they are widely held to be comparatively safer  to mammals, birds and plants than earlier, synthetic organophosphate and carbamate insecticides. Manufacturers warn that with the neonicotinoid ban in place, farmers may opt to use these earlier insecticides. With the high revenues and global popularity of neonicotinoids, it should come as no surprise that producers would try to tout the safety of their products.

This is a clear case of regulation vs. strong commercial interests, where the free market may not necessarily arrive at the best and safest solution. A 2012 post at Scientific Beekeeping offers a balanced approach to the whole discussion, yet comes out against a ban because evidence isn’t yet ‘conclusive’.

Even if neonicotinoids are simply the final drop that forces the cup of impacts on bee colony collapse to overflow, the precautionary approach would still seem prudent. Hopefully, this precautionary approach will be implemented elsewhere, as well.

Relevance of honeybees to US agriculture Source:

Relevance of honeybees to US agriculture, and threats to U.S. honeybees


European Environment Agency (EEA) article – Neonicotinoid pesticides are a huge risk article – Agrochemical majors hit by EU’s neonicotinoid ban by Mike Toohey Buyer’s Guide overview – Neonicotinoid Insecticides Insight

2006 study commenting on early safety concerns re:  neonicotinoids – Neonicotinoid Insecticides by Uok Kim