Op-Ed: Imagining a World Without Bees

PERSPECTIVES

Op-Ed by PETER MAURER

The mystery of the disappearing and dying bees may finally have been solved, and the reason – to no one’s surprise – may be a very common pesticide.

Neonictinoids are a category of pesticide in use since the 1990s, which mirrors the decline in bees. Long blamed on cell phone towers, electric transmission lines, viruses, mites, and other equally esoteric causes, science is now fairly confident that the use of neonictinoids is the main culprit behind the sudden and dramatic loss of bees.

Used to dust and coat seeds just prior to planting, it is often released into the air and water during the planting process. But neonictinoid’s real danger is that it is absorbed into the growing plant to provide systemic protection against foraging insects. Unfortunately for bees, the pesticide shows up in the pollen and nectar, posing a onetwo punch to nature’s pollinators.

As its name implies, neonictinoids are related to nicotine, an old-fashioned pesticide that farmers used long before the chemical industry came up with all sorts of synthetic hydrocarbons to dispatch our pests, whether they be weed, insect, or fungus.

I remember my dad telling me when he was a boy, watching his father soak tobacco leaves in a solution of water and alcohol for a period of time. When ready, the foul-smelling, brownish liquid would be diluted and then sprayed on the family’s garden plot. It effectively killed any bugs in the garden, and was so potent, my grandfather hired people to apply it rather than risking himself or family to the exposure.

Nicotine is that deadly. But since extracting the nicotine from tobacco plant was an expensive and time-consuming process, science came up with synthetic nicotine, neonictinoids. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The European Union is about ready to ban the use of neonictinoids, convinced that the numerous studies conducted readily show the link between the use of the pesticide and the collapse of beehives in the areas, along with a sharp drop in the number of surviving bees. But here in the States, the huge and powerful agribusiness lobby is busy in D.C., doing their best to convince politicians that no current study is conclusive and that, to no one’s surprise again, more studies are needed to corroborate the first studies.

That is how Big Business and equally big money work in Washington. If you want influence, you need money, and if you have a lot of money, then you can buy a lot of influence. And since one of the world’s biggest chemical companies is also one of the world’s biggest agribusiness owners, they have been fighting this battle on both sides of the Atlantic. Their war chest is stuffed with cash, being dispensed by lobbyists to any politician willing to listen to their litany of excuses as to why neonictinoids shouldn’t be banned, either here or in Europe.

That company? A German outfit, whose founder isolated the active ingredient found in the bark of the willow tree that native Americans discovered helped with pain. They go by the name of Bayer. Bayer now owns Monsanto, so they have enormous stakes in the pesticide business on two continents, the two that use the most chemicals on Earth in food production.

But let me leave you with this one last thought, because while you are thinking about the bees, you might forget one important fact – the neonictinoids that get into and stay in the plant to provide protection against insects not only get into the pollen and nectar, but also the fruit of the plant, things like corn, oat, wheat, soy, and so on. In other words, it is very likely that you and I are also getting traces of neonictinoids in our bodies.