Honeybees pollinate $201 billion worth of crops annually, according to the United Nations. Without them, we wouldn’t have almonds, cherries, tomatoes, nor 68 other crops that provide 90 percent of the planet’s food. That’s why it’s disconcerting that almost seven years after a sudden, unexplained plunge in North American and European bee populations first made headlines, the bees are still dropping dead. Each year from 2006 to 2011, U.S. beekeepers reported losing one-third of their colonies. Much of Europe has witnessed similar declines, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
After poring through several years’ worth of scientific studies on the possible causes of what’s known as colony collapse disorder, the agency in January stopped short of naming a culprit. It did, however, declare that three neonictinoids—widely used chemicals found in garden shop sprays to ward off aphids and beetles and in the coating of pest-repellent seeds—pose an “acute risk” to honeybees. Based on the finding, the European Commission proposes banning the chemicals—two used in pesticides made by Bayer CropScience (BAYN:GR) and one by Syngenta (SYT). “What we are saying is that bee colony collapse disorder is due to a combination of factors: climate change, dangerous new predators, and so on,” says Frederic Vincent, a spokesman for the European Commissioner for Health and Consumers. Among these factors, he adds, “pesticides is one of the few we can control.”
European regulators relied heavily on a study done by Italian biologist Marco Lodesani, director of a public-private honeybee and silkworm research institute in Bologna. From 2009 to 2011, Lodesani’s team conducted thousands of autopsies on bees, tracing many of the deaths to maize seeds coated in one of the chemicals that Europe may ban. The Italian researchers also did experiments on live bees and found that even at recommended usage levels, neonictinoids are messing with the bees’ foraging instincts, confusing their ability to remember the route back to the nest. The team found that bees exposed to doses slightly above the recommended usage levels died.
Switzerland-based Syngenta has mounted a robust defense of its products with a website that attacks the EFSA’s inquiry, which took less than a year, as “hurried and inadequate.” The company notes that scientists have seen colony collapse disorder at intervals over the past century, and the pesticides, which first came on the market 15 years ago, can’t be blamed for deaths that occurred beforehand. “When used properly the technology does not damage bee populations, and this is why many EU countries have continued to support its use,” the company said in a written statement. In 2011 global sales of Syngenta products containing the chemicals exceeded $1 billion.
In a statement, Bayer calls the EC’s proposal “draconian.” A study funded by the two companies predicts that yanking the three neonictinoids from the market will cost Europe’s agricultural sector $22 billion in lower crop yields over the next five years and could put 50,000 people out of work.
EC members will vote on outlawing the chemicals in March, and debate is expected to be lively. Paul de Zylva, who works on legislative policy for the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth Europe, says his organization is lobbying politicians heavily to support the ban. He expects Italy, France, and the Netherlands, which already prohibit one or all of the pesticides in question, to support the proposal along with several smaller countries. The influential Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, an environmental group in the United Kingdom, is urging officials there to endorse the ban. The biggest British garden shop chains, B&Q, Homebase, and Wickes, have already pulled popular bug-killer products from their shelves because of the EFSA’s finding. Yet officials in the U.K. and Germany appear to be leaning against the ban, De Zylva says.
“Modern farming requires a complete change of thinking, away from a reliance on chemicals and back to a respect for biodiversity,” says biologist Lodesani, who proudly points out that his research precipitated Italy’s ban of certain neonictinoids in 2011. Italian beekeepers, he says, tell him they are already seeing a difference, with “much improved” bee survival rates.