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Are GMOs Killing Our Honey Bees?

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“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”  – Albert Einstein

On February 6, 2013, a village near Hopelchen, Campeche in Mexico experienced a critical loss: 1,500 colonies of honey bees completely collapsed. The bees vanished without a trace, leaving behind honey, the still-living queen, and their brood. For those in the industry, it’s just more of the same bad news. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has struck again.

This particular loss of bees is devastating news to the local community, which, after losing a large crop of maize this year due to drought, was depending on the production of organic honey to survive. Unfortunately, monoculture fields of GMO corn are planted nearby and very recently were inoculated with a type of pesticide called neonicoticoids, and farmers and advocacy groups alike are pointing to it as the culprit of this recent colony collapse.

The Importance of Bees

Humans and honey bees have a long, special relationship that dates back to prehistoric times. The unique properties of that liquid gold called honey has made the honey bee a valuable resource. These bees are much more important than just the honey they produce, however. One in three of the food crops we eat, including vegetables, fruits, and nuts, are dependent on these little insects for pollination. Even cotton is dependent on the honey bee.

History: “A Crisis is Brewing”

In late 2006, beehive farmers across the Americas and Europe experienced an unprecedented catastrophe: their honey bees were dying, and not only that, but millions of them were vanishing –  flying off, never to be seen again, leaving their queen and her brood alone to die. About 30 percent of the overall bee population in the U.S. disappeared, with reports of up to 80 percent of bees gone in some places, in the span of only six months. The result? Many domestic crops, and almonds in particular, were suddenly in danger of failing. Without pollination, they could not set fruit. For the first time since the 1930s, honey bees had to be imported into the U.S. from other countries like Australia. This trend of importing honey bees into the U.S. continues today as local populations fail to stabilize.

While similar events to CCD have happened before, they have never been so widespread or so severe. In 2006 and 2007, alarming reports of CCD and similar colony declines popped up from around the world. Italy; France; Germany; Spain; Poland; North, Central and South American countries; and several others had all experienced this problem within only a year or so of the first report by a Pennsylvania beekeeper. In Croatia, there was even a report that 5 million bees vanished in only forty-eight hours.

According to many beekeepers, the current rate of honey bee population decline could mean that worldwide there may only be about ten years to find a solution before the honey bee completely disappears.

A Bleak Future

There is one place where honey bees have already disappeared. In Southern Sichuan Province, China, the honey bee is completely absent. Uncontrolled heavy pesticide use starting in the 1980s has caused local extinction of these vital pollinators. Today, in place of the bee, human workers must pollinate crops by hand. Pollen of the fruit trees must first be gathered, carefully prepared, and then manually dusted onto hundreds of thousands of flowers with tiny brushes made with feather down. It is a difficult and very expensive venture. If this scenario plays out in the U.S., hand-pollination would cost an estimated 90 billion dollars a year.

The Ultimate Guide to Keeping Stronger Colonies and Healthier, More Productive Bees

So What Exactly is CCD?

Colony Collapse Disorder is a worldwide problem that is causing millions of honey bees to vanish and die away from their hives. After years of research, a direct cause is still uncertain, but all CCD colonies show the same, bizarre symptoms.

Signs of CCD

CCD manifests itself when the adult, female worker bees undergo a “mass evacuation,” disappearing without a trace by the thousands almost overnight, and abandoning the hive and the queen, never to return. Beekeepers realize that they have CCD when they open up the beehive and see that it’s empty – not even dead bees to be found. The queen, her offspring, and the honey are still present, but interestingly, the common insects that usually invade beehives for honey and pollen and that would normally take advantage of the worker bees’ absence, leave CCD hives alone.

Biopsies done on CCD colony bees show a staggering number of afflictions, from digestive issues to pathogens, leading many to believe that bees are suffering from suppressed immune systems.

Causes of CCD

The sudden, worldwide breakout of CCD worldwide in 2006 prompted governments to scramble, using emergency money to fund research into the cause – and hopefully cure – for CCD. Six years later, the current mainstream census is that CCD is caused by a number of different factors, including indiscriminate pesticide use, unusual weather patterns, diseases, parasites, monoculture, and antibiotic treatments. These varied factors are believed to combine into the “perfect storm” that causes entire hives to virtually disappear overnight. While all these factors play a part, new studies are increasingly showing that certain pesticides, and their association with GMO crops, are playing a very large role.

Pesticides & GMOs

Pesticides such as neonicotoids are becoming more recognized as a major factor in the worldwide decline of bees. Used widely in GMO fields, these pesticides have been found to kill bees through nonlethal doses by disrupting their ability to learn, remember, and even find their way home. Why was this danger not realized before? Because adult bees that are exposed to small amounts of these poisons do not die immediately, but rather suffer learning, memory, appetite, and immune system impairments, leaving them disoriented and susceptible to pathogens.

Neonicoticoid: Neonicoticoids are nicotine-like neurotoxins that include thiamethoxan, clothianidin, and imidacloprid, which are already banned in some countries. These are systemic pesticides that are often dusted on plant seeds. The plants absorb the chemical as they sprout, rendering them poisonous to insects (both pests and beneficials). All neonicoticoids are lethal to honey bees in certain quantities, and even in small “safe” amounts appear to cause damage. Honey bees are actually exposed to neonicoticoids in a few different ways. They ingest the tainted pollen, drink the nutritious (and tainted) plant sap, and are often fed tainted high fructose corn syrup, usually from Bt corn, in the winter. According to one study, fifteen out of sixteen bee colonies that were fed with imidacloprid-treated high fructose corn syrup died within six months. Bayer, one of the largest manufacturers of imidacloprid and other neonicoticoids, has publicly disputed this study’s findings.

Bt: Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a bacteria that produces a protein that kills insects like the corn borer, a common destructive pest. A type of GMO corn, called “Bt corn,” has been modified to produce the Bt protein that kills the corn borer. While Bt is considered a safe biological pest control and is supposed to decrease the amount of pesticide use, almost all fields of this Bt corn are inundated with synthetic pesticides, particularly the neurotoxic neonicoticoids, every season.

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While experts continue to debate the exact causes of CCD, some are searching for solutions based on what we know so far. Due in part to the role that GMO farming plays in the vanishing of bees, some countries have already banned genetically engineered Monsanto crops. A complete Monsanto and GMO ban, however, does not look imminent for the U.S. or for many other countries, and even places where GMOs are banned are still struggling with CCD.

Progress is slow, and a perfect solution is still probably a while away. For communities such as the village near Hopelchen, Campeche, it is already too late, and their experience serves as yet another warning that CCD is still happening, and it is killing honey bees, our most important pollinators, by the millions.

There is hope though: As news of CCD and the plight of the honey bee reaches the general population, interest in backyard beekeeping, organic farming, and foraging habitats has soared. As individuals and communities continue to take this matter into their own hands, rather than wait for industry or government help, perhaps one day our current food industry will start to change, the honey bees will return and Colony Collapse Disorder will be but a dark memory.





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