Bees, Honey and Pesticides

Local beekeeper Dan Long holds a slice of one of his beehives for display. (Photo: Casie Wilson)

A recent worldwide survey of honey samples has entomologists and local bee enthusiasts alike buzzing.

In early October, Swiss researchers reported that of the 198 honey samples they had taken from around the world, 75 percent of them contained traces of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are one of the most commonly used insecticides in the world. They’re pretty effective, because no matter where it’s applied on the plant, the neonic filters through the plant’s internal systems and spreads to all of its organs. Neonics are intended to affect the central nervous system of insects that try to eat through the plant, causing the bugs to become paralyzed and die.

Unfortunately for pollinators like honey bees, neonics also spread to the plant’s flowers, meaning the pollen and nectar are also contaminated. If the forager bees are exposed to pesticides, that means the honey the hive produces also is contaminated.

Dan Long, the owner of Brushwood Nursery and hobbyist beekeeper, says that the chances of a colony running into neonics really depends on the immediate surroundings.

“I think there are other parts of our local area, the Clarke County area and surrounding counties that are more intensively cultivated and are more suburban than this immediate area here,” he said. “My neighbors don’t practice chemical lawn care. They don’t do a whole lot of gardening, and there isn’t any intensive agriculture in the immediate area that would have the potential to bring neonic residues to us. That’s not to say that isn’t the case in other parts of this county. ”

In the Swiss study, the concentration of neonics in honey samples varied across the 6 continents the samples were taken. The highest proportion of neonics was found in North America, where 86 percent of honey samples were contaminated.

(Photo: UGA Honey Bee Program)

Although two-thirds of the total samples tested positive for at least one neonic, every sample taken was considered safe for human consumption according to current EU and U.S. regulations. Under current policy, U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows small quantities of some pesticides that are deemed “unavoidable.” However, FDA policy does not address traces of neonicotinoids.

“The neonics and the neonic metabolites have very low toxicity to mammals,” Long said. “It has to do with the receptor sites in the cells and the fact that insects are particularly susceptible, even at low levels, compared to mammals. So, we don’t have lethal honey. The question is whether the micrograms and picograms of neonic metabolites, in combination with other things we want to consume… What sort of effect is that having?”

Long went on to say that the biggest problem with neonics isn’t about killing off honey bees, but the long-lasting, nonlethal effects neonics have on colonies. 

“Some folks have indicated that at low levels, we’re disrupting the foragers’ ability to forage,” he said. “They’re the mouth of the colony, so if they can’t bring back nectar effectively and efficiently, the colony will be harmed or die off entirely.”

In June of this year, another European study concluded that neonics also affect bees’ reproductive and growth cycles and can weaken their immune systems.

However, there may be a silver lining to this development. Long says that bringing the effects of neonics into the public eye can help keep all sorts of pollinator insects, not just bees, out of danger.

(Photo: UGA Honey Bee Program)

“One of the neatest things about colony collapse disorder is that it has raised people’s awareness of the fact there is an effect,” he said. “When I go to public events, festivals and that sort of thing, people come up to me over and over again and say, ‘We’ve got to save the bees!’ and that’s a great start. Honey bees are not native to the United States, but if they’re saving the bees by reducing their chemical usage, at the same time, they’re going to helping all of our native pollinators.”

In light of recently published research and growing public awareness, the EPA has established a plan of action to protect pollinators. This plan includes the regulation toxic pesticides when bees are present, as well as refining the risk assessment process when it comes to pesticides.

-Casie Wilson

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