Just behind our house in Hartwick is a commons area of about eight acres. It’s privately owned, but Andy, the owner, lets people walk through this semi-wilderness parcel. This area has a small swamp and about four acres of orchard/meadow. The rest is pretty much goldenrod. Andy gave me permission to use Sue’s and my tractor mower to carve out a walking path to use while walking our Boston Terrier, Sophie.
Walking through this carved-out canyon with its goldenrod walls, we are usually accompanied by invisible pleasantries — once this weed starts to bloom, the odor of honey and the acrid/sweet aroma of pollen harvested by six-legged winged creatures, primarily honey bees. For some strange reason this year, Sophie and I have observed virtually no honeybee pollination activity during our walks through the yellow sea of goldenrod blossoms.
Are honey bees (Apis mellifera) — which were introduced to the New World by European settlers — on a path to extinction? Despite Sophie’s and my recent walks being unaccompanied by these buzzing companions, I believe there’s hope for these little friends who play an integral role in producing most of the food humans and other animals consume. The most dominant threat confronting A. mellifera is colony collapse disorder (CCD). Classic causes for the demise of bee populations have been foul brood and varroa mites. Trying to pin the blame for CCD on any other source results in lots of “not-me’s”.
Early on, as glyphosate-based herbicides became the norm for weed control, beekeepers and bee-lovers began to blame that increasingly ever-present active ingredient (AI) for the CCD epidemics. Folks involved in the manufacture and marketing of that AI rushed to defend its honor, denying any culpability. (Recent University of Arkansas research erodes that denial.) Even more recently, the entomology academic community is taking aim at a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. These scientists allege that these chemicals are likely the biggest single cause of CCD.
Introduced in the mid-1990s, synthetic neonicotinoids (neonics), possessing nicotine’s chemical structure, attack the central nervous system of insects. Intended to replace older, more harmful pesticides, they are now widely used to treat flowering crops, such as fruit trees, beets and vineyards. But scientific studies are showing that neonics cut bees’ sperm count and scramble their memory and homing skills. Additional research suggests that bees can develop dangerous addiction to these insecticides, much like smokers for nicotine.
Entomologists in the Netherlands state that neonics act as nerve agents and are typically sprayed on crop seeds to kill insects. These Dutch scientists are convinced that some neonics are responsible for declining populations of pollinating insects, and even feel safe in linking these insecticides to increased mortality among farmland birds.
Thus motivated by their Dutch neighbors, France took a radical step towards protecting its dwindling bee population on Sept. 8, 2018, by becoming the first country in Europe to ban five pesticides, which researchers believe are killing off bees. The move to ban the five neonics has been hailed by beekeepers and environmentalists — but cereal and sugar beet farmers warn it could leave them almost defenseless in protecting valuable crops against harmful insects. By enforcing the blanket ban, France is going further than the European Union, which outlawed the use of three neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam — in crop fields starting on Dec. 19, 2018. In addition to these three, France has banned thiacloprid and acetamiprid, not only outdoors but in greenhouses too.
Initially opposed, Britain now backs the less comprehensive EU ban due to evidence supporting claims the chemicals contribute to CCD, an epidemic blamed for bee populations plummeting by up to 90 percent in some cases. Other potential causes are mites, viruses and fungi. Some French farmers are angry, saying there is not enough evidence that neonics are responsible for bee decline. They believe the ban will heighten “unfair competition with European and non-European producers still allowed to use the pesticides.”
Despite campaigns to reduce pesticides, France increased their use by 12 percent between 2014 and 2016. An upcoming French food safety bill, if adopted, expands the ban to all chemical substances acting in the same way. The United Nations warned last year that 40 percent of invertebrate pollinators — particularly bees and butterflies — risk global extinction.
Back in the U.S., by 2014 court rulings shut down the use of genetically modified organisms on several Federal refuges, after environmental and food safety groups spent years challenging the practice both in and out of court. These groups argued that the crops and poisons threaten the same ecosystems that refuges are supposed to protect. One of those groups, namely University of North Texas (UNT) biologists, received funding to expand research into how neonics affect Texas quail populations, and the results may have implications to human health. The Texans pointed out that neonics are a neuro-active component of the most widely used insecticides in the world; moreover, that recent studies have shown them to have an impact on honeybee colonies, and the U.S. EPA has recognized neonics as a threat to pollinators.
Thus motivated, Kelly Reyna, UNT assistant professor of biology, aims to find out how neonics affect quail that may eat insecticide-coated seeds or plants; also, how quail embryos develop in the presence of these pesticides. “In early tests we found that if we expose fertile quail eggs to the pesticide, the embryos develop enlarged hearts, small lungs and other developmental abnormalities,” Reyna said. “For our next phase of research we hope to learn more about whether adult quail that ingest pesticide coated seeds transfer these affects to their offspring.”
These results could shed light not only on how wildlife, like quail, respond to pesticides in their environment, but also on how humans, adults and children, respond to ingestion of neonic residues in their food. With quail being central to finer points of French cuisine, it’s surprising that France didn’t attack neonics even sooner.