Bees not only play an essential role in nature, pollinating a wide array of fruits and flowering plants enjoyed by millions of people every day, they also evoke strong positive emotions in the vast majority of Americans. Unlike spiders, cockroaches, bed bugs and other structural pests, which are viewed with a combination of fear and disgust by most consumers, bees are celebrated for their essential role in agricultural production, accounting for more than 30 percent of the foods and beverages we consume as a society.
So it’s not too surprising that when bees began dying off in large numbers for unknown reasons seven years ago, people took notice. In the early years of the die-off, periodic stories would appear in the popular press about the worldwide decline of bee populations, but these stories went largely unnoticed, creating little “buzz” nationally or internationally. That all changed, however, in March 2012 when the respected journal Science published two articles suggesting pesticides, particularly a class known as neonicotinoids, can have an affect on bee colonies.
The verdict is still out on the root cause of the bee die-offs, but early evidence points to a variety of factors. In a blog post earlier this year, Mike Merchant, an extension urban entomologist and frequent editorial contributor to PCT magazine, wrote: “The USDA, university researchers and EPA have been mostly united for several years in the position that CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) is the result of multiple causes including parasites, lack of nectar source diversity, diseases and overworked bees. However some recent research on neonicotinoid insecticides has raised alarm bells for critics, and has even led to a temporary ban on this group of insecticides in Europe.”
It’s in everyone’s best interest to find a solution to this problem, but sound science takes time, requiring a reasoned approach by all involved. “The issue of pollinator health is a complex one that has the collective interest and investment of stakeholders from our government; academic and research institutions; technology solutions providers; pesticide applicators; growers and beekeepers,” observed Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CropLife America. “Our industries are strongly committed to finding solutions that include minimizing bee exposure and susceptibility to the varroa mite and associated diseases, and increasing opportunities for healthy habitat and forage. This is clearly about more than simply bees and insecticides, and there are many key factors at play. The policy pathways chosen will influence the direction of scientific innovation in the crop protection industry for decades, so we must get this right!”
“The issue of pollinator health is complex,” added Aaron Hobbs, president, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE). “Every segment of our industry has an important role to play in the dialogue and finding solutions to improve pollinator health. Having said that, the issue has renewed anti-pesticide activism around specialty products and their use, so it is important we recognize what is going on and continue to speak with one voice on this important issue.”
It likely will be years before the scientific community comes to a definitive conclusion about what is devastating the world’s bee populations, but until then it’s up to us as an industry to be good stewards of the environment and respond to customer concerns with sound facts, a sentiment echoed by Hobbs. “Our industry supports best management practices — first and foremost that all applicators read and follow all label directions. Where pollinators are concerned, this means reading and following all label directions when applying insecticides outdoors.”
“If your company includes neonicotinoids in its IPM toolbox, take a look at how you are using these products,” Merchant adds. “Neonicotinoids are effective and valuable insecticides for a variety of structural and landscape pests. For some landscape pests there are no highly effective alternatives. It’s up to all of us to ensure that these products are used safely and in accordance with label instructions. Good product stewardship is essential if we want to keep the use of neonicotinoids and maintain a ‘green’ reputation in our communities.” Sound advice indeed.
The author is publisher of PCT magazine.