Nobody Wants to Hurt Honeybees

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By Daniel T. Kelley:  Normal, Illinois

Nobody wants to hurt honeybees. Not only are they an important part of the environment, but as pollinators, they’re also essential to agriculture. I’ve heard that honeybees contribute to one out of every three bites of food that Americans take.

As a farmer, I am constantly looking for the right tools to protect the crops I grow, the environment and bees. That’s why I was disappointed to read a recent warning from the Environmental Protection Agency that federal regulators probably won’t approve new varieties of a popular and important insecticide. The agency said it wants more time to gather data on how treatments of neonicotinoids—commonly known as “neonics”—affect honeybees.

A few days later, Lowe’s, the chain of home-improvement stores, said it would stop selling products that contain neonics.

I use neonics on my farm in Illinois. They help me grow healthy soybean plants. Many other farmers rely on neonics for canola and corn. I strongly support responsible research into the effects of neonics and other products—but also urge caution.

We should let science drive our regulatory decisions rather than politics, propaganda, or fear.

Despite the widespread use of neonics, honeybees are flourishing. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization counts nearly 81 million honeybee colonies around the world today. That’s up from less than 50 million in 1961—an improvement of more than 60 percent.

Yet the media has peddled alarming stories of a “beepocalypse”—a crash in honeybee populations. The truth is that although the number of beehives in the Unites States has fallen since the 1970s, they’ve held steady over the last generation. There are about as many beehives today as there were in 1995.

In other words, during the period in which neonics became mainstream crop-protection products on U.S. farms, the overall bee population has remained stable. Over the last few years, in fact, it has ticked upward.

Lots of factors affect honeybee populations, from the harshness of winters to the presence of diseases and parasites such as the varroa mite, which feast on bee larvae.

Scientists also have investigated a mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, in which worker bees vanish, leaving behind a queen and an empty hive. Its causes are poorly understood, though some research indicates that the mites may be to blame. Historical data suggest that honeybee populations suffered similar pressures in the 1880s, 1920s, and the 1960s. They’ve always bounced back.

Do neonics play a part in current trends? The best evidence suggests that they do not. Honeybees face plenty of threats, but, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute argues in a new report, “Pesticides are the least among these factors and neonicotinoids the least among those, if they have any impact at all.”

So what’s behind the fuss? Radical environmentalists stir up much of it, as a front in their unrelenting war on modern agriculture.

Embedded in their concern is an irony: Honeybees aren’t even native to North America. They were imported from Europe centuries ago as agricultural commodities, to assist with pollination. In another context, the activists might label them an “invasive species” and call for their eradication.

What they fail to understand is that if farmers lose the neonic option, they’re going to have to turn to other methods of pest control, including sprays that may pose greater risks to honeybees.

This is known as the law of unintended consequences—and we must always be sensitive to it, especially when we’re thinking about the environment.

Neonics became popular the 1990s in part because they’re less toxic to honeybees than insecticides. They also make economic and environmental sense: Applying neonics to seeds early in the growing season means farmers need fewer crop-protection sprays later on.

Neonics are an excellent illustration of the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Good farmers know that they can’t rely too heavily on any single method of crop protection. Neonics and other products must be parts of a larger strategy to fend off pests and weeds.

The best approach is to let neonics remain an option for farmers who strive for economic and environmental sustainability, and not to react with haste or emotion as we work to grow as much food on as little land as possible.

Daniel Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, IL. He volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).

An AgWeb article