Global food production may be approaching another major crisis. Crops around the world are pollinated by honeybees, but bee populations are dying off rapidly due to excessive use of pesticides and other environmental factors. The threat of food production losses is becoming painfully apparent, and the economic, social and environmental costs could be staggering.
This growing threat to the global food supply has locked governments and pesticide manufacturers in heated arguments about what to do; but no one doubts that without honey bees we could face a severe global food crisis.
Beehive losses (called the colony collapse disorder) involve the death or abandonment of hives by adult bees that are crucial to the colony's survival. Colony collapses are not new, but the number of hive losses has increased drastically now exceeding 40 to 50 percent each year.
A life without honey bees
If hive losses continue to increase, the impacts will be felt in several areas of our everyday lives. Declining harvests will lead to food shortages, higher prices and fewer dietary choices. Bees are also used for pollinating crops required for livestock forage, so these impacts will extend to meat food products as well.
Decreased availability of fruits and vegetables will also impact on human health which in turn will increase health care costs. Without bees to fertilize plants, biodiversity also will suffer disrupting the natural balance of many ecological systems. Over the coming decades, it is estimated that some 20,000 flowering plant species could be lost.
The economic impacts would be felt rather quickly. Canada's Fraser Valley produces one-fifth of the world's blueberries crop, for example. The impact of bee colony collapses disorder already is being felt in the need to import more honey bees and the loss of several blueberry pollination contracts.
Why do honey bee populations decline?
The full story on the declining honeybee population is still unclear. A combination of several factors is to blame, including the use of pesticides (especially neonicotinoids), the spread of viral pathogens, increases of parasitic mites in beehives, and global climate change.
'Global climate change appears to be contributing to a mismatch between pollinators and plants. European data shows there have been shifts in distribution of pollinators, especially bumble bees. And the plants that depend upon them are also undergoing shifts.' May R. Berenbaum, Ph.D., professor and head of the entomology department at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The main issue of debate between beekeepers and governments is the impact of neonicotiniod pesticides on the health and behaviour of bees and, eventually, on our food supply.
In the U.S., neonicotinoids are used on corn, canola cotton, sorghum, and sugar beet crops and about half of all soybeans produced. Most fruit and vegetable crops (cereal grains, rice, nuts, and wine grapes) are treated with this kind of pesticide.
Neonicotinoids are a systemic pesticide, which means they stay with the plant while it grows. Direct exposure to bees and other insects is high because the pesticide stays active in the plant's nectar, pollen and the leaf surface moisture.
Recent studies report large amounts of agricultural pesticides in honeybee colonies, some at toxic levels. Neonicotinoids contribute to queen bee losses and may also interfere with the ability to navigate back to hives.
Pesticide producers including Bayer CropScience, Snygenta and CropLife America, argue that there's no outgoing threat from their pesticide products if used as directed and refuse to accept blame for the colony collapse disorder.
'There is no way to prevent exposure to these chemicals. The only question is the exposure level, whether that is a problem or not. The pesticide industry claims not. The beekeeping industry says yes.' Steve Ellis, beekeeper from Minnesota
What can be done to prevent further hive losses?
The European Commission has proposed a two-year-ban on the use of three major neonicitinoids on seeds, plants and grains.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is calling for conditional registration of certain neonicotinoids and is working with beekeepers, growers, pesticide manufacturers, and others to improve pesticide use, labeling, and management practices to protect bees and to evaluate the effects of pesticides on honeybees and other pollinators.
'We can use them safely and not endanger the health of bees. There is not a correlation with the use of these products and the loss of colonies. What tends to be publicized is not an accurate reflection of the weight of the evidence.' David Fischer, Environmental Toxicologist with Bayer CropScience
In March, Syngenta and Bayer proposed a plan to support bee health, including planting more flowering margins around fields and monitoring for neonicotinoids. Syngenta even threatened to sue individual European Union officials involved in publishing a report that found the pesticides posed an unacceptable risk to bees, according to documents seen by the 'Observer'.
In the UK supermarket chain Waitrose has announced plans to stop using pesticides linked to declining bee populations by the end of 2014. Farmers supplying Waitrose with fruit, vegetables and flowers must phase out three neonicotinoid-based pesticides.
To date, the main causes of such wide spread bee colony collapses are not clear and governments and pesticide producers are struggling to find acceptable solutions. Recent actions on pesticide bans and collaborative actions to improve pesticide use are positive developments in the effort to ward off another global food crisis.
Only time will tell whether these actions will be sufficient to prevent further collapses in these eco-systems that are so important to our everyday lives.
The Future of Global Food Security will be a major topic at GLOBE 2014, the next in the celebrated GLOBE Series Conferences on the business of the environment taking place in Vancouver Canada, March 26-28, 2014. Reserve your place now. Check here for more details.