Copyright: Hayati Kayhan

A, Bee, CCD

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

There’s a buzz in the world of honeybees. Well, actually, there isn’t a buzz, and that’s the problem, there have been reports across the globe of colony collapse disorder. In Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) a hive fails to thrive but the beekeepers don’t find the carcasses of their yellow and black striped friends. Given that countless of our essential food crops and some of our luxury foods rely on honeybees for pollination, scientists, beekeepers, and farmers alike are keen to find out what is causing this problem.

Apparently, in the world of the apiarist, colony collapse has occurred periodically as long as beekeepers have been tending this insect. We probably have the sharpest love-hate relationship with Apis mellifica.However , the rapid spread of industrial-scale farms and monoculture crops in the last few decades could mean we are increasingly vulnerable to any faults in the system, such as a demise in pollinators. It is perhaps no surprise then that finding the cause of CCD has become a priority.

Over the last few years, the issue of dwindling honeybee populations has hit the headlines and each time a new phenomenon has been cited as the cause. Back in the mid to late 1990s it was a group of pesticides known as the neonicotinoids. However, when these were banned in France the incidences of CCD did not stop. Indeed, there is little evidence that neonicotinoids are toxic to anything but their target pest species and certainly not to honeybees. There are some hints that they may have detrimental effects on bee behavior when present with other pesticides and pollutants, but there is no hard evidence of this.

Indeed, the French study and a parallel German study both demonstrated that there were no differences in terms of bee behavior, mortality and evolution of beehives and honey harvest with or without use of the neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid. The German study pointed to a viral disease carried by Varroa mites. The neonicotinoids were banned, it seems, under the precautionary principle without resorting to the actual scientific evidence.

Other problems have been blamed for CCD, including global warming and habitat disturbance. There is no strong evidence that these are the causative agents either. Mites and the diseases they carry seem to be an increasing focus and several recent studies suggest that a virus or a fungus carried by mites could be the root cause of CCD. However, research in that area has been sullied by revelations that Bayer, manufacturer of a commonly used neonicotinoid, has funded one research group in the field, although the funding was for unrelated research. But, that is not proof that the neonicotinoids are to blame.

It is frustrating that a mass campaign is building to petition governments to ban the neonicotinoids. The well-educated and the well-meaning point to our increasing use of “artificial chemicals” and plead that we sign the petition. We do use a lot of chemicals in agriculture, there are a lot of us to feed and crop yields would be wholly inadequate without them. Farmers would choose not to use them if there were a tenable alternative. After all, agrochemicals are not inexpensive.

The real sting in the tale though is that scaremongering and misguided activism have stifled many aspects of progress that might lead to alternatives. Neonicotinoids were ultimately derived from a natural product – the nicotine in tobacco plants that protects them from pests naturally. Their safety profile compared to earlier pesticides is much better with less harmful effects on honeybees and mammals. It would be so nice if ecological problems were as simple as ABC…

Featured image credit: Hayati Kayhan via Shutterstock

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David Bradley

David is a freelance science writer with more than thirty years in science communication. His best-selling book, Deceived Wisdom is available now.
David Bradley

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2 thoughts on “A, Bee, CCD”

  1. That was approximately the point I was trying to make, Heather. The picture is muddied by industry lobbyists and activists alike. As with all things ecological, it’s never a simple matter to unravel cause and effect and it rarely turns out that a single cause has a single effect.

  2. David, have you seen this and related articles by the same author? It seems pretty aboveboard, and having access to original documents is good.

    I agree with your points in particular with respect to the overuse of the “precautionary principle” relating to genetically modified organisms. But all the scientific evidence, which you write is insufficient, is not available for peer review, is it? How can you dismiss the conclusions if we can’t even know what tests were conducted? The fact of a potential conflict of interest doesn’t mean that a study was necessarily badly conducted, or even relevant, but nor does a study underwritten by an activist group hoping to blame neonicotinoids necessarily comport poorly designed experiments. If we knew what they were, on both sides, educated people could help analyse or reanalyse the actual data, and propose alternative interpretations and hypotheses.