My fascination with pollinators began with the film my brother Rhett produced, Pollinators in Peril. The film introduced me to the serious challenges pollinators are facing and their ongoing steep decline. I couldn't have imagined 15 years later the pollinators' plight would have gotten so much worse -- but it has.
My first step to facing this challenge was to start in my backyard by keeping beehives and planting pollinator friendly flowers. I'd be helping the bee population, as well as enjoying their honey and a healthy bumper crop of fruits and veggies! Our garden is completely organic and received the Wildlife Habitat certification. I planted clover, a favorite treat of the honey bee, and thought my bees were healthy. One day my beekeeper Cassandra Lawson informed me my bees had encapsulated their pollen within the hive. She placed and currently maintains over 20 hives around Atlanta and had never witnessed this before. Cassandra and her apiary friends diagnosed the problem as resulting from the pollen being so full of chemicals from my neighbors' yards it was a desperate measure to limit the colony's exposure to toxins. Sadly, all my bees perished.
Since 2006, beekeepers across the globe have seen record losses in hives, commonly referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). According to a recent article in TIME magazine, an estimated 10 million beehives have been lost. In 2013, U.S. losses in honey bees were reported between 50 and 100 percent. Bumble bees, Monarch butterflies and bats, also key pollinators of farms and gardens, are experiencing steep decline in North America. Some species are already extinct.
Why is the decline of pollinators one of our most critical environmental issues? Pollinators provide a crucial ecosystem service valued annually at $125 billion globally ($15-$20 billion in the U.S) in the pollination of our food crops. By working in the farmers' fields, bees provide us with one third of the food we eat, primarily fruits and vegetables.
In 2000, the UN committed itself to 8 MDG's (Millenium Development Goals) to reach by 2015. The first of these is eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. While chronic hunger has fallen, the deadline looms, and we are not meeting this crucial goal. Battling food scarcity requires a multi-pronged solution, but what is clear is that by not protecting our pollinators, responsible for 33 percent of our food globally, we are not making the world more secure.
There has been a great deal of research around the causes of pollinator decline. Mites are an issue in honey bee hives, as well as disease and habitat loss which affect all pollinators. However, the most significant issue appears to be the widespread use of insecticides, especially a new class called neonicotinoids. Dinotefuran, the neonicotinoid ingredient found in Valent's Safari insecticide, is blamed for June's mass die-off of an estimated 50,000 bumble bees in Wilsonville, Oregon -- the largest bee die-off ever recorded in the United States. The Oregon Department of Agriculture, while investigating the die-off, is temporarily restricting the use of 18 pesticide products containing dinotefuran.
Immediately following this report, a staggering 37 million honey bees were found dead in Elmwood, Ontario, Canada. This is thought to have happened after a recent planting of corn. According to American Purdue University, who looked into the incident: "Bees exhibited neurotoxic symptoms, analysis of dead bees revealed traces of thiamethoxam/clothianidin in each case. Seed treatments of field crops (primarily corn) are the only major source of these compounds."
In addition, Roundup™ ready crops, like corn and soybeans, are sprayed with Roundup™ which kills all the weeds and wildflowers, creating food deserts and destroying the pollinators' habitat.
A recent case study by the Pesticide Research Institute, reported by Friends of the Earth, found 54 percent of common garden plants purchased at top retailers contained neonicotinoids. Without knowing it you could be purchasing "bee-friendly" plants that have actually been pretreated with bee killing pesticides.
There has been enough concern about neonicotinoids that the European Union banned three of these insecticides from crops visited by pollinators for the next two years while scientists study the true impact of using these chemicals.
Thanks to Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and John Conyers (D-MI) who have introduced the Save America's Pollinators Act (H.R. 2692), we might have the opportunity to ban them here! Currently with 44 cosponsors, this bill calls for a suspension of neonicotinoids until a full review of scientific evidence and a field study indicate safe use.
Please support groups like the Xerces Society, Pesticide Action Network, Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety. Take the pledge to protect bees and see the list of pollinator friendly plants you can plant in your garden, as well as this list of popular products with neonicotinoids in them to avoid.