Thursday, December 10, 2015

Honey bees facing a crisis due to "Colony Collapse Disorder" caused by use of neonicotinoid insecticides-The implications on global agriculture

Honey is a much valued food as well as a well recognized alternate medicine for many simple ailments. While consuming Honey how many people think about the Bees that collect it meticulously, drop by drop from millions of flowers? In these days of man made imitation products that are flooding the market place why should the world be concerned about extinction of bees? After all honey is made of fructose and glucose in 38:31 ratio being the main ingredients though there are other substances like sucrose, maltose and higher sugars and making such a concoction looking and tasting like honey is not a big challenge. Of course natural honey has properties much beyond a man made sugar syrup as vouchsafed by millions who religiously consume it for its variety of real as well as imaginary qualities. Imagine how the tiny bees produce over 1.7 million tons of honey every year through the combined efforts of queen bees, thousands of drone bees and female worker bees painstakingly drop by drop through sucking out nectars from flowers and their transformation through a process of regurgitation. While honey production is a part of nature's way of providing food for the bees, these tiny creatures play a much larger role in the production of foods and other agriculture crops through cross pollination. This is where the mankind is going to be hurt if any thing adverse happens to the bees due to man's folly of doing some thing that can cause affect their population.    

Recent news that Bees are facing extinction because of the reckless pollution of environment causing them to perish in droves through many fatal afflictions does raise concerns that cannot be ignored. It was in 2006 that the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder (CCD) became a serious issue noted with alarm by many countries affecting honey production world wide. Between 2007 and 2013 more than 10 million bee colonies collapsed where most of the "worker" bees were killed leaving only the queen and some drones in their hives which cannot ensure growth of the beehive resulting in collapse of the entire colony. The importance of bees in pollination and crop fertilization is so critical that these simple insects are responsible for the production of agricultural crops worth $ 200 billion annually. Why this has happened is a million dollar question that does not have an absolute answer though factors like use of indiscriminate use of pesticides, global warming and others are being blamed. But to day there appears to be some unanimity regarding the adverse effect of a group of insecticides extensively used coming under the family of neonicotinoids or commonly called neonics which include acetamiprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, the last mentioned being used widely to the extent of almost 80% in many countries. Present agricultural practice involves treating the seeds with neonics before sowing which gives protection to the plant from many insects with destructive ability and it is theorized that neonics after getting into the plant through the root system get distributed to every part of the plant including the flowers acting as a deadly poison to bees that come looking for nectar for making honey.  

It was in 1985 that neonicotinoids became a commercial success because of their lesser toxicity to birds and mammals compared to organophosphates and carbamates. Agriculturists also welcomed their arrival because of lower concentrations required to destroy the insects affecting the plants. To day virtually all commercially valued crops like corn, soybean, canola, cotton, sugar beets, apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, tomatoes, potato etc are dependent on neonics for achieving high production due to their ability to stave off insect attacks in the fields. The popularity of neonics is such that it is approved in more than 120 countries across the world for a multitude of agricultural and horticultural crops. After the colony collapse disorder became a major crisis for the honey industry, world started paying more attention to the toxicity of these insecticides, especially to honey bees.Earlier premise that neonics are not toxic to bees had to be reconsidered and reinvestigated in the light of emergence of CCD to evolve a better strategy to save the bees from total extinction.

Why should the bees be vulnerable to an insecticide like neonics which enjoyed great popularity since 1985? It was found that neonics when ingested by bees had a devastating effect causing eventual death of  majority of them in a beehive. Most tragically this neurotoxic chemical impact bees' ability to forage, learn and remember their navigation route to and from food sources and naturally if these disoriented bees do not reach back home the consequences can be imagined. What choice world has under such extenuating circumstances in saving the bees from total extinction and avoid collapse of the honey industry? Logically the insecticide industry which produces neonics worth $ 2.5 billion annually will have hesitation in accepting the reality that neonics are responsible for CCD and can be expected to fiercely fight any proposal to ban them from use in agriculture. Similarly farming community which uses neonics in preference to others also may not be totally convinced about the dangers posed by them. After all neonics account for almost 25% of the insecticide market globally, reflecting its universal popularity. Though the dilemma inherent in taking a decision vis--vis neonics and their ban, Europe took the lead to ban them last year. After recent banning of neonics in Canada probably other countries in the American continent may also follow similar suit though the lobbying power of insecticide industry in a country like USA cannot be underestimated to sabotage such people friendly policies in pursuit of fiscal agenda. .           

While neonics are villains in this mass collapse of beehives, there are other mitigating factors which also must be taken into consideration. It is important to emphasize that other factors like climate change, habitat loss and disease also adversely affect pollinator health. However these factors are not entirely independent and are interrelated. It is to be conceded that chronic exposure to neonics may increase vulnerability of bees to disease. When the health of bees is to be assessed critically there is a need to draw up a comprehensive pollinator health action plan which must address all these factors and obviously scaling back the use of neonics can be a good beginning. Apart from the immediate and lethal effects on bees, neonics represent a more subtle threat to a wide range of species. The 2014 Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impacts of Systemic Pesticides, the most comprehensive review of the scientific literature on neonics, pointed to effects on smell and memory, reproduction, feeding behaviour, flight and ability to fight disease.. The obvious conclusion is that the world is witnessing a threat to the productivity of the natural and farming environment reminding one of the dangers posed by organophosphates or DDT in the yesteryear. In stead of protecting food production the use of neonics is "threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem". It is better to act now rather than regret later!.


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