Honeybees and Our Food Supply

Saving the honeybeesby Laurel Hopwood
E-mail: lhopwood@roadunner.com


When people think of honeybees, honey comes to mind. Most people are not aware that honeybees are a major pollinator for crops that produce one third of American food, including over 140 fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.

Yet honeybee populations are in significant decline.


There is a a strong body of scientific peer reviewed papers linking the honeybee demise to a widely-used class of neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids (“neonics” for short). This new class of pesticides has been registered for use since the early 1990’s. Commonly used neonics are imidacloprid, clothiandin, thiamethoxam (and others).

Traditionally, pesticides are applied directly to the soil or plant.
In 2005, Monsanto received patents to “coat” their propriety genetically manipulated seeds with neonics, primarily manufactured by Syngenta and Bayer.

Since 2005, seed treatments became the new norm, in order to protect emerging seedlings from pests. These neonic coated seeds are encapsulated with a material which releases the pesticide slowly.

Neonics are systemic pesticides that are taken up through roots and leaves and distributed throughout the entire plant, including pollen and nectar. They are even present in the tiny drops of fluid which form on the plant’s surface. Neonics are slow to break down. They contaminate surface water, ground water, and soil. The entire food chain becomes contaminated.

Neonics endanger not only pollinators, but also other beneficial species that inhabit these ecosystems, such as butterflies, earthworms and birds. Many are calling this critical situation the next Silent Spring.


Neonics are used extensively as seed dressings on corn, soy, sunflower, canola, as well as on horticultural crops.

Most conventional corn seeds and virtually all genetically manipulated corn seeds are now treated with a neonic seed treatment. Corn is grown not only for human consumption, but also to feed animals raised in livestock factories and feedlots and to drive our cars.


The surge in seed treatments coincided closely with the crash in honeybee populations. In 2006, David Hackenberg, former president of the American Beekeeping Federation, and other beekeepers discovered their foraging bees left the colony in search of pollen and nectar but did not come back, which is highly unusual for a social insect to leave a queen and its brood or young behind.

This finding of neurobehavioral disruption is a significant distinction of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Other responses include disruptions in bee mobility, navigation, feeding behavior, foraging activity, memory and learning, and overall hive activity.

Neonics also impair the bee’s immune system, leaving it much more susceptible to attacks by parasitic fungi and other disease agents.

Exposure to neonics has both lethal and sublethal effects on honeybees. Lethal effects occur when bees die within a few hours from exposure to a high dose. Sublethal effects, measured at very low doses in parts per billion or even parts per trillion, result in various harmful symptoms.


The U.S. EPA has allowed the very rapid and ubiquitous expansion of neonic application to most farmland in North America.

EPA registration was based solely on the data submitted by the companies manufacturing their proprietary pesticide (primarily Bayer Crop Science).

In addition, the EPA did not consider sublethal effects on honeybees in the approval process.

(EPA spokesperson Margie Fehrenbach’s wrote to Sierra Club (9/10/2008), stating: “With the recent concerns about the unusual honey bee losses in this country, we are now examining more advanced methodologies for assessing behavioral effects, such as mobility, navigation/orientation, feeding patterns, learning performance, and community ecology. In order to appropriately evaluate these types of sub-lethal effects and to use the information in a regulatory context, standardized methods and protocols need to be developed for assessing these types of behavioral effects.”


Numerous independent scientists signed a statement which included: “When those with a vested interest attempt to sow unreasonable doubt around inconvenient results, or when governments exploit political opportunities by picking and choosing from scientific evidence, they jeopardize public confidence in scientific methods and institutions, and also put their own citizenry at risk. Safety testing, science-based regulation, and the scientific process itself, depend crucially on widespread trust in a body of scientists devoted to the public interest and professional integrity. If instead, the starting point of a scientific product assessment is an approval process rigged in favor of the applicant, backed up by systematic suppression of independent scientists working in the public interest, then there can never be an honest, rational or scientific debate.”

Many believe the crisis of worldwide bee deaths threatening the global food supply has been worsened by an industry-funded misinformation campaign and that public relation companies hired by leading chemical companies (Monsanto, Bayer, and Syngenta) have been distracting policy makers from identifying the causation of honeybee decline.


In January 2013, the European Food Safety Authority officially labeled neonics to be an “unacceptable” danger to bees feeding on flowering crops and the regulations contained “major weaknesses.” Following that review, the European Commission implemented a continent-wide two year suspension of the three most-used neonics.


Sierra Club’s Pollinator Protection Campaign is a special project of the Sierra Club’s GEAT. The evidence points to neonic seed coatings as an important cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. Most corn, soy and canola are genetically manipulated and “coated” with neonics.

(Sierra Club policy states: “Genetic engineering is a new technology which, unlike traditional breeding methods, allows the transfer of genetic material from one organism into a host organism of an unrelated species, thus bypassing the natural reproductive barriers between species.”)

Sierra Club’s GEAT wrote the EPA, urging the regulatory agency to suspend all neonic seed treatment product registrations until it can obtain scientific evidence that the effects are not causing harm to America’s honeybees.

Sierra Club’s GEAT worked with Kevin Hansen, who produced the outstanding documentary “Nicotine Bees.” The film included an interview with independent scientist Charles Benbrook, PhD, who explained in layman’s terms how neonics are decimating honeybee populations. Sierra Club’s GEAT then distributed copies of Nicotine Bees to every member of Congress, along with a letter from the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, stating: “Nicotine Bees vividly describes a very real threat to the pollinators of our country.”

Sierra Club’s GEAT sent a press release (11/11/2009) announcing the release of Nicotine Bees. The McClatchy newspaper publisher picked up the story, which made its way to federal regulatory agencies.

Following the Purdue study entitled “Multiple Routes of Pesticide Exposure for Honey Bees Living Near Agricultural Fields,” Sierra Club’s GEAT sent a press release (1/10/2012) with the header: “New research should nail the coffin lid shut on a toxic bee-killing pesticide.” Again, our release was picked up on the McClatchy wire.

Sierra Club and other groups and beekeepers (3/21/2013) filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the EPA for failure to perform adequate toxicity evaluations and allowing registration of the pesticides on insufficient industry studies.

According to Dr. Benbrook, the EPA has never denied an application for a new pesticide, nor banned a currently registered product because of adverse impacts on bees, nor is it likely to without new legislation and a push from the public and Congress. Therefore Sierra Club sent numerous action alerts for members to encourage Congress to support the Saving America’s Pollinator Act (H.R. 1284).


  • Tell the story.
  • Call Congressional representatives to support the Saving America’s Pollinator Act (H.R. 1284). Phone calls are more effective than emails.
  • Encourage garden centers to refrain from selling neonic-treated plants.
  • Replace grass with edibles and pollinator plants in residential and business areas.
  • Plant edible gardens.
  • Install backyard beehives.
  • Encourage cities to ban neonics.
  • See the Cleveland Hts, Ohio, ordinance which bans outdoor pesticides on public grounds.


As Dr. Benbrook so eloquently explained in his Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture (12/2008), “Our failure to ask ecologically-grounded questions, coupled with the economic power behind the private sector push toward high-cost systemic, genetic engineering and proprietary pest management technology, has set the stage for a series of train wrecks.”

The EPA claims the agency will review the situation in 2018. Clearly, that’s not good enough. The time is now for EPA to quit dodging the illusion of oversight and, instead, cancel these bee-killing pesticides. If we travel too far down our current path, we could create conditions in our food system much like those that brought down the financial system.

Laurel Hopwood volunteers as the Northeast Ohio Sierra Club Agriculture Chair; National Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Action Team Chair; and the National Sierra Club Pollinator Protection Campaign Coordinator.

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