The honey bees are dying—and we don’t really know why. That’s the conclusion of a massive Department of Agriculture report that came out late last week on colony collapse disorder (CCD), the catch-all term for the large-scale deaths of honey bee groups throughout the U.S. And given how important honey bees are to the food that we eat—bees help pollinate crops that are worth more than $200 billion a year—the fact that they are dying in large numbers, and we can’t say why, is very, very worrying.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a single smoking gun behind CCD. The USDA report points at a range of possible causes, including:
- A parasitic mite called Varroa destructor that has often been found in decimated colonies.
- Several viruses
- A bacterial disease called European foulbrood that is increasingly being detected in U.S. bee colonies
- The use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, a neuro-active chemical
... As Brad Plumer pointed out over at the Washington Post, it’s not that the E.U. necessarily has more evidence about the role that the chemicals might be playing in CCD. This is a classic case of policymaking by the precautionary principle. The pesticides are considered guilty until proven innocent, and so they’re preventively banned, even before the scientific case is rock solid. That’s not unusual for European environmental regulation, especially in regards to chemicals. In the U.S.it’s the reverse—before the federal government is likely to take the step of banning a class of pesticides, and pissing off the multi-billion dollar chemical industry, you’re likely to see a lot more science done.
So what we may get in Europe and the U.S. is a de facto field test of the real impact of neonicotinoids on CCD. In two years, if American bees are still dying and their European cousins are thriving, we might just have our answers. And if not, well, I hope you don’t like cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, chestnuts, watermelons, cucumber, fennel, strawberries, macadamia, mangoes, apricots, almonds or any of the other dozens of food crops pollinated by our hard-working, six-legged, unpaid farm workers.