One of the problems with policy positions is that, well, sometimes the knowledge that you need to figure out what the heck is really going on is kind of obscure. Case in point: a lawsuit going on right now involving the EPA over a particular kind of pesticide, and its effect on bees (which recently had the equivalent of a deadly pandemic). Cue the New York Times:
Last year, researchers identified a virus as a major cause of the die-off; the latest suspect is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are used to protect common agricultural seeds, including corn. The insecticides are systemic, which means they persist throughout the life of the plant. Scientists have demonstrated that exposure to these chemicals damages bees’ brain function, including their ability to home in on the hive.
In mid-March, environmental groups and beekeepers sued the Environmental Protection Agency to persuade it to withdraw its approval of two of the most widely used neonicotinoids. The manufacturers of these chemicals — notably Syngenta and Bayer CropScience — have claimed again and again that they are safe. And it is true that bees face other stresses. Even so, beekeepers managed to keep their hives relatively healthy before the increased use of neonicotinoids began in 2005.
Note that the NYT didn’t actually say that the virus was caused by neonicotinoids (which is good, because it’s not*): but they are kind of implying it.
But, anyway: not so fast, says the Wall Street Journal.
And what about the bees? In recent years there appears to have been increased bee “die-offs” and disappearances of whole hives in the United States and EU countries. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety principally blame neonicotinoids, which have been used widely around the world for at least a decade.
But bee die-offs are not new. Bee colonies were also reported disappearing in the early part of the 20th century, long before modern insecticides. If neonicotinoids were causing die-offs, there should be more of them with the higher use of these insecticides—yet there aren’t.
The WSJ used Australia and (and to a lesser extent, Canada) as examples of neonicotinoid-using countries that have apparently lacked die-offs, and Switzerland as a neonicotinoid-banning country that has had a bee die-off. The actual culprit for the bee die-offs is probably (as implicitly suggested in the NYT, and explicitly in the WSJ) the varroa mite:
Varroa mites are ectoparasites that feed on the hemolymph of immature and adult honey bees. Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee, is not the mite’s natural host. In fact, the mite is native to Asia where it parasitizes another cavity-dwelling honey bee, A. cerana (the eastern or Asian honey bee). Apis cerana is believed to have some natural defenses against the mite and consequently rarely is affected negatively by the mite. Only when colonies of A. mellifera were brought to Asia did people begin to realize how devastating the mites could be. Varroa’s host shift did not occur instantly, as evidence suggests that it may have taken 50-100 years (Webster and Delaplane 2001). Since that time, the mite has spread around the world and has become nearly-cosmopolitan in distribution.
Virgin field epidemic, in other words: which also handily explains why the pandemic. The good news is that western honey bees will eventually become resistant to the mites; the bad news is, that will take some time.
Now this is where it becomes interesting. The NYT (read: the environmental movement) thinks that banning neonicotinoids will be a good idea on its own merits; the WSJ (read: the agricultural industry) thinks that banning neonicotinoids will require that farmers will have to go back to organophosphates, which has their own bad press (to give you an idea of how that stuff needs to be treated with caution: sarin is an organophosphate). And, of course, the entire dispute is being fought out in public by people who mostly couldn’t draw any of the chemical diagrams of any of the substances at issue, and I am not excluding myself from this assessment.
But then, this isn’t really about biology or chemistry; it’s about politics and finance. Do you believe that the agricultural industry is indifferent at best and downright malevolent at worst in their adoption of and pesticides? Then you’re probably for this ban. Do you think that the green activism industry is more concerned with getting donations and funding than it is in, say, increasing the average caloric intake of Third World nations**? Then you’re probably against this ban. Are you a beekeeper trying to keep your hives alive? …Don’t know what to tell you, sir or madam; except that maybe somebody should try to figure out how to reliably kill off those danged mites.
*Spontaneous generation of life has been debunked as a scientific theory for centuries.
**For the record: this is what I think is Big Green’s primary motivation. In fact, I’m not really sure whether the average Greenie really sees Third World residents as real.