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Why bees are dying like flies February 18, 2013

Posted by Andreas in bees, Column, Environment.
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Why bees are dying like flies

(This column was first published on 2013-02-11 at News24 here)

Bees have had a bad time of late. Ever since 1994, when French beekeepers noticed that their honeybees didn’t return home from foraging trips at alarming rates they’ve been going AWOL and dying in droves. In North America, cases of sudden mass disappearances from apparently healthy hives – referred to as colony collapse disorder (CCD) – were first reported in 2006, with some apiarists losing up to 90% of their hives. CCD has since been observed worldwide.

Over the years, investigators have implicated a number of possible culprits, including disease, genetically modified crops, an artificial diet of corn syrup among commercial bees, parasitic mites, loss of habitat or a combination of all of the above. That all changed last year, when several lines of evidence were found to strongly incriminate a single perpetrator for the mass killings: insecticides.

Now if you think like me, your first response to this revelation would be: “No shit Sherlock! They’re called insecticides; bees are insects; ipso facto the bees bite the dust.”

But it’s not that simple. You see, commercial agrochemicals go through very stringent testing procedures to make sure they’re safe. As it turns out, however, the data that these safety assessments are based on more often than not originate from the very companies that sell the chemicals. Yes, it’s the old “self-regulation” boondoggle so beloved by industries with something to hide and the governments beholden to their big budget lobbying.

So for years, these companies have been telling us that their concoctions are perfectly safe for our yellow-and-black pollinating friends. But when independent scientists started publishing their research findings in peer-reviewed publications last year, their results suggested otherwise.

The class of insecticides implicated in offing the bees is called the neonicotinoids, particularly the unpronounceable triad of imidacloprid, clothianidin (both products of German mega-firm Bayer) and thiamethoxam (sold by Swiss giant Syngenta). Since the 1990s, they have been among the most widely used pesticides, selling hundreds of millions of dollars every year and being sprayed on millions of hectares of land worldwide, including South Africa. They appear as the active ingredients not only in agricultural products but in some of the everyday garden plant treatments you buy at your local nursery as well.

So what happened in 2012?

French scientists found that thiamethoxam severely impairs the homing instinct of honeybees. Individuals dosed with small quantities were two to three times more likely to get lost on the way back to their hive than their unexposed colleagues (in case you’re wondering, the researchers glued tiny microchips onto free-ranging honeybees to track them).

– One US study found that “exposure to sub-lethal levels of imidacloprid […] causes honey bees to exhibit symptoms consistent with CCD”, while another claimed that the same chemical resulted in bees performing less of their famous waggle dance to alert others to good sources of food.

– Two groups of British scientists showed that imidacloprid hampered the food gathering ability of bumblebee workers, leading to increased mortality rates, and caused an 85% decline in the production of queens in their colonies. The effects were worse if the bees were exposed to both imidacloprid and lamda-cyhalothrin, another commonly-used pesticide.

On the basis of the mounting evidence, France, Germany, Italy and Slovakia have already banned some neonicotinoids and last month, the European Commission requested its member states to suspend the use of the three main offenders on flowering crops pollinated by bees, including maize, sunflowers, rapeseed and cotton.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Both Bayer and Syngenta vehemently deny that their “crop protection” products are linked to CCD whatsoever, blaming “unrealistic research” and an “over-interpretation of the precautionary principle”.

Even though CCD has not been reported to have had a significant impact on South African beekeeping operations (as far as I know), we should surely take heed of the accumulating scientific results documenting the detrimental effects of synthetic pesticides, especially since others have been shown to do despicable damage to frogs and other amphibians, the world’s most threatened vertebrate group.

Isn’t it time for an independent reassessment of the things we choose to douse our crops with?

4 Great Eco-Documentaries at the Labia September 14, 2010

Posted by Andreas in bees, Climate change, Environment, Film screening, Nuclear Power, Sustainable Living, University of Cape Town.
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While You Were Sleeping and the UCT Green Campus Initiative invite you to watch four fantastic documentaries with important environmental themes at the Labia on Orange cinema in Cape Town from Monday 20 September to Thursday 23 September at 6.15pm.

You can’t afford to miss these thought-provoking and inspiring documentary films covering themes from nuclear energy and over-fishing to oil pollution.

Vanishing of the Bees

Monday 20 September 6.15pm

An eye-opening account of the truth behind the world-wide decline in honeybee populations. Known as Colony Collapse Disorder, this phenomenon has brought beekeepers to crisis in an industry responsible for producing apples, broccoli, watermelon, onions, cherries and a hundred other fruits and vegetables. Commercial honeybee operations pollinate crops that make up one out of every three bites of food on our tables. Filming across the US, in Europe, Australia and Asia, this documentary examines the alarming disappearance of honeybees and the greater meaning it holds about the relationship between humanity and nature. As scientists puzzle over the cause, organic beekeepers indicate alternative reasons for this tragic loss. Conflicting options abound and after years of research, a definitive answer has not been found to this harrowing mystery.

The Nuclear Comeback

Tuesday 21 September 6.15pm

In a world living in fear of climate change and global warming, the nuclear industry is proposing itself as a solution. It claims that nuclear power generation produces zero carbon emissions. Is it time we learned to love the split atom? Or is there a risk that we might be jumping out of the carbon frying pan and into the plutonium fire? The Nuclear Comeback poses the question of whether, by seriously considering the renewed development of nuclear power, we may be gambling with the very survival of our planet.

The End of the Line

Wednesday 22 September 6.15pm

Imagine a world without fish! The End of the Line is the world’s first documentary about the devastating effects of overfishing. Filmed across the world – from the Straits of Gibraltar to the coasts of Senegal and Alaska to the Tokyo fish market – featuring top scientists, indigenous fishermen and fisheries enforcement officials, The End of the Line is a wake-up call to the world.


Thursday 23 September 6.15pm

An inside look at the infamous $27 billion “Amazon Chernobyl” case. Three years in the making, this cinéma-vérité feature from acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger is the epic story of one of the largest and most controversial environmental lawsuits on the planet. Crude is a real-life high stakes legal drama, set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures.

Each screening will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion. Tickets are R20 and can be reserved by calling The Labia at (021) 424 5927. Reserving tickets is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment.

This event is presented by the UCT Green Campus Initiative, the Labia and While You Were Sleeping, a Cape Town-based non-profit film collective committed to bringing progressive, non-mainstream documentaries with important social and environmental messages to South African audiences.


The Labia:

021 424 5927

UCT Green Campus Initiative:


While You Were Sleeping:

Andreas Späth

084 772 1056


To bee or not to bee April 25, 2007

Posted by Andreas in bees, Environment, News, Sustainable Living.
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The worldwide Bee Cluedo continues. Honeybees in their billions are mysteriously disappearing from Colorado to Guatemala and from Brazil to Germany. “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD is laying waste to commercial hives around the globe and so far, scientists are in the dark as to the causes.

The New York Times puts it thus:

As with any great mystery, a number of theories have been posed, and many seem to researchers to be more science fiction than science. People have blamed genetically modified crops, cellular phone towers and high-voltage transmission lines for the disappearances. Or was it a secret plot by Russia or Osama bin Laden to bring down American agriculture? Or, as some blogs have asserted, the rapture of the bees, in which God recalled them to heaven? Researchers have heard it all.

“Rapture of the bees” – that’s really funny in a tragic sort of way…

At least the cellphone connection seems to be bogus. The researchers who were quoted by The Independent as having shown that radiation from mobile phones may mess with a bee’s sense of direction are trying to set the record straight:

– they were using cordless phones, which work completely differently and have very short range;

– their studies cannot indicate that electromagnetic radiation is a cause of CCD.

According to them,

Ever since The Independent wrote their article, for which they never called or wrote to us, none of us have been able to do any of our work because all our time has been spent in phone calls and e-mails trying to set things straight. This is a horror story for every researcher to have your study reduced to this.

Are cellphones killing honeybees? April 18, 2007

Posted by Andreas in bees, Environment, News, Sustainable Living.

The other day, I wrote about how genetically engineered crops have been suggested as a possible reason for the massive die-off of honeybees that has been documented around the world recently. I thought that was quite a scary scenario.

It seems, however, that scientists are pretty much in the dark about the actual cause of increased cases of Colony Collapse Disorder (a phenomenon that can occur naturally between late summer and early spring as older bees die, leaving behind the queen and a few immature workers incapable of sustaining their colony).

A new, small-scale German study now claims that “radiation given off by mobile phones and other hi-tech gadgets” may be a possible answer to the mystery.

According to The Independent,

[…] a limited study at Landau University has found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby. Dr Jochen Kuhn, who carried it out, said this could provide a “hint” to a possible cause.

Dr George Carlo, who headed a massive study by the US government and mobile phone industry of hazards from mobiles in the Nineties, said: “I am convinced the possibility is real.”

while the Telegraph reports that

[t]he researchers placed cordless-phone docking units, which emit electromagnetic radiation, into bee hives.


In some cases, 70 per cent of bees exposed to radiation failed to find their way back to the hive after searching for pollen and nectar […].

Until someone comes up with more conclusive evidence, I guess we shouldn’t get taken in by all of these rather speculative, but worrying, stories.

At the moment, this seems to be a case of Bee Cluedo – Dr. Monsanto in the apiary with a Motorola 3116.

Genetically engineered bee killer ? March 30, 2007

Posted by Andreas in bees, Environment, genetic engineering, News, Sustainable Living.

I came across this really worrying article in Spiegel Online (the virtual version of the reputable German lefty print magazine Der Spiegel) that I though was scary enough to warrant quoting at some length.

For unknown reasons, bee populations throughout Germany are disappearing […] [I]n the United States, […] bees are dying in such dramatic numbers that the economic consequences could soon be dire. No one knows what is causing the bees to perish, but some experts believe that the large-scale use of genetically modified plants in the US could be a factor.


Manfred Hederer, the president of the German Beekeepers Association, […] reported a 25 percent drop in bee populations throughout Germany. In isolated cases, says Hederer, declines of up to 80 percent have been reported. He speculates that “a particular toxin, some agent with which we are not familiar,” is killing the bees.


Since last November, the US has seen a decline in bee populations so dramatic that it eclipses all previous incidences of mass mortality. Beekeepers on the east coast of the United States complain that they have lost more than 70 percent of their stock since late last year, while the west coast has seen a decline of up to 60 percent.


Millions of bees have simply vanished. In most cases, all that’s left in the hives are the doomed offspring. But dead bees are nowhere to be found — neither in nor anywhere close to the hives.


In many cases, scientists have found evidence of almost all known bee viruses in the few surviving bees found in the hives after most have disappeared. Some had five or six infections at the same time and were infested with fungi — a sign, experts say, that the insects’ immune system may have collapsed.

The scientists are also surprised that bees and other insects usually leave the abandoned hives untouched. Nearby bee populations or parasites would normally raid the honey and pollen stores of colonies that have died for other reasons, such as excessive winter cold. “This suggests that there is something toxic in the colony itself which is repelling them”.

A massive dying off of bee colonies is obviously a real disaster, but what had me most worried was the possible connection with genetically engineered crops, especially BT corn, which is, of course, grown here in South Africa.

[…] [R]esearchers [at the University of Jena] examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called “Bt corn” on bees. […] The study concluded that there was no evidence of a “toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations.” But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study, a “significantly stronger decline in the number of bees” occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.

According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have “altered the surface of the bee’s intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry — or perhaps it was the other way around. We don’t know.”

I know one small study proves nothing and this sort of thing should not be used to whip people up into an irrational frenzy. This is, however, exactly the kind of scenario many anti-GE people warn us about.

What are the consequences of introducing artificially manufactured life forms (which we understand only to a limited degree) into an exceedingly intricate, but increasingly threatened and fragile natural environment (which we understand very poorly in its overall complexity)?

For all our sakes, let’s hope that the dying of the bees has nothing to do with genetically engineered crops, because if it does, this may only be the first sign of a much larger disaster.