Final Answer: Here’s What’s Wiping Out Our Bees

Last Update: September 7, 2021

The buzz around bees is turning into a roar.

In case you hadn’t heard, pollinators are in trouble. The flying creatures we depend on to move pollen between plants, fertilize flowers and spur fruit production are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Monarch butterflies have seen a 90 percent decline in just two decades. The United States’ population of honeybees, which pollinate about 90 percent of the nation’s blueberry and cranberry crops and contribute $20 billion to American crop production value, has been cut in half in just 10 years.

Now, we may finally know why—or at least partly why—bees are dying off at such an alarming rate. A new study out of Great Britain has for the first time linked honeybee colony decline with—wait for it—pesticide use.

Between 2000 and 2010, as the acres of canola fields planted in England and Wales more than doubled, researchers found that the use of neonicotinoid pesticides spiked from 1 percent to 75 percent of the acres planted. As the pesticide application increased, more and more honeybee colonies disappeared. Taken in conjunction with the recent discovery that bees can’t resist these chemicals, neonicotinoid use presents a lethal problem for pollinators.

And this predicament isn’t just isolated to our neighbors across the pond. Without honeybees and other pollinators, global agriculture would be decimated. According to Pollinator Partnership, globally, roughly 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend—foods like apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds, and tequila. In the United States alone, products pollinated by bees and other insects are worth $40 billion annually.

Here in the U.S., where pollinators have been in peril for years, neonicotinoid pesticides are applied to more than 150 million acres of farmland annually, according to the Center for Food Safety. Not only are these pesticides impacting pollinators, but they also routinely get into our water supply. The U.S. Geological Survey released a study last week detailing the widespread neonicotinoid contamination in our streams. In total, more than half of the water samples taken by the USGS contained neonicotinoid toxins.

Not everyone agrees about the danger of these pesticides, however. The United States Department of Agriculture has continually defended the use of neonicotinoids, even claiming that honeybee populations are actually growing in the United States.  Though the Environmental Protection Agency went so far as to acknowledge pesticide exposure as a factor in the decline of bees in a 2013 statement, the agency stopped short of pointing the finger directly at neonicotinoids.

We can all do a lot to support pollinators, from creating habitats where they can dwell to supporting advocacy efforts locally and nationally to protect these vital helpers in our food supply. But as consumers, the biggest thing we can do is refuse to support the pesticide industry that we now know harms pollinators. Ask your farmer what pest management practices he or she employs, and, of course, fill your pantry with organic products. A few small lifestyle changes, made by millions of Americans, can make a big difference for millions of tiny pollinators.

Photo credit: Sandy/Chuck Harris via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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