By Dr. Mercola
For bees living in the 21st century, the world is a dangerous place. With grasslands being increasingly converted into corn and soybean fields, finding wild flowering trees, weeds and other plants can be a challenge.
In Oslo, Norway, residents, government and business owners have added flowering plants to terraces and city squares, creating, in essence, a “bee highway” that bees can use to make their way through the otherwise heavily urbanized city.1
Oslo’s bee highway is the first of its kind, and bees in other areas of the world may not be so lucky. In the U.S., for instance, bees often live near genetically engineered (GE) corn and soybean fields.
These seeds are often coated in neonicotinoid pesticides, and the chemicals are found in corn and soybean pollen.
Neonicotinoids have been blamed as one culprit in declining bee populations in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, perhaps the bees have a sixth sense, because they don’t feed much on the GE corn and soy. Instead, they look for flowering plants nearby.
Unfortunately, this raises its own set of risks. Research published in the journal Nature Communications revealed that pollen collected next to corn fields is contaminated with up to 32 different pesticides.2
Bees May Be Exposed to 32 Pesticides When Collecting Pollen
When the researchers started their study, they expected to find neonicotinoid pesticides in pollen collected by foraging honey bees. They explained:
“Recent efforts to evaluate the contribution of neonicotinoid insecticides to worldwide pollinator declines have focused on honey bees and the chronic levels of exposure experienced when foraging on crops grown from neonicotinoid-treated seeds.
However, few studies address non-crop plants as a potential route of pollinator exposure to neonicotinoid and other insecticides.
Here we show that pollen collected by honey bee foragers in maize- and soybean-dominated landscapes is contaminated throughout the growing season with multiple agricultural pesticides, including the neonicotinoids used as seed treatments.”
There were two surprises, however. First, pollen from crop plants made up only “a tiny fraction” of the total pollen collected by the local bees. Second, the highest levels of contamination in pollen came from pyrethroid insecticides, which are often used as repellents for mosquitoes and other household pests.
Both phenothrin, used to repel ticks and fleas, and prallethrin, used primarily for targeting wasps and hornets, were detected in the pollen, as were up to 32 different pesticides in all (most of which are not used for agricultural applications).
The research highlights the fact that even household and commercial use of insecticides may be contributing to bee die-offs. For instance, the common mosquito repellent DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) was found in every pollen sample.
Bees Exposed to Chemical Cocktails
Many pesticides are water-soluble, which means they probably end up in pollen after mixing with water and being absorbed via the plants’ roots. Some are also likely sprayed directly onto plants.
DEET, however, is fat-soluble. Since it doesn’t mix with water, researchers don’t know how the chemical is ending up in pollen, especially with such regularity. Unfortunately, the study revealed significant pesticide contamination in the pollen tested.
Researcher Christian Krupke, Ph.D., an entomology professor at Purdue University, told Newsweek, “At no time did we find only one or two or three pesticides — we found multiple pesticides co-occurring in every single sample.”3
Yet, researchers typically study the effects of only one chemical at a time. What happens with exposure to chemical cocktails, which is a more realistic snapshot of what bees are actually facing, is a mystery. Krupke continued, “You can imagine that if you have many at a time, you could have enhanced toxicity.”4
The study is in line with a 2013 study, in which researchers analyzed pollen from bee hives in seven major crops and found 35 different pesticides along with high fungicide loads.5 Each sample contained, on average, nine different pesticides and fungicides.
When the pollen was fed to healthy bees, they had a significant decline in the ability to resist infection with the Nosema ceranae parasite, which has been implicated in bee deaths. In all likelihood, it’s not one or two chemicals that are the problem but many.
New Neonicotinoid Research Shows How the Chemicals Harm Bees
The majority of soybean, corn, canola, and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are coated with neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics). The chemicals, which are produced by Bayer and Syngenta, travel systemically through the plants and kill insects that munch on their roots and leaves.
Neonicotinoids are powerful neurotoxins and are quite effective at killing the pests, but they’re also harmful to non-target pests, namely pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
This occurs because the pesticides are taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows, and as a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant.
Until now, the effects of different neonicotinoids have been regarded as interchangeable, but a new study showed each may affect bees differently. Bayer’s imidacloprid was found to cut the number of egg-containing brood cells by 46 percent.
Syngenta’s thiamethoxam, on the other hand, decreased the number of live bees by 38 percent.
Clothianidin, another neonicotinoid made by Bayer, had the curious effect of increasing the number of queens produced, which the researchers noted could potentially backfire if, “say, all those queens turned out to be infertile.”6, 7
Lead researcher Christopher Connolly, Ph.D. of the University of Dundee told the Guardian, “I think there is sufficient evidence for a ban on imidacloprid and thiamethoxam … “8
9 in 10 Americans Are Contaminated With Pesticides Too
As you might imagine, if bees are exposed to nearly three dozen pesticides in pollen, humans are likely exposed to multiple pesticides from the environment as well, including in food.
One of the most ubiquitous is glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and the most-used agricultural chemical in history.
In 2014, farmers sprayed enough glyphosate to apply 0.8 pounds of the chemical to every acre of cultivated cropland in the U.S., and nearly 0.5 a pound of glyphosate to all cropland worldwide.9
Testing organized by the Detox Project and commissioned by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) found 93 percent of Americans tested positive for glyphosate, and children had the highest levels.
As more health risks emerge — in March 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen” — more people are starting to wonder just how much glyphosate is in our food.
The signs so far are not reassuring. Glyphosate has been detected in blood, breastmilk and urine samples. Common breakfast foods, including oatmeal, bagels, coffee creamer, organic bread and even organic, cage-free, and antibiotic-free eggs, have also tested positive for glyphosate residues, as have organic wine and beer.10,11
Even Low-Level Exposures and ‘Inert’ Pesticide Ingredients May Be Harmful
Worse yet, most studies looking into glyphosate toxicity have only studied glyphosate and its toxic breakdown product, aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), even though the presence of “inactive” compounds are likely amplifying glyphosate’s toxic effects.
No one knows what health effects such exposures are causing, but there’s reason to believe that even low-level exposures commonly found in food may be harmful. As the OCA reported:12
“Glyphosate has never been studied by regulators or the chemical industry at levels that the human population in the U.S. is being exposed to (under 3 mg/kg body weight/day).
This is a huge hole in the risk assessment process for glyphosate, as evidence suggests that low levels of the chemical may hack hormones even more than high levels — a higher dose does not necessarily mean a more toxic, hormone disruptive effect.”
Is Glyphosate Harming Bees?
Glyphosate, by the way, may also play a role in bee deaths. As stated by GMO expert Don Huber, Ph.D., professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University, there are three established characteristics of colony collapse disorder, the term often used to describe bee die-offs, that suggest glyphosate may be at least partly responsible:
- The bees are mineral-deficient, especially in micronutrients
- There’s plenty of food present but they’re not able to utilize it or to digest it
- Dead bees are devoid of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are components of their digestive system
In many cases of bee die-offs, the bees become disoriented, suggesting endocrine hormone disruption. Glyphosate is a very strong endocrine hormone disruptor. Huber also cited a study on glyphosate in drinking water at levels that are commonly found in U.S. water systems, showing 30 percent mortality in bees exposed to it.
While the majority of glyphosate is sprayed onto agricultural crops, it’s even used in city parks, which means bees (and humans) may get little reprieve. In 2014, for instance, New York City agencies applied glyphosate to parks and other areas 2,748 times, and that is likely an underestimate.13
You Can Make a Difference for Bees
To avoid harming bees and other helpful pollinators that visit your garden, swap out toxic pesticide and lawn chemicals for organic non-chemical methods of weed and pest control.
Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant an edible organic garden. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide good honeybee habitats. It’s also recommended to keep a small basin of fresh water in your garden or backyard, as bees actually do get thirsty. Be very mindful of pesticide use, and think twice whether such chemicals are really necessary before you spray them (this goes for flea and tick repellents, mosquito sprays and more).
In addition, you’ll want to grow your own pollinator-friendly plants from organic, untreated seeds. If you opt to purchase starter plants, make sure to ask whether or not they’ve been pre-treated with pesticides.
Keep in mind that you also help protect the welfare of all pollinators every time you shop organic and grass-fed, as you are “voting” for less pesticides and herbicides with every organic and pastured food and consumer product you buy. You can take bee preservation a step further by trying your hand at amateur beekeeping.
Maintaining a hive in your garden requires only about an hour of your time each week, benefits your local ecosystem, and you get to enjoy your own homegrown honey.
As for pesticides in your body, your best bet for minimizing health risks from herbicide and pesticide exposure — including both the active and “inactive” ingredients — is to avoid them in the first place by eating organic as much as possible and investing in a good water filtration system for your home or apartment.
If you know you have been exposed to herbicides and pesticides, the lactic acid bacteria formed during the fermentation of kimchi may help your body break them down.
One of the benefits of eating organic is that the foods will be free of GE ingredients, and this is key to avoiding exposure to toxic Roundup ingredients. Eating locally produced organic food will not only support your family’s health, it will also protect the environment from harmful chemical pollutants. Some organic farmers even maintain their own honeybee hives and may grow pollinator-friendly plants on their farm. These are the types of farms well worth supporting.