The Deaths of Honeybees and the Precautionary Principle

There was a story by Michael Vines of the New York Times this weekend entitled “Soaring honeybee deaths renew alarm.” I first learned of this story about a year ago on “Real Time with Bill Maher” regarding the major decline in honeybee populations. Apparently since 2005, there has been a major colony collapse epidemic where beekeepers are losing 40% to 50% of their bee populations. For some the number is as high as 80% loss. A more normative number is under 10%. While conclusive evidence is not known, per Vines’ article researchers say “there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.”

“The pesticide industry disputes that. But, its representatives also say they are open to further studies to clarify what, if anything, is happening.” This may sound all well and good, but this is a very common stalling tactic which allows industry to keep doing what they are doing for years on end, until the evidence is so overwhelming, they need to cease the detrimental action. At that time, it is too late for many, in this case the bees. But, we also need to remember, that bees cross-pollinate many things. If the bee population dies off, it is not just the loss of honey we are talking about. The Department of Agriculture says “a quarter of the US diet, including apples, cherries, watermelons, and onions, depends on pollination by honeybees.”

Vines notes that “many beekeepers suspect the biggest culprit is the growing soup of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides used to control pests.” Since, beekeepers usually have their bees close to plants they want to feed the bees, they have a better sense of what is different about the surrounding areas. Plus, it may be multiple things precipitated by global warming, where more droughts are occurring in some areas.

But, let me stop at this point and reference a post I made last year called “The Precautionary Principle.”  This issue of what is causing the demise of bees is similar to all other potentially toxic actions where we as a country take a contrary view on how we must investigate links between potentially detrimental actions which may be causing toxic results. I will repeat some of that post below, but encourage you to read the entire post written on June 8, 2012, as it applies to all man-made threats to the environment and people.

The Precautionary Principle (excerpts from June 8, 2012)

We are at a crossroads in our country and on our planet. We must all become better stewards with the environment and address these issues today and in the future. The business side of energy retrieval and production along side the development of mass-produced products made out of or enhanced by petro-chemicals have placed our planet in a precarious position. For the longest time, these industries have been able to delay addressing issues citing the data is not conclusive or shows causality. Proof or true causality oftentimes takes thirty years or more. In the interim, the data can show a high correlation that an activity is leading to a problem. For those who did not take statistics, correlation means things rise and fall together.

In the US, we place the burden of proof on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and like agencies who govern other areas of commerce. Other countries have a variation of the EPA.  In some countries that burden resides with the developer to show that something is not toxic or harmful to others. Several scientists and concerned citizens got together at Wingspread in Canada to discuss these issues. One of the tenets of that meeting can be summed up by a statement made by Bradford Hill, a medical statistician and inventor of the randomized clinical trial, back in 1965:

“All scientific work is incomplete – whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have or postpone the action that it appears to demand at a given time.”

In short, we should not wait to do something later if the evidence is telling us something is amiss now. With toxic chemicals, for example, if you wait to fully prove something is bad, the damage is already done. Especially when you are dealing with children who are still developing and breathe in more than adults.

The group at Wingspread developed the following Precautionary Principle

“When an activity raises threat of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action,” noted Dr. Sandra Steingraber in her book “Living Downstream – An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.” In this book and her second book called “Raising Elijah” she notes industry has tended to stiff arm science to continue to conduct practices that are harmful to the environment and people. The democratic process she references is hard to conduct, when so much money is at stake.

The dilemma we face as a planet is there is a lot of money to be had in developing energy and chemical products from fossil fuels. As a result, the industry supports a lot of politicians with a lot of money and lobbying efforts. Yet, we must diminish our reliance on fossil fuels, we must understand the impact of petro-chemicals on our environment and people and we must put the burden of proof that an activity is not harmful on the purveyor of that activity beforehand and throughout. In the meantime, if anyone says we should do away with the EPA, for you, me and our children, tell them that is the dumbest idea you have ever heard and would be poor stewardship of our planet. Please help advocate the Precautionary Principle as well.

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5 thoughts on “The Deaths of Honeybees and the Precautionary Principle

  1. Excellent post, BTG. And as you say, the burden of proof ought to be on those developing the pesticides if there is any suspicion whatever that they are harmful to the environment or animals. It is nearly impossible to establish a causal relationship — just think of the tobacco industry and recall how long they kept the regulators at bay “subject to further studies.”

    • Thanks Hugh. There is a book I need to read which discusses the business strategy of deny, deny, deny until you cannot anymore. I need to finds its title and check it out. This is why the Erin Brockovich’s of the world make history, but it should not be this hard. Take care, BTG

  2. Did you ever see the Bee Movie? It was put out in 2007. The premise is about a bee that gets all other bees to stop working. Everything ended up dying. They then had to get flowers from a float in a parade and the pollen from that to pollinate everything. Of course in the movie everything came back instantly.

    If anything it shows that there should be tougher EPA regulations and information needed before a new chemical makes it to market. Reminds me also of the movie “Day After Tomorrow” when the one character says they were wrong to think they could continue to use the Earths resources without any consequences. Hopefully it won’t take triggering an ice age to get that point across.

    • Good comment. I am not sure I saw that movie. You hit the nail on the head. We cannot afford the luxury to wait until the worse happens and then say, we were wrong then. If you read Dr. Steingraber, she likens the chemicals being added to a crock pot and as global warming heats it up faster, the chemicals in the environment will get even worse. Thanks for your comments, BTG

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