The death of honeybees and the Precautionary Principle – a needed reprise

In my last post on the existence of glyphosate in the urine of 80% of the random tested individuals, I mentioned the Precautionary Principle. A huge part of these stories on chemicals being found within us is a long time cover up by their makers, whether it be Round-up, Teflon, or some other product, that these chemicals are harmful to people. It reminded me of a story on the impact of neonicotinoids on honeybees, a major pollinator I wrote in 2013. Here it is.

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.

23 thoughts on “The death of honeybees and the Precautionary Principle – a needed reprise

  1. The unintended consequences principle is poorly understood and rarely gets much press. Thanks for doing this, Keith. So, two things:

    Firstly and in fact, solar farms are proving to be a boon to the honeybee and those who can make a living from them. (A quick article about this here).

    Home owners are particularly harsh on insects and weeds and seem determined to turn their properties into grassy deserts devoid of any other life and will use all kinds of chemicals to help accomplish this goal. Why turning the natural environment into this grassy wasteland is ‘a thing’ especially among males is one of the great unsolved mysteries of our times.

    I wanted to mention that our woodlot urban property is a biosphere for plants and the gardens we have are teeming with life. The benefits to all – especially the land itself – are too many to list here. But I did want to mention that to take care of unwanted weeds – of which grass outside of its small area is really the primary one! – we use boiling water on just those plants. Once the weed dies within the week, it is very easy to remove with its roots intact. No herbicides necessary. No unintended consequences. (The only byproduct is more water). This is especially useful for getting rid of plants in and around cement and asphalt before they cause damage. To stop invasive weeds, growing the right kind of plants and ground covers do a much better job (and reduces the need to have to ‘work’ on removing the weeds) than poisons, while keeping insects and the birds well stocked with everything they need from their urbanized ‘natural’ environment.

    • Thanks Tildb for the comments and advice. Of course, the old fashioned weed pullers at the end of our wrists work too. Good exercise, as well. Keith

  2. My backyard is covered in clover & the small white flowers they have. I also have this yellow “invasive” flower that has been covering the lawns of Western New York & so many people seem to hate but I think they’re really lovely.

    I was walking across my lawn the other day to water my gardens & I was thinking, there should be bees everywhere on these white clover flowers. But there wasn’t any at all. I remember when I had to be very careful walking across a lawn covered with clover, as I am allergic to bees (& wasps & other stinging insects). But I hardly think about that anymore, since I rarely see any bees at all.

    I did see a large bee going from flower to flower at my herb garden (my sage has the most lovely purple flowers). But obviously no bees visited the blossoms on my zucchini or my green peppers; they simply wilted up & fell away. No zucchini this year & no green peppers. I will be getting a few tomatoes but not many. You need bees for fruits & vegetables.

    It’s a sad situation. I’ve been gardening for most of my life & I’ve never seen anything like this. But course … life has changed radically in the last twenty years. I’m beginning to think there really was something to all that Y2K talk.

  3. Note to Readers: Just today, an article about DuPont’s forever chemicals in Wilmington, NC reared its ugly head. Here are the first two paragraphs:

    “A deadly cancer has already taken 43-year-old Amy Nordberg away from her family, also of Wilmington. Nordberg died in January after a three-year battle with a vicious cancer that followed the development of multiple sclerosis. The cancer moved through her body faster than doctors expected, enveloping her colon and invading her bone marrow.

    Kennedy and Nordberg are only two among many sick and dying people who live in the Cape Fear River basin of North Carolina, where environmental testing has found persistently high levels of different types of toxic compounds known collectively as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.”

    This stuff is real and it is here to stay. It is the chemical in Teflon. They are not called “forever chemicals” for nothing. And, in court Dupont settled individual court cases and a class action case because they knew of the danger and hid it. And, you likely have some in your body if you used Teflon.

  4. After we had this problem that the bee population decreased dramatically, I am so happy for every bee coming to my garden. I also prefer plants that attract bees. Over here too, we had massive products the farmers used that killed the bees. A lot of those products and substances got prohibited since.

  5. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Bees. Without them, the human species cannot survive. Period. Please take a moment to read what Keith is telling us about the bee population and how it is being diminished by the greed of the wealthy, If this doesn’t scare you, it should! Thank you, Keith, for a timely and crucial post.

      • Oh yes, this is one we should probably repeat monthly!!! In the long run, it’s more important that our political disaster, than the economy, or any of the rest of those things that occupy our minds, for without our bee friends, we have no future.

      • Jill, thanks. Too true. If you remember the movie “Interstellar” with Jessica Chastain, the initial few minutes are the scariest to me. Humans had to leave earth because we could no longer grow crops here. As outlandish as that sounds, a heated planet, with less water and fewer natural pollinators is not a recipe for success. Keith

      • I haven’t seen that movie, but now I’m intrigued. It sounds like the stuff nightmares are made of, and the premise is altogether too real, that the day could come when we can no longer provide enough food to feed us. But … the reality is that there is no place else to go. Elon Musk and others’ ideas of a space colony is not in the least bit realistic, and I wouldn’t want to live in one anyway. There really is no ‘Plan B’. I’ll check out that movie … thanks!

      • Jill, I felt the movie was a little too bizarre. But, those first few minutes were eye opening to me. Keith

      • This is not a one-sided coin when it comes to the precautionary principle. We also have to consider unintended consequences and leave some room in our opinions for finding cost effective alternative means, too.

        A really good example is Sri Lanka. To raise the country’s environmental scorecard (to address gaining investment from large western investment firms that use the ESG criteria (Environmental, Social, and Governance) used for promoting ‘green’ stocks), the government wanted to support ‘organic agriculture’. So they banned the use of industrial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. This raised their ESG score to 98/100.

        But this move also had an unintended consequences… consequences that harm real people in real life now that the Green Revolution has put down roots and boosted food production globally, reduced poverty, raised incomes, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced land use for agriculture, and contributed to declines in infant mortality. That, too, is part of the consideration about technological improvements in farming practices too often ignored by people living comfortably in their western luxury while pronouncing on the evils of Big Agra as not ‘organic’ enough.

        In Sri Lanka, 85 percent experienced immediate crop losses. Rice production fell 20 percent and prices skyrocketed 50 percent in just six months. Sri Lanka had to import $450 million worth of rice despite having been self-sufficient just months earlier. The price of carrots and tomatoes rose fivefold. Things were worse for smaller farmers… you know, those who are the most ‘organic’. In the Rajanganaya region, where the majority of farmers operate two-and-a-half-acre lots, families reported 50 percent to 60 percent reductions in their harvest. On a national scale and in a matter of months, tea production – a 1.3 billion dollar export industry that subsidized much of the country’s importing costs – fell by over 20%. Now we have rioting, food insecurity, runaway inflation, and a violent political revolution. This is the cost in harm to real people in real life when too many of us incorrectly assume that organic=good, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides=bad.

      • Tildeb, thanks for your comment. There is an excellent book called “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” by Miriam Horn that focuses on these three and two other professions. Its premise is how people whose livelihood is dependent on the environment have worked with environmentalists to do what they can to help, but allow them to make a living. You know it is working when both sides of the equation are mad at them for making it work.

        The farmer, for example, is a proponent of growing what grows naturally in an area as it takes less water which has become a dear resource. He also is a proponent of no-tilling as the top soil holds better and requires less water and fewer added nutrients. I felt it is one of the more practical books on addressing environmental issues as it takes advantage of the experience of people close to the action. Keith

      • Thanks, Keith.

        I have had a front row seat, so to speak, on this vital issue for most of my life. My sister spent her career as a crops science specialist for the Canadian government working on hybrids and GMOs for over 40 years while her daughter has spent the last 20 years working for the Ministry of Agriculture in Ontario on – you guessed it – bees!

        So I have heard how too often ‘environmentalists’ – people who presume ‘natural’ is good, and ‘chemical’ is bad – actually work against the core principle of sustainable farming while promoting virtuous but grossly inefficient practices in the name of ‘organic’. There is an entire industry that literally dwarfs ‘Big Agra’ called ‘organic’ that has fooled people into promoting this very dirty, very inefficient practice of farming that, from my own studies, I know is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases.

        My niece would be very proud that you raise the vital role of pollinators and the impact fertilizers and insecticides play at harming them. Genetically modified foods avoid much of this but,m of course, GMOs are considered ‘bad’ by many misguided scientifically illiterate ‘environmentalists’.

      • Thanks for sharing your family’s experience. The reason I like this book is it shows it is not an either/ or solution, it looks at both. The book points out a few things that are counterintuitive that help save the environment and help the producer.

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