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Two New Major Studies Link Pesticides to Decline of Honeybees

Neonicotinoids—a potent class of pesticides used on many crops in the U.S.—have long been blamed for the widespread decline of our pollinators. Now a major new study has found a direct correlation between the use of these "neonics" and honeybee colony losses across England and Wales.

Meanwhile, a report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) revealed that the controversial insecticides were present in more than half of both urban and agricultural streams sampled across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

First, the UK-based study published in the scientific journal Nature, found that the increased use of  neonicotinoids as a seed treatment on oilseed rape (similar to canola) crops in England and Wales between 2000 to 2010 correlated with higher bee mortality during that time, The Guardian reported.

For the study, scientists led by Giles Budge at the Food and Environment Research Agency (a former UK government agency) and University of Georgia entomology professor Keith Delaplane, analyzed a large-scale cropped area that grew from 293,378 hectares to 602,270 hectares in this 11-year period. In this time, the number of seeds treated with the neonic "imidacloprid" grew from less than 1 percent of planted area in 2000 to more than 75 percent in 2010. In total, the researchers observed 126,220 colonies in that cropped area, of which 10,725 honeybee colonies, or 8.5 percent, were found to be dead.

Once the differences of honeybee colony loss by region were accounted for, the study's authors concluded that imidacloprid usage had a "positive relationship with honey bee colony losses such that increased regional usage was linked to higher honey bee colony losses."

Additionally, as The Guardian reported from the study, the authors also found that while farmers who used this neonicotinoid used fewer applications of other pesticides, the long-term benefits of treating oil seed rape seeds with imidacloprid on crop yields were negligible.

The authors acknowledged limits in their study, saying that since it wasn't a controlled experiment a "multitude of unaccounted variables that are known to impact honey bee colony mortality" could have affected their data.

UK-based researchers found a direct correlation between honeybee colony losses and the use of neonicotinoids on oilseed rape crops.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Still, this latest study adds to an increasing body of scientific evidence that links the highly toxic nature of neonicotinoid insecticides on our pollinators. The study calls for further investigations into the relationships between imidacloprid usage at the landscape level and honeybee decline.

Incidentally, while Europe enacted a continent-wide two-year ban on neonics in 2013, last month the UK lifted the use of two neonicotinoid pesticides, which can be used for 120 days on about 5 percent of England's oilseed rape crop, The BBC reported.

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Neonicotinoids are still used widely in the U.S. (despite many calls from environmentalists to stop usage), and not only are they found in our crop fields, they are also being detected in our waterways. Over on our shores, the USGS conducted its "first national-scale investigation" of the environmental occurrence of neonicotinoid insecticides in agricultural and urban settings, according to a press release.

In the study, conducted from 2011 to 2014 and spanning 24 states and Puerto Rico, at least one of the six neonicotinoids tested by USGS researchers was found in more than half of the sampled streams. Detections of the six neonicotinoids varied: imidicloprid was found in 37 percent of the samples in the national study, clothianidin in 24 percent, thiamethoxam in 21 percent, dinotefuran in 13 percent, acetamiprid in 3 percent and thiacloprid was not detected.

“In the study, neonicotinoids occurred throughout the year in urban streams while pulses of neonicotinoids were typical in agricultural streams during crop planting season,” said USGS research chemist Michelle Hladik, the report’s lead author.

No concentrations exceeded the U.S. EPA's aquatic life criteria, and are unlikely to be carcinogenic to humans, the release said.

“The occurrence of low levels in streams throughout the year supports the need for future research on the potential impacts of neonicotinoids on aquatic life and terrestrial animals that rely on aquatic life,” said USGS scientist Kathryn Kuivila, the research team leader. "These results will serve as an important baseline for that future work."

USGS scientist collecting a water-quality sample from the South Fork Zumbro River near Rochester, Minnesota. Photo credit: Donald S. Hansen, USGS.

Saving our pollinators is crucial to humanity's survival. According to Greenpeace, wild and domestic honeybees perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide, and 70 out of the top 100 human food crops—which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition—are pollinated by bees.

Still, it appears that the worrisome decline in honeybees is getting even worse. A recent government study reported that the U.S. honeybee population has plummeted more than 40 percent from April 2014 through April 2015, much higher than the 34.2 percent from the year prior.

President Obama announced the creation of the Pollinator Health Task Force this past June and signed a Presidential Memorandum that recognizes the severe losses in the populations of the nation’s pollinators, including honey bees, wild bees, monarch butterflies and others.

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"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."