Supersize Bee

A new study shows that bees prefer pesticide-laced junk food that hastens their death.

April 22, 2015

Photo: Keith McDuffee/Flickr

Few public policy debates are as tired as the one about government’s role in shaping people's diet. Propose a soda tax and suddenly you’re knee-deep in clichés about the nanny state, the power of advertising, and the meaning of personal choice.

I’ve found a way to make that discussion interesting again: Replace “people” with “bees.”

Stay with me. There is a robust body of laboratory research showing that neonicotinoids, a popular class of insecticides that become integrated into the fibers of corn and other plants, are bad for bees. Eating neonicotinoid-laced nectar makes bees slow, disoriented, and bad at finding food. That makes for a tricky situation, since many bees’ entire lives consist of gathering nectar and returning to the nest.

Neonicotinoid apologists reject these studies, in part because the researchers force-feed neonic-laced food to the bees. The critics say that the most important thing for bees is freedom of choice. Give bees the right to pick their own nectar in the wild, they say, and they will eat a wide variety of foods that best suits their individual needs, mostly avoiding the poisonous plants. It sounds oddly like the talking points of soda manufacturers in soda ban debates: Let consumers “make the choice that’s right for them.”

The journal Nature published two studies today that disprove the “freedom of bee choice” theory. In the first, researchers offered bees two food sources: a pure sugar solution and a sugar solution laced with neonicotinoids. The bees did not avoid the contaminated food—they actually preferred it! The researchers then went a step further, testing the bees’ neural response to the insecticide. (Isn’t science amazing?) Although bee brains have bitter-sensing neurons that help detect poison (humans have them, too), this defense mechanism didn’t respond to neonicotinoids. In the end, the neonic-fed bees died earlier than their health food-eating peers, essentially poisoning themselves with junk.

The second study shows that this result is not limited to the lab. Looking at wild bees, rather than those in research colonies, the researchers showed that fields of neonic-treated crops host fewer bees, and the bees living in contaminated fields are significantly less likely to nest and reproduce. The results were dramatic: The neonic-fed bees barely nested at all.

So much for freedom of choice. It turns out that bees are no better than humans at constructing and sticking to a healthy diet.

“The European Union has already instituted a moratorium on three of the most common neonicotinoids,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist in NRDC’s health program (disclosure). “These studies demonstrate why the White House task force reviewing the issue should move quickly to tighten U.S. regulations.”

Earlier this year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stopped approving new applications for neonicotinoid permits, but that doesn’t address the vast amounts we’re already using. We need bees to pollinate 30 percent of our crops. One in four bees disappeared between 1990 and 2011. Banning neonicotinoids may make us a nanny state, but at least we would be a nanny state with something to eat.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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