There are many pillars upon which society stands, upon which we hardly know we rely until it’s too late. It is then only through our own collapse that we come to terms with our own staggering vulnerability, and perhaps selfishly, it is only through our own pain that we come to mind the pain of all that supports us. The poetry of nature is that despite being one of those great pillars that buttress society, it is quiet and mysterious and waits patiently for change, all the while knowing that humans are themselves part of nature and will never escape its interconnectedness.
However, the question of survival has grown more complex in recent years as the world tries to reckon with a need to avoid “bad” insects without endangering the “good”. The most widely used insecticide globally, neonicotinoids have been used on over one hundred forty crop varieties to control a range of “bad” sap-feeding insects such as aphids and root-feeding grubs. However, the list of unintended consequences of these pesticides run long, and while many pollinators face the consequences, bees are one of the most severely affected.
Neonics work by binding to receptors of the enzyme nicotinic acetylcholine, which is in charge of responding to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This leads to over-excited nerves, paralysis and eventual death- needless to say, putting a whole host of insects at risk. However bees are especially vulnerable, as they have more nicotinic acetylcholine receptors than other insects as well as more learning and memory genes. To make matters worse, despite being one of the “smarter” insects according to human standards, bees actually possess fewer genes for detoxification. Therefore, not only is the makeup of a bee’s nervous system more susceptible to these insecticides, but so is their immune system.
Imagine getting only a limited amount of sleep each day (perhaps you might not need to imagine this). You would start craving those foods you shouldn’t eat under the false pretense that they ‘give you energy’, you would become annoyed or stressed more easily, you would start to forget about those important things you shouldn’t forget about, and most of all, you would idolize the warmth and silence of sleep. Similarly, when a bee is under the influence of neonicotinoids, which are chemically similar to the nicotine found in cigarettes, their circadian rhythms go out of whack and they start to lose track of the basic rhythms of life.
Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be fair to condemn the agricultural industry without first commending the progress they have made. After all, they have been tasked with a difficult puzzle: how to provide cheap food on a large scale without compromising quality, efficiency, and ethics. Yet arguably, the use of neonicotinoids doesn’t even solve the problem of efficiency. After all, simple arithmetic dictates that if only 5% of the active ingredient of neonics is taken up by crop plants, they are actually 95% inefficient, and much like the energy of an inefficient machine is dispersed into the wider environment, so are the majority of neonicotinoids. This is quite a different situation from organic matter being dispersed, and is even drastically different from other pesticides such as organophosphates and carbamates. Neonics are significantly more persistent in the environment, and can remain active in the soil for months, breaking down into even more toxic products than the original and putting groundwater at risk of contamination.
Additionally, because neonics are water-soluble, they can be found inside the vascular tissue and foliage of crops as well as within pollen and nectar. In fact, the levels at which they are present in nectar and pollen are sufficient enough to impair the health of pollinating insects and cause chronic harm to their brood. According to Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, one teaspoon of neonicotinoid is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees. That means if you used the same amount of neonicotinoid for crops as you did vanilla extract in a recipe for cake, you would be able fill four commercial trucks with the resulting dead bees. It therefore isn’t surprising that with the increasing use of such chemicals, a third of the UK bee population has died out in a decade.
It is for that very reason that the EU banned neonicotinoids in 2018. Yet in reality, research suggests that various countries across Europe have used dozens of “emergency” permits to apply neonicotinoid chemicals since that time. Most recently, in January of 2021, the UK announced that “After careful consideration of all the issues, the government has decided to grant an application for emergency authorisation to allow use of a product containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam for the treatment of sugar beet seed in 2021.”
With sugar beet crop endangered by beet yellow virus(spread by aphids) and pollinators endangered by the solution, it is difficult to balance the dietary needs of a growing population with the rapidly declining insect population worldwide. In fact, evidence suggests that since 1970, the world has lost at least 50% of insects, with 41% now threatened with extinction. On the other hand, 690 million people globally are undernourished, which is more than ten times the population of the UK. Yet with one out of every three meals eaten by humans being made possible by pollinators, it is fair to say that bees are more likely to be an integral part of the solution than not and should be at the heart of a move toward more socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture.
Yet at the core of society there remains a common thread connecting the ocean of hunger with the stupefying decline of insects: both are the side-effects of a system of food production and distribution which simply isn’t working. To say the health of society must contradict the health of natural ecosystems is to contradict the very nature of society itself as an inherently interdependent aspect of the planet.
Action Against Hunger. 2018. “World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics.” Action against Hunger. October 2018. https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics.
Claydon, Sam. 2017. “About Neonicotinoids – Pesticide Action Network UK.” Pesticide Action Network UK. 2017. https://www.pan-uk.org/about_neonicotinoids/.
Cockburn, Harry. 2021. “Pesticide Set for Return in UK despite EU Ban ‘Stops Bees Sleeping.’” The Independent. January 21, 2021. https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/neonicotinoid-pesticide-ban-kill-bees-sleep-b1790577.html.
Connor, Steve. 2015. “Widely-Used Pesticide Poses ‘Substantial Risk’ to Wild Bees.” The Independent. April 22, 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/neonics-pesticide-poses-substantial-risk-to-wild-bees-studies-claim-10195792.html.
Dalton, Jane. 2021. “Government to Let Farmers Use Bee-Killing Pesticide Banned by EU.” The Independent. January 13, 2021. https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/bees-kill-pesticide-insect-sugar-neonic-b1784693.html.
In. 2015. “The Death of Bees Explained – Parasites, Poison and Humans.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqA42M4RtxE.
Marshall, Claire. 2021. “Legal Threat over Bee-Harming Pesticide Use.” BBC News, January 27, 2021, sec. Science & Environment. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55766035.
Wood, Thomas James, and Dave Goulson. 2017. “The Environmental Risks of Neonicotinoid Pesticides: A Review of the Evidence Post 2013.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 24 (21): 17285–325. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-017-9240-x.