Jun 29, 2017

It's official: A commonly used pesticide can harm bees

Mark Chinnick / Flickr

Bee populations are collapsing, and numerous studies have implicated neonicotinoid pesticides. But critics say those studies dose the bees with more pesticides than they would experience in the wild. Two multi-year field studies, published today in Science, show that real-world doses can harm bees under many conditions, which could settle much of the debate raging around the insecticide.

"These bees aren't being force-fed, they're just doing what they would normally do," says Jeremy Kerr, who studies bees at the University of Ottawa.

Why it matters: Bees don't just make honey: they're an integral part of the world's agricultural system. In the U.S., they are shipped across the country to pollinate crops, and wild bees help plants reproduce across the globe. If bee populations crash, the economic and environmental consequences could be severe.

The pesticide: Neonicotinoids have been in use since the 1990s. They can be sprayed on a plant, but they're generally coated on seeds and then taken up by the plant and expressed in their leaves. The pesticides were thought to be environmentally friendly because they're only supposed to harm insects that bite the now-poisonous plants. Unfortunately, the pesticide can also be expressed in the plant's pollen, which is how bees are exposed.

The two studies:

  1. Scientists looked at three kinds of bees in three European countries and found neonicotinoids harmed honeybees in two of three countries studied, and wild bees in all three. (In Hungary, the honey bees colonies shrunk by an average of 24%.) This could be due to differences in soil quality (dusty soil spreads the pesticide), the availability of other plants/food sources, or something else.
  2. In Canada, scientists found that bees near corn farms were exposed to the pesticides year round, regardless of when the pesticide was applied. They also report the impact of the neonicotinoids was worse if a fungicide was also used and that worker bees fed the pesticide were less hygenic and shorter-lived.

It's a red herring, says Kerr, to think that only neonicotinoids are to blame for bee hive collapse. Modern farming techniques, habitat loss, parasitic varroa mites and climate change could all play a role. Still, notes Kerr, "I don't think there's any doubt that neonicotinoids can't be viewed as harmless. They can clearly cause harm to bees."

These studies show that a nuanced discussion is needed before the insecticides are banned because in certain conditions, they don't seem to be safe. There is also concern that if farmers can no longer use neonicotinoids, they'll switch to a less-understood pesticide that could be more damaging.

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Coronavirus dashboard

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  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 4:30 p.m. ET: 1,579,690 — Total deaths: 94,567 — Total recoveries: 346,780Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 4:30 p.m. ET: 452,582 — Total deaths: 16,129 — Total recoveries: 24,790Map.
  3. Public health latest: U.S. has expelled thousands of migrants under coronavirus public health orderDr. Anthony Fauci said social distancing could reduce the U.S. death toll to 60,000.
  4. Business latest: The Fed will lend up to $2.3 trillion for businesses, state and city governments — Another 6.6 million jobless claims were filed last week.
  5. World latest: Boris Johnson is moved out of ICU but remains in hospital with coronavirus.
  6. In Congress: Senate in stalemate over additional funding for small business relief program.
  7. What should I do? Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Biden rolls out new policies in effort to court Sanders supporters

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The Biden campaign announced two new policies on Thursday on health care and student debt that are squarely aimed at appealing to supporters of Bernie Sanders, who ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The policies don't go as far as Sanders' platform, but they signal that Biden is serious about incorporating elements of his former rival's agenda in an effort to help unify the Democratic Party and defeat President Trump in the general election.

Reports: Saudi Arabia and Russia reach major deal to cut oil production

Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

OPEC+, led by mega-producers Saudi Arabia and Russia, reached a tentative agreement Thursday to impose large cuts in oil production as the coronavirus pandemic fuels an unprecedented collapse in demand, per Bloomberg and Reuters.

Why it matters: The revival of the OPEC+ collaboration patches up the early March rupture between the countries, which had pushed already depressed prices down much further by threatening to unleash even more new supplies into the saturated market.