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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.

Go deeper

51 mins ago - World

Army to award Purple Hearts to troops injured in Iran missile attack

Damage at Ain al-Asad military airbase housing U.S. and other foreign troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar in January 2020. Photo: Ayman Henna/AFP via Getty Images

The Army has approved 39 more Purple Hearts for U.S. soldiers wounded in an Iranian military ballistic missile attack on an Iraq base in January 2020, the Army Times first reported Wednesday.

Why it matters: Most of these soldiers sustained brain injuries, per the Army Times. Then-President Trump dismissed their injuries at the time as "headaches" and "not very serious," sparking backlash from some veterans groups.

Scoop: U.S. begins denying Afghan immigrants

Afghan refugees on a bus bound for temporary housing after arriving in Greece. Photo: Byron Smith/Getty Images

The Biden administration has begun issuing denials to Afghans seeking to emigrate to the United States through the humanitarian parole process, after a system that typically processes 2,000 applications annually has been flooded with more than 30,000.

Why it matters: Afghans face steeper odds and longer processes for escaping to the U.S., despite the earlier sweeping efforts by the Biden administration to assist its allies. Immigration lawyers and advocacy groups say the government has set untenable barriers to a safe haven in the U.S.

4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Dems invoke Robert Byrd to sell Manchin on Senate rules changes

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Diana Walker, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A small group of Senate Democrats is privately invoking the legacy of late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in an effort to sway Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to support their plans to change the chamber's rules, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Manchin — who holds Byrd's Senate seat — has often referenced his predecessor's strong moral conviction and insistence on preserving the Senate as an institution, as justification for some of his tough positions.