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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

4 mins ago - World

Russia fires warning shot at British destroyer in Black Sea

The HMS Defender in the port of Odessa on Ukraine's Black Sea coast on June 18. Photo: Konstantin Sazonchik\TASS via Getty Images

A Russian warship and fighter jet fired "warning" shots at the British Royal Navy’s HMS Defender destroyer for encroaching on waters near Crimea in the Black Sea, Russia's defense ministry said Wednesday.

Why it matters: It's the first time since the Cold War that Russia has used live ammunition to deter a NATO vessel, according to AP.

Mike Allen, author of AM
Updated 17 mins ago - Politics & Policy

First look: WaPo Trump book's secret title revealed

Cover: Penguin Press

The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker will be out July 20 with "I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year," Penguin Press announced.

Breaking: Axios has learned that The Wall Street Journal's Michael Bender is moving "Frankly, We Did Win the Election" up to July 20, matching Leonnig-Rucker, from his earlier pub date of Aug. 10.

Shell and GM unveil partnership on Texas power and car-charging

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

General Motors and a Shell-owned power company will unveil a partnership on Wednesday aimed at providing renewable electricity to Texas customers and free overnight charging to state residents who own GM electric cars.

Why it matters: It’s a new way for two corporate giants to expand their operations in a way that lowers emissions at the customer and supplier level.