A key reason for this startling falloff: Pesticides are hitting bees hard.
Ironically, while our food supplies depend on bees, America’s farming practices have contributed to the loss of these essential insects. Simply put, agriculture in the U.S. has grown increasingly reliant on pesticides. Cultivating a single crop in an area, known as monoculture, has become a persistent norm, and this form of farming relies on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. With these chemical innovations, farmers have been able to immediately replenish nutrients in the soil, control weeds and eliminate bugs munching away at their crops. The effects of easy solutions to pests, however, begot its own problems.
The development of crops with genetically modified resistance to certain pesticides caused usage to soar. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, became the most widely used agriculture chemical in 2001 because genetically modified crops were created that were impervious to the toxin. One of the unintended consequences of this boom was that the pesticide, which has been found to alter bee gut bacteria, weakened bees’ ability to fend off disease. Additional evidence suggests that glyphosate may also negatively impact their navigation skills and foraging behavior.
Adding to the problem, once weeds became resistant to glyphosate as a result of the chemical’s overuse, crops were re-engineered to be resistant to other pesticides. Dicamba was one of these pesticides, and it was applied broadly to resistant crops—with alarming results. Crops in adjacent fields and surrounding pollinator food sources died after dicamba was carried by the wind from its original application site. Beekeepers near fields where dicamba was applied reported that their hives were struggling to produce a fraction of what they previously yielded. The reason was dicamba had wiped out the bees’ food source.
Tragically, another class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, commonly known as neonics, are even more damaging to bees. This particular pesticide’s usage has surged in recent years. In fact, more than 50 percent of soybeans and 90 percent of corn planted in the U.S. are coated in neonics. The pesticide is absorbed by the plant, and becomes a part of the pollination cycle, showing up in both pollen and nectar. Even at sublethal levels of exposure to neonics, bees experience debilitating effects, ranging from compromised ability to communicate to decreased mobility. This leaves them vulnerable to attacks from other threats.