pesticides pollinator threats

A poison by any other name

Bees always have something to teach, but one thing I never thought I’d learn from bees is how to eat. That sounds strange, I know, but the more I learned about bees, the more I changed my diet. Let me explain.

Many researchers believe that the unprecedented die-off of honey bees is due to a combination of factors. These factors include monoculture diets, stress due to migratory beekeeping, infestations of a variety of pests, and exposure to a panoply of pesticides at both lethal and sub-lethal levels. Modern pesticides are stronger than ever before, and many are systemic. A systemic pesticide is one that is absorbed by a plant and distributed throughout its tissues.

Some scientists believe that these systemic pesticides are one of the things hurting the honey bees. In addition to being found in the leaves, stems, and fruits of the treated plants, small amounts of these chemicals can also be found in the nectar and pollen. The bees collect these items and take them back to the hive where they are stored or used to feed the young larvae. The total amount of these substances in a grain of pollen or a drop of nectar is negligible, but what about a steady diet of this contaminated food? At what point does it become harmful?

And what about humans? These systemic pesticides are in our food too. They’re in fruits, vegetables, grains, and root crops. And although some will wash off, many will not. As in honey bees, there’s not enough in one bite or one meal to make a difference. But when do we cross the invisible line? At what point do they start affecting our health, cognition, or lifespan? Recent studies have shown that virtually no human being on earth is free of pesticides in his body. Most of us harbor many, many different ones.

So with those thoughts in mind I’ve gradually switched to an organic diet. For similar reasons, I’m trying to eat a diet free of genetically modified organisms, some of which have built-in pesticides. I say “trying” because in the United States, where these products are not labeled, this is pretty much an impossible task. Nevertheless, you can avoid some by learning which foods are likely to contain them.

It is easy to think that insecticides kill insects, rodenticides kill rodents, and fungicides kill fungus. That’s what the manufacturers want you to believe. But it’s more a matter of degree: they are small, we are big. They tolerate less, we tolerate more. But how much more? Don’t forget that we’re all made of the same stuff. If a chemical is harmful to a honey bee, there’s a darn good chance it’s harmful to you.



  • HI Rusty,
    Love your site, it’s the best!
    I unfortunately have to use a lot of herbicides and realized that if I sprayed weeds that were in flower the bees could take the poison back to the hive. As you say, these poisons are not limited to their advertised uses. Most herbicides warn of nerve damage in humans, so why would it be any different in other organisms. Have studies been done in areas with a lot of Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready corn?

    • Bruce,

      Yes, such studies have been done. Honey bees routinely collect corn pollen, and any pesticide that gets to the pollen, either systemically or topically, is taken back to the hive and eventually fed to the developing larvae which are particularly sensitive to chemical agents.

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