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How We’re Killing the Bees

Scientists have solved the mystery of what’s suppressing the world bee population, and it’s not good news.

We’ve known for some time that the acute cause is colony collapse disorder, but saying bees are dying off because of colony collapse disorder is sort of like saying someone died because he stopped breathing. It doesn’t answer the question of what caused this series of events. But a new Harvard study, published in the Bulletin of Insectology, does—and neonicotinoids, the most popular class of pesticides on Earth, are the culprit. This is terrible news because neonicotinoids are cheap, effective, and pretty much ubiquitous. It will be very hard to get rid of them.

The idea that neonicotinoids are responsible for the bee shortage isn’t a new one—scientists have suspected as much for years; both the European Union and the U.S. city of Eugene, Oregon have already banned several of the more popular neonicotinoid pesticides—and an increasingly persuasive series of studies have confirmed early theories to that effect. But the Harvard study is the first to document why we’ve had a relatively hard time establishing a direct link between neonicotinoids and colony collapse disorder: it wipes bees out the winter after initial, ostensibly sublethal exposure rather than right away.

Now that we know neonicotinoids are responsible for suppressing the bee population, the issue of saving the bees has shifted from a scientific issue to a moral and political one. To be sure, there are going to be neonicotinoid truthers—just as there are climate change deniers—but the scientific evidence is clear. The only question is whether we have the moral and political will to act on it. And given the near-apocalyptic consequences of a declining bee population, history is unlikely to forgive us if we don’t.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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