What missing bumblebees are telling us

Months ago, the rusty patched bumblebee became the first bee species to be placed on the endangered list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ohio is one of its last sanctuaries.

For years, to attract bees I’ve flooded my yard with flowering plants. By June, tree-size honeysuckles choke the eaves with white, pink and yellow blossoms. Last year, I saw one or two bees inconsistently. And it’s not just bees, I rarely see butterflies and dragonflies around our neighborhood anymore. It hasn’t always been this way.

Two streets over, a neighbor keeps a beehive in his backyard, an optimist who despite losing hives two years straight is still trying. He described the day his bees came home, staggering like drunk, and died en mass.

What does science say? 

The European Union spent hundreds of millions of dollars studying honey bee colony loss and decided that neonicotinoids, a class of nerve-poison pesticides, is partially responsible and has, since 2013, tightly regulated this class of chemicals. 

But what I worry about is that missing bees are the tip of the iceberg. Bees, the yardstick of a healthy environ, are the first casualties of our chemical roulette. Annually, 80 million pounds of pesticide are pumped into our lawns, at a concentration that’s 10 times more than what farmers use on crops, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pesticides by nature are poisons. Neonicotinoids, for example, can persist for years in soil and are absorbed into plant tissue and flowers, killing bees by paralysis or by weakening their immune system. There’s a paucity of data on the long-term health effects on humans. From what I can dig out, a small review published in 2016 in Environmental Health Perspective shows exposure is linked to multiple neurological disorders like autism, memory loss and birth defects.

Furthermore, half of the most commonly used pesticides may be associated with cancer. Currently riding the hot seat is Roundup. Monsanto, its parent company, allegedly tried to cover up a possible link between glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I think the EPA ought to warning-label pesticides the way the FDA labels cigarettes. "WARNING: Pesticides may cause leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, autism, memory problems, depression, Parkinson’s disease, respiratory problems, birth defects and low sperm counts. P.S. Give us another 10 years; we’ll know more."

I’ve lived to witness the infamy of DDT, DES, and Agent Orange. While I understand and respect the limits of science, waiting for the EPA to react is, for some of us, too little and too late.

My choice is to forgo lawn chemicals, pull a few weeds by hand. My grass is dotted with moss, clover, dandelion and whatever. Cut and trimmed, it looks fine. It’s green, drought resistant, low cost, low maintenance, and friendly to children, pets, birds and pollinators. 

No lush lawn is worth risking our health. In the process, we save bees, one lawn at a time.

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Volume 9, Issue 6, Posted 10:11 AM, 03.21.2017