Pollinators at peril.

Photo: Michaela Vogt
Photo: Michaela Vogt

Worldwide populations of honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies and moths are declining. Many theories have been suggested:  industrial farming, herbicides, systemic pesticides, and mites.

The issue of mass bee deaths is contentious. Conflicting lobbies (pesticide companies, farmers and bee scientists) counter each others’ information, propaganda and research. Insecticides, such as DDT, have been used to kill insects since 1945. In 1962, the book Silent Spring, by American biologist Rachel Carson, was published. It catalogued the environmental impacts of indiscriminate use of DDT and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of potentially dangerous chemicals into the environment without a sufficient understanding of their effects one cology or human health. The book claimed that DDT and other pesticides had been shown to cause cancer  and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. Its publication was a pioneering event for the environmental movement and resulted in a large public outcry that eventually led, in 1972, to a ban on the agricultural use of DDT in the United States. A worldwide ban on its agricultural use was later formalized under the Stockholm Convention.

In the 1980s Shell  and in the 1990s Bayer started work on the development of  Neonicotinoids. They are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine and are systemic. Systemic insecticides  are a quantum leap in toxicity and efficiency.  They are usually applied to crops as seed coating;  they are absorbed into the tissues of the plant, rendering every part poisonous, from roots to flowers.

In 2008 neonicotinoids came under increasing scrutiny over their environmental impact. Neonicotinoid use was linked in a range of studies to adverse ecological effects, including honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD) and loss of birds due to a reduction in insect populations. In 2013, the European Union and a few non EU countries restricted the use of certain neonicotinoids.

Honeybees and neonicotinoids:

Neonicotinoids  poison the pollen and nectar, which bees collect and carry  back to the hive and feed to the bee larvae and queen bee, or store for later use.  Hundreds of scientific studies have shown that it only takes a tiny amount of neonicoinoids (three parts per billion) to affect the health, navigation skills and immune system of the bee. The neonicotinoids remain active within the plant for many months and can persist in the soil for years, contaminating wildflowers or subsequent crops.

An international scientific task force on systemic pesticides was set up by a network of independent scientists. In the past five years it has examined more than 800 scientific, peer-reviewed papers on neonicotinoids and bees, published over the past two decades. The group concluded that if honeybees are exposed to realistic doses of neonics they are affected in many ways: they cannot navigate back to the hive, they lose the ability to gather food, their lifespan and resistance to disease is reduced and the fertility of the queen is affected. In the case of bumblebees, colonies exposed to neonics grow more slowly and produce up to 80 per cent fewer queens than normal.

New research also confirms that neonicotinoids are as addictive as nicotine. The bees go back for more, preferring to sup at neonic-laced syrup rather than untainted sugar syrup. Even more worrying, it has also been shown that wild bees are even more sensitive to pesticides than the honeybee.

Photo: Michaela Vogt
Photo: Michaela Vogt

My question is how long do we have to wait for the banning of these substances? Will the world only wake up when there are no more insects to pollinate our food crops, when bird and other wildlife depending on insects as a food source start disappearing, or when pollination can only be done artificially?

Will the humble little bee, the beautiful butterfly or the unassuming little moth be the next one on the list of extinction? Imagine a land devoid of life and beauty – Namaqualand without its flowers, the Cape without its Fynbos, our gardens without the happy buzz of bees and the flirting of butterflies. What is sad day that would be …..


I’ve been reading a book by Yuval Harari –  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind –  in which he highlights the destructive nature of humankind,  how many species have disappeared because of human intervention,  and how little regard we have for nature and all its creatures.  It is this arrogance and inability to see our shortcomings that will ultimately lead to our downfall.