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Bee-Harming Pesticides Show Up in Honey Samples

The agriculture industry's widespread use of pesticides is poisoning one of its most important pollinators.

Honey from bee populations around the globe appear to be contaminated with a common pesticide, a new study finds. That doesn't mean you have to drop your favorite tea sweetener; the pesticide levels in the honey samples were below the threshold for risks to human health, but researchers and pesticide makers disagree about what it means for bees.

The study found that the majority of honey samples from across six continents—75 percent—tested positive for at least one type of neonicotinoid, a type of pesticide that has been linked to bee colony collapse, and almost half of the samples had two or more types. In response to the new study, pesticide makers told AP News that the levels of the chemical were much lower than those necessary to harm the insects. However, as Josh Dzieza wrote in the January/February 2015 issue of Pacific Standard, even subtle pesticide exposure can weaken bees when it is compounded by two other factors—poor nutrition and pests:

Weakened by pesticides and malnutrition, bees are likelier to succumb to disease, sometimes spread by a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor, which arrived in the U.S. from Asia in the late 1980s and quickly decimated both managed and feral bee populations. Marla Spivak, an entomologist from the University of Minnesota, put the bees' plight in human terms: Suppose you have the flu, she said, and you're starving, and you have to walk two miles for food, and there's a tick the size of a rabbit battened onto your neck, and when you finally reach food you find it's slightly poisonous. Well then, the flu finishes you off. Bees can contend with one or two of the three Ps, but when all three combine it becomes too much, and illness can deal the final blow.

The honeybee is just one of roughly 20,000 bee species around the world, and many species' populations have been declining for over a decade now. (Last year, seven Hawaiian species became the first bees to be added to the endangered species list.) And honey is just one of the many products that its namesake bee has a hand in producing. Plenty of fruits, vegetable, and nuts (including plums, cucumbers, almonds, and avocados) all rely on bees, trucked across the country by their keepers, to pollinate them. Indeed, pollination, rather than honey sales, is the real money-maker for beekeepers, according to Dzieza:

These days, crop pollination pays the bills, and almonds are by far the most lucrative crop. For many beekeepers, almonds are the first stop on an annual cross-country pollination circuit. They drop their hives off in California and for two weeks their bees fly from blossom to blossom, fertilizing flowers that four months later will turn into almost $5 billion worth of nuts. When the petals fall the beekeepers reclaim their hives and drive to the next crop. Some go to blueberries in Maine or apples in Washington; others go to cranberries in Wisconsin or cherries in Oregon.

All this to say that bees are a critical part of an agricultural industry that is simultaneously contributing to their demise. We still don't know exactly what contaminated honey means for the health of the bee populations that produced them, But it's still an important study, Sydney Cameron, a bee researcher at the University of Illinois (who was not involved in the research), told the AP, "if for no other reason that it will attract a great deal of attention to the mounting problem of worldwide dependence on agrochemicals, the side effects of which we know relatively little."