Stickier than Honey: The Revolving Pesticide Revolution

Its been over 50 years since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring captured the public’s concern on the effects pesticides have on plants and animals, especially humans. But it seems that our knowledge of the dangers of pesticides wanes rather than resonates in between major focusing events, allowing for the wide spread use of many concerning pesticides.

Same pest, different disease: in 1998, insecticides were sprayed throughout parts of Connecticut, including my own home, to save us from a dangerous outburst of West Nile virus found in mosquitos. It seems to be an unlikely coincidence that 95% of the lobsters in the Long Island Sound disappeared only one year after widespread insecticide spraying along the coast (4).

While researchers are still looking for the relationship between insecticides and dying lobsters, surely we would be more cautious in the way we use pesticides on crops. Today, many crops are painted (not sprayed) with one of many most widely used pesticides categorized as a neonicotinoid. These “highly toxic” pesticides, as the EPA describes them, are currently being researched for their role in Colony Collapse Disorder – the widespread decline in honeybee populations across America and Europe (2).

study conducted by Professor David Goulson at the University of Sussex in the UK showed that colonies exposed to neonicotinoids collected 57% less pollen than control colonies. Furthermore, bees exposed to the pesticide brought back no pollen 23% more often or brought back 31% less pollen than control bees. Pollen is the main source of protein for honeybees and may explain the drastic decline in their populations (7).

The study has been criticized for exposing the bees to unrealistic levels of neonicotinoids and not modeling field conditions appropriately. Goulson retorted that the studies used to demonstrate the safety of neonicotinoids were conducted in a similar fashion (8). Regardless, it seems clear that these neurotoxins have negative effects on honeybees ability to pollinate, and are particularly concerning for commercial bees who are exposed to many different crops with various pesticides.

Insects pollinate three fourths of the world’s crops, and honeybees are a major contributor (7). In the US, commercial beekeepers are a crucial aspect of farming, especially for crops such as blueberries and cherries that are 90% pollinated by honeybees or almonds that are completely dependent (100 million colonies pollinate almonds in California). Apples, cranberries, melons, and broccoli are among other crops that utilize honeybee pollination (10).

Forget the bees, let’s think about ourselves for once. Now if the prospect of a snack without almonds does not scare you, maybe these next facts will. The average citizen encounters 10 to 13 different pesticides everyday through food and drink (6). Pesticides are found in the fat cells of every human tested, in most rivers, in 90% of wells, and in the majority of groundwater (5). They increase the likelihood of a pregnant women’s children becoming obese and the American Academy of Pediatrics links pesticides to cancer and a handful of neurological conditions such as ADHD and autism (5).

Toxic apple

Source: Toxic apple

But isn’t this old news?

Not surprisingly, the European Commission has restricted the use of neonicotinoids (the worlds most widely used pesticides) based on European Food Safety Authority research and has banned three types of them for over two years (1, 9). Also not surprisingly, the EPA acknowledges the dangers posed by neonicotinoids, but is not restricting their use until further research is conducted, citing the EFSA’s lack of risk management (1).

Despite the increased threat of neonicotinoids, many farmers are unable to choose if they want to use the pesticides because large companies sell them seeds that are already painted with neonicotinoids (8). The healthiest decision for consumers seems to be to buy organic. Organic crops use roughly 24% less pesticides than their genetically modified counterparts (5). While our individual choice may have little effect on the demand for GMO’s, it does have the power to improve our own health, and the health of our children. Certainly, the cost of non-organic food is substantially lower, but what you save now might be lost later in medical bills for you and your children, plus interest.

Unfortunately, the majority of Americans don’t have the luxury of choice. Furthermore, if individual choice will not instigate policy reform for crops painted with neonicotinoids, then there is little solace for collapsing honeybee colonies. A balance between the cost of food and the threats of pesticides such as neonicotinoids needs to be found in order to protect honeybees as well as ourselves and our children.






    March 30, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Nice post. I especially liked that you mentioned some of the criticisms of Goulson’s paper. Not that I disagree with what Goulson found, but I think it’s important to acknowledge when there is still some uncertainty. Based on what I’ve heard though many scientists do believe that pesticides are playing a role in the observed bee declines.

    I found the statistic that GM crops use ~24% more pesticides on average than organic crops a bit odd, since I thought organic crops wouldn’t use any pesticides at all. I tried hunting down the original source, and I believe it comes from a 2012 Washington State study ( that found using GM crops resulted in the use of 24% more herbicides on average than non-GM crops. Regardless, I support your conclusions all the same and we should definitely buy organic whenever feasible.

  2. Max Orenstein

    April 1, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Good catch, I assumed that the NYT article on pesticides was talking about pesticides when they mentioned “chemicals”. The article was somewhat misleading. Still, who knows what effects herbicides might have on children, humans, honeybees, etc.

  3. I liked your post a lot- it was persuasive, interesting, and informative. I do not understand how the European Commission can declare a chemical unsafe, and then the EPA does not act upon it in our country. It seems apparent that if Europe has a good enough reason to impose restrictions on such pesticides, we should too. Americans want to be protected, and should be without having to spend more money on organic options. Organic is a great option to have, however not everyone can afford to buy the organic option. I feel strongly that chemicals should be proven completely safe before they can be used, not used until they are proven unsafe.

  4. This blog post made me really think about bees, and if we really do need them. I’m not a biologist, so I don’t know too much about selection, but if bee populations were to decline, aren’t there other insects that could fill bees’ niche? Perhaps this could cause worldwide agricultural collapse, and maybe bees and other insects can’t all pollinate the same plants…but still something that got me thinking if we really need bees. I look it as a kind of trade off. Bee extinction means that we are ensuring our food is safe from disease, and but this safety means that diets would just have to shift to foods that can sustain a non-bee pollinators and the use of insecticides. Though I am in favor of the organic-revolution, I believe that there are still merits to some insecticide use, and it’s just the bees that will have to pay the price.


    April 23, 2014 at 6:39 am

    This blog post as well as our memo on Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) were both eye-opening in how ill-managed big chemicals are in the United States. The fact that we encounter 10 to 13 pesticides each day in our food and drink was pretty horrifying. I did some more digging and found that while U.S. EPA sets limits on the maximum amount of each pesticide that can be on each food item, there is no limit to the number of different pesticides that can be on used on food, or the total amount of contamination. There are human health risks associated with the impact of the largely unexplored synergistic effects that can occur between interacting pesticide chemicals (a “Chemical Cocktail”). This reminded me a lot of the statistics I came across when researching the TSCA, like how of the roughly 85,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States, only 200 have been tested by the EPA, and fewer than a dozen chemicals have been restricted throughout the law’s 37 year existence. It is apparent that the widening gap between private sector industry and public sector regulation is only going to get wider faster with technological advances, so perhaps enlisting a private sector testing and screening chemical research facility can help to tip the scales slightly more in favor of consumer protection while regulatory standards try to keep up.

  6. I think that the future of pesticide use will largely be managed by its effect on human health. Although it’s effect of human health will undoubtedly play a larger role in its regulation, I think that perhaps the environmental effects will be the driving factor behind this movement. Although many people know about the disappearance of honeybees, few can attribute this to neonicotinoids. Perhaps this can serve as an instigator to eco-awareness and create the momentum necessary to create change in this field and preserve crop regeneration.

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