Dr Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist at the US Organic Center and former Executive Director of the National Academy of Science’s Agriculture Board, told an audience at the annual Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture in London that the degree of pesticide contamination within bee hives is ‘shocking’ and warned that farmers would have to ‘do things very differently’ if they wanted to keep bees within the agricultural system.
Benbrook said that the honeybee acted as canary in our agricultural coalmine, and that the species’ rapid decline should be taken very seriously.
‘Neonicotinoid pesticides are the most toxic pesticides ever discovered for bees,’ he said. ‘Regulators around the world now know this, and yet we are still using them as sprays and seed treatments.’
At the lecture, Benbrook offered a new explanation for how the pesticides might affect the immune systems of bees. He points to the use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a feed given to the bees over winter to replace honey taken out of the hive for human use. Benbrook believes that the corn syrup may contain minute traces of neonicotinoid pesticides which were originally used on the maize from which the syrup is extracted.
‘High fructose corn syrup is not ideal for bees nutritionally, and if it did contain neonicotionoids, it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,’ he said.
Benbrook has tested a number of samples of HFCS for the pesticide but, whilst some did contain the chemical, he admits that his results are not yet conclusive.
He added that monoculture farming was part of the problem, and said that it was ‘impossible’ to farm in such a way without being reliant on heavy doses of toxins.
But Benbrook said he believed such farming systems were becoming unsustainable.
‘I think agriculture has entered into a phase of dramatic change,’ he said. ‘We’ll see changes in the next 20 years comparable to changes we’ve seen since we invented agriculture.