Not so sweet news from a recent Science study. In honey samples taken from around the world, 75% had detectable levels of neonicotinoids in them. North America had the highest level of contamination at 86%. In addition, 45% of all samples had two or more different types of neonics in them, with 10% containing four or five. (Remember that neonicotinoid is a class of chemicals. There are actually five different neonic chemicals commonly used: acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.)
The news has created a buzz. “What this shows is the magnitude of the contamination,” the study’s lead author Edward Mitchell from the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, adding “there were relatively few places where we did not find any contaminated samples.” They added that finding at least two different types of neonicotinoids in samples is “worrying”, as the effects of multiple pesticides are suspected to be stronger than the sum of each effect.
Harm to Bees
Despite a vigorous PR and marketing campaign from the makers of the neonicotinoid chemicals, independent science has shown the dramatic harm neonicotinoids cause for honey bees, wild bees (especially bumble bees), and butterflies. Exposure to neonics can mean death or suffering from a range of symptoms including, memory and learning problems, immune system dysfunction, and lower reproduction rates.
Since neonicotinoids are systemic chemicals, they enter into every tissue and product of that plant. So when a bee lands on a treated plant, they are exposed. When they take pollen or nectar from that plant they are exposed again. When they bring these products back to the hive to feed the other bees, the hive becomes exposed. And when they eat their own honey (made from the nectar laced with neonicotinoids) they are exposed again and again.
Neonicotinoids stay in the soil for months to years before they break down. They also leach into our streams, rivers and lakes, contaminating our water supplies and harming invertebrates and fish.
Harm to People?
Authors of this study were quick to note that neonicotinoid levels in their honey samples were considered safe for human consumption. And yet the news gives me great pause before I dig into my next spoonful of honey. “Safe” is a dubious term in a world where little testing has been done.
These chemicals are neurotoxins that could cause neurological harm to people and mammals at a higher dose. No long term studies have been done with these chemicals. And no safety testing has been done on the effects of multiple neonicotinoids being used together. I don’t like the idea of me or my family eating neurotoxins–at any dose. And let’s be real, since neonicotinoids are the most widely used type of pesticide worldwide, odds are good that you are ingesting neonics on the food you eat–unless you eat 100% organic. There is great potential here for a compound effect, where an individual can ingest high levels of neonics by ingesting many small “safe” amounts. What is a honey lover to do?
How to Eat Honey Without Neonics
While there is no way to guarantee that the honey you buy is neonic-free, there are several steps you can take to decrease your risk.
- Avoid honey where hives are close to neonic sprayed agriculture. Common crops are corn, wheat, and soy but also include a range of grains, fruits and vegetables. This may require talking to farmers to find out.
- Go local and know your source. Bees can travel up to 3-5 miles in search of nectar and pollen. (A circle with a three-mile radius has a 19-mile circumference and encompasses more than 28 square miles–a surprising large area.)
- Talk with beekeepers. Mention your concern about neonicotinoids in honey. Ask them about what areas the bees are feeding from. If the beekeeper gives you a hard time or is evasive, move on. While it is difficult to know where the bees have been, seek out the beekeepers that forage their bees on more pristine land.
- Avoid supermarket honey. You simply do not know where the hives have been.
Can You Get Organic Honey?
You will occasionally see the organic label on honey, but the label also deserves skepticism. Honey can be certified organic, although the USDA has no regulations to define organic honey. Nor do they inspect for organic honey. Much of the organic honey on the market comes from Brazil; the U.S. accepts honey as organic if a country declares that it is organic. So we don’t really know where the bees have foraged and how they have been cared for. It is better to choose a clean local source of honey.
Fight Against Neonicotinoid Use
Neonicotinoids are widespread. If we want our bees to live, we must fight against their use. Diminished use will also help the invertebrates and ourselves. Here are a few things you can do:
- Do not use neonicotinoids in your own yard and garden. Gardening products will not list the word “neonicotinoids”, but instead the chemical names, such as acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.
- Choose plants that have not been treated with neonics. You don’t want the bees feeding off of them, nor do you want the chemicals in your soil. Before I buy a plant, I ask my nursery if it has been treated with neonicotinoids. If they don’t know, a nursery can call the grower to find out. For more information on where to avoid buying your plants, see my post, Why I Won’t Be Buying My Plants at the Big Box Stores.
- Choose organic food to decrease exposure to neonicotinoids and to support farms that do not use them.
- Fight neonicotinoids at the political level. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been incredibly slow to wrap up its review of the neonic chemicals. Communicate your concern to them. Find out what chemicals your town or city uses on their public spaces. Ask that neonicotinoids be banned.
- Do not buy any products made by Syngenta or Bayer, the two companies making neonicotinoid chemicals.
- For more ideas on how to save the bees, check out the Pesticide Action Network Save Our Bees page.
What Are Other Countries Doing?
France is the only country that has declared a total ban on neonicotinoids to-date. In 2013 the EU temporarily banned neonicotinoids on crops that attract bees, such as rapeseed. In November 2017, the European Food Safety Authority will decide if the evidence warrants a total ban.
Our bees have no future as long as these chemicals are in our environment. We must stop their use.