Ban Bee-Killing Pesticides

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One of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators, especially bees, for a successful harvest. Yet for much of the past 10 years, beekeepers have been reporting annual hive losses of 30 percent or higher, double of what is considered normal or sustainable for a healthy colony. India has 50 million hectares of bee-pollinated agricultural land, all of which stands to be destroyed alongside the bees that are its lifeline.

Recently, France has set the world an example by banning five of the most harmful insecticides used in agriculture, taking a bold and necessary step towards saving bumblebees from being victims of the sixth mass extinction. An extinction of bees will completely change the face of our planet as we know it, and it is imperative we begin to take steps to safeguard their continued survival- not just for their sake, but for ours as well.

There are about 20,000 species of bees in the world, many of which have co-evolved body sizes and behaviours specific to the flowers they pollinate. Such plants in turn, have evolved to be pollinated only by specific species, and will go extinct without their pollinators. Sadly, populations of bumblebees and other solitary bees have steeply declined worldwide, largely because of insecticide and herbicide use, habitat loss, and global warming. The UN has warned that nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction.

The European Union had voted to ban three neonicotinoids- clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam - in crop fields starting on December 19, 2018. With France now upping the ante with a more comprehensive blanket ban on five major neonicotinoids, banning thiacloprid and acetamiprid along with the three banned by the EU, it is time for India to step up and safeguard its precious bee populations.  All five of these pesticides are registered for use in India under the section 9(3) of the Insecticides Act, 1968 as of May, 2019. Banning them will be a start in the right direction, although it is only the first step in the preservation of these invaluable pollinators.

As a country with a third of our population working in the agricultural sector, the loss of crucial pollinators spells disaster for the industry. Bees pollinate major crops like pulses, nuts, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, coriander, cucumber, melon, onion, pumpkin, radish, turnip, oilseeds like mustard, sunflower, safflower, as well as fruits like citrus, litchee and apple. These are all common kitchen necessities, and their extinction will affect every household in our country.

Bee colony collapse is a syndrome characterized by the sudden loss of all adult bees from a hive. Although a primary cause for this condition has not been determined, a report published on August 29, 2019 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B detailed the effects of neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of insecticides worldwide, on bumblebee health. Since the mid-1900s, synthetically synthesized neonicotinoids based on the chemical structure of nicotine, have been widely used to treat flowering crops, including fruit trees, beets, wheat, and vineyards. These insecticides target the central nervous system of insects, scrambling their memory and homing skills while also severely reducing the bee’s sperm count. Evidence also shows that it neonictinoids dramatically affect the pollinator’s resistance to disease, leaving them vulnerable to parasites and pathogens. Experiments have shown that- like nicotine for humans- neonicotinoids have addictive properties for bees, with individuals initially put off by sugar water containing neonicotinoids soon starting to seek it out, even when presented with simple sugar water. Unlike contact pesticides, which remain on the plant surface, neonicotinoids are absorbed by seeds and transported to leaves, flowers, roots, and stems as the plant grows, making them integrated into the plant, and also leaching into the soil and groundwater. 

Colony Collapse Disorder has more implication than the extinction of one bee species; the disappearance of honeybees can cause catastrophic health and financial impacts. Their disappearance will send shockwaves throughout all major ecosystems, beginning with the extinction of the plant species they pollinate. This in turn will affect the structure of food webs, triggering subsequent extinctions of dependent species including birds, insects, rodents, etc.  Honeybee pollination has an estimated value of more than $14 billion annually to the United States agriculture alone. Without bees, the availability and diversity of fresh produce would decline substantially, and human nutrition will suffer unimaginable consequences.

Our country has an incredible diversity, that of human, plant and animal life. All three are interconnected, and we need them to continue to thrive as we are ushered into a rapidly changing world. We may not have solutions to every problem we will encounter, but it is our responsibility to make the right choices, well in time, when we know what is at stake.