During these hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, many of us think a lot not only about family, but about food. As we gather around tables to talk, so many of our holiday rituals centers around eating: cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, applesauce for Chanukah latkes, honey-glazed ham for Christmas and — especially in the South — black-eyed peas and greens for good luck on New Year’s Day. Kwanzaa literally translates to “first fruits.”
Yet many of these holiday favorites are endangered, because the bees they depend upon are dying by the millions.
You may have heard about this crisis years ago and filed it away in your mind as probably another hysterical overreaction by environmentalists.
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Not so. The threat is real and present. We all know bees make honey, and are therefore critical to the honey-baked ham and baklava that many of us have recently been enjoying. What everyone may not know is that in the process of making honey, bees pollinate more than 70% of the world’s most common crops, from fruits and nuts to the alfalfa eaten by dairy cows.
All told, bees are responsible for one in three forkfuls of the foods we love , from pumpkin pie and cheesecake to collards and Brussels sprouts; from chocolate and coffee to apples and strawberries. And here in New York, bees pollinate more than $300 million worth of crops such as apples, grapes and pumpkins.
But across the world, bees are dying at unprecedented rates, and beekeepers, farmers and scientists are sounding the alarm. U.S. bee populations have reached historic lows, and we’re losing nearly a third of our bee colonies each year — a rate that more than triples what was once considered normal.
Scientists point to a complex web of factors, including climate change and habitat destruction, to explain the massive collapse of colonies here and across the world.
But a certain class of insecticides, used on three-quarters of U.S. farms each year — and on about 140 different crops, including corn, canola and soy — has emerged as a clear culprit in the dieoff.
Sharing the same chemical properties as nicotine, neonicotinoids are neurotoxins that can kill bees off directly. These chemicals can also disorient bees and make it harder for them to pollinate and get back to their hives.
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We need more bees
The insecticides may actually be addictive to bees, just like nicotine in tobacco is addictive to humans. Bees have been shown to actually prefer food sources treated with these pesticides to natural alternatives like sugar water.
Numerous lab studies have shown that these pesticides are a danger to bees, and last month the journal Nature published the first study to establish a direct causal link between neonic exposure and bees’ ability to do their job as pollinators.
By one estimate, these chemicals are 6,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT, which was banned in the United States in the 1970s over concerns that the common pesticide was poisoning wildlife and the environment, and endangering human health.
Based on this mounting science indicating the danger of neonics, the European Union has already banned the three most widely used neonicotinoids.
There’s been no equivalently bold action here, as pesticide manufacturers have managed to derail regulatory efforts.
The fact that our government is failing doesn’t mean the rest of us are powerless.
Major garden retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot are already beginning to phase out the sales of neonics and plants treated with them. Some grocers like Whole Foods are beginning to label appropriate foods “bee friendly.” And some U.S. cities and states are limiting the use of neonicotinoids.
As consumers, we can plant gardens full of native, flowering herbs and vegetables, and decline to use bee-killing pesticides. As chefs, we can use produce grown on bee-friendly farms and use our menus to educate customers.
As citizens, we can and must pressure our leaders to get far, far tougher on a chemical that is imperiling the very future of an insect that is vital to the food we eat.
Leibowitz is director of Environment New York.