(Beyond Pesticides, June 22, 2023) Since the early twentieth century, ‘migratory’ beekeepers have provided a critical service to U.S. agriculture by moving their hives seasonally to pollinate a variety of crops. Annually, commercial beekeeping adds between $15 and $20 billion in economic value to agriculture, which is a major industry in the United States, with 21.1 million full- and part-time jobs related to the agricultural and food sectors—10.5 percent of total U.S. employment.
Before insects and pollinators like bees evolved to pollinate, pollination occurred through the wind, scattering the pollen from the plants and landing on other flowers that could reproduce. However, commercial pollination services contribute to increased yields. Without commercial pollination, food prices would rise, the farm sector would suffer globally, and the security and variety of the food supply would diminish. With the wild insect pollinator populations already in serious decline, commercial, migratory beekeeping is more than ever a vital piece of the agricultural economy. With pollinator decline, as an integral part of worldwide biodiversity collapse and the “insect apocalypse,” commercial beekeepers face collapse as well.
The United Nations states that 80 percent of the 115 top global food crops depend on insect pollination, with one-third of all U.S. crops depending on pollinators, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Honey bees alone pollinate 95 kinds of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, such as apples, avocados, almonds, and cranberries. However, research finds that many insect populations, including managed and wild pollinators, are collapsing. A systematic review of insect population decline studies published in 2019 found that 41% of insect species worldwide are declining. The declines of butterflies, wild bumblebees, and honey bees have links to hazardous pesticide use in chemical-intensive agricultural systems. Since 1990, roughly a quarter of the global insect population has been vanishing, according to research published in Science. This research finds worldwide trends in declines in terrestrial insect biomass to be nearly 1% each year (~9% each decade). Despite habitat fragmentation and climate change, extensive use of pesticides, like neonicotinoids, sulfoxaflor, pyrethroids, fipronil, and organophosphates, increase the potential risk and indiscriminate threat to all insects.
Most animals on Earth are insects, who play a significant role in sustaining the ecosystem, despite their size. For instance, butterflies are also known to be excellent indicators of ecosystem health, so if an environment has ample butterflies, it is reasonably robust. Insects found in nature preserves are consistently contaminated with over a dozen pesticides, calling into question the ability of these areas to function as refuges for threatened and endangered species. Research shows that residues from neonicotinoid insecticides (including seed treatments) and sulfoxaflor accumulate and translocate to pollen and nectar of treated plants. Pyrethroids and fipronil impair bee learning, development, and behavioral function, reducing survivability and colony fitness. However, inert ingredients in these products cause similar or more severe impacts on insect populations, such as disruption in bee learning behavior through exposure to low doses of surfactants. With the global reliance on pollinator-dependent crops increasing over the past decades, a lack of pollinators threatens food security and stability for current and future generations.
Without pollinators, many plant species, both agricultural and nonagricultural, will decline or cease to exist as U.S. pollinator declines, particularly among native wild bees, limits crop yields. In turn, the economy will take a hit, as much of the economy (65%) depends upon the strength of the agricultural sector. The agricultural industry relies on insect pollinators for plant pollination and crop productivity. The journal Science reported on a study of cotton pollination, showing that the services of butterflies and hoverflies add approximately $120 million annually to the $1.8 billion cotton industry in Texas. Globally, the production of crops dependent on pollinators is worth between $253 and $577 billion yearly. And a study in Environmental Health Perspectives finds that resulting from the loss of pollinators, “3%–5% of fruit, vegetable, and nut production is lost due to inadequate pollination, leading to an estimated 427,000 (95% uncertainty interval: 86,000-691,000) excess deaths annually from lost healthy food consumption and associated diseases.” That study also finds the economic value of crops to be “12%–31% lower than if pollinators were abundant.” Hence, pesticide use fails to support sustainability goals, decreasing agricultural and economic productivity and social (human/animal) and environmental well-being.
In regard to human health, studies show that pollinator declines will result in increased malnutrition from lost micronutrient consumption, and nutrient deficiencies. Over the past decades, pollinator losses have resulted in a shocking 427,000 excess deaths each year, primarily from chronic disease. Interestingly, it is middle- and high-income countries where these excess deaths are most pronounced. According to the study, 1% of total annual mortality in upper-middle- and high-income countries can be attributed to loss of pollination. Lower fruit and vegetable intake accounts from 189,000 and 151,000 deaths, respectively, from stroke, heart disease, and cancer, and a reduction in nut consumption is resulting in an estimated 99,000 deaths each year.
Since the threat to pollinator health is widespread, the agricultural industry must adopt practices that conserve and bolster wild bee populations, like planting wildflowers or using alternative managed pollinators to increase crop yields. Because wild bees are economically important, it underscores the importance of economic investments in pollinator conservation efforts. A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B highlights agricultural industry investments in pesticides and fertilizers would be detrimental without confronting the decline of wild pollinators beforehand. After all, these synthetic chemicals lack any real monetary benefits for farmers.
Overall, a decline in pollinators directly affects the environment, society, and the economy. With a reduction in pollinators to help maintain yields, the economic value of the crop is depressed. However, research finds that organic agriculture boosts local economies as green spaces, like community gardens, will expand viable habitats for pollinators and food sources for people. Low-maintenance gardening and the elimination of toxic pesticide (and the adoption of organic land management practices) aid in turning gardens organic, and many plants considered weeds (i.e., dandelions, creeping buttercups) are critical for pollinator survival, especially in urban areas where vegetation is sparser.
A broad transformation of the food system is necessary to change the course of pollinator health. Pollinator protection policies need improvements, not only to safeguard wild pollinators but the crops they pollinate as well.
Beyond Pesticides maintains that we must move beyond pesticide reduction and commit to complete pesticide elimination in our agricultural system to protect and enhance biodiversity and prevent crop loss. Eliminating synthetic pesticide use prevents direct and indirect harm to pollinator populations, human health, and wildlife while eliminating fossil fuels that further the climate crisis and spreading of pests and diseases. With EPA’s failure to take the most basic steps to protect declining pollinators, it is up to concerned residents to engage in state and community action and demand change. These considerations should be part and parcel of every pesticide registered in the U.S., yet the federal government continues to ignore these positive policy proposals. Help bring greater attention to the adverse impacts of dependency on petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers and the need to take climate change seriously in the context of pesticide registrations by sending a letter to EPA, USDA, and Congress today. Learn more about the science and resources behind pesticides’ pollinator impact and take action against the use of pesticides.
Learn more about what you can do to protect wild bees and other pollinators by checking out information on pollinator-friendly landscapes, pollinator-friendly seeds, and organic agriculture. Buying, growing, and supporting organic can help eliminate the extensive use of pesticides in the environment. The government should pass policies that eliminate a broad range of pesticides by promoting organic land care. Organic land management eliminates the need for toxic agricultural pesticides. Particularly, regenerative organic agriculture can nurture soil health through organic carbon sequestration, preventing pests and generating a higher return than chemical-intensive agriculture. For more information on how organic is the right choice for consumers and the farmers and farmworkers who grow our food, see the Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.