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TIME Magazine Envisions a World Without Honeybees

TIME Magazine's cover this week depicts a single bee, its wings flapping in frenzied motion on a stark black background. It forebodingly reads, "A WORLD WITHOUT BEES: THE PRICE WE'LL PAY IF WE DON'T FIGURE OUT WHAT'S KILLING THE HONEYBEE".

The article by Bryan Walsh addresses a disastrous phenomenon that could tumble the basis of our food system: the widespread collapse of honeybee colonies nationwide known as "colony collapse disorder." Honeybees across the nation have been dying at rates unseen in history. To say that the bees are dropping like flies, well, it's an affront to the necessity of bees in our food systems and economy. It's hard to talk about colony collapse disorder and not sound Doomsday-ish. And that's because, as Walsh reveals, one-third of the food on our tables is there because of honeybees, which polinate a wide array of the foods we love and need, and their survival is required to fuel our both our bodies and our economy. Forget about berries, fruits, many vegetables if we fail to address this honeybee crisis.

The article illustrates the stakes—what can happen if we lose even more honeybees: The example Walsh singles out is California's $4 billion almond crop, which could fail, and he calls up a powerful demonstration in which a Whole Foods in Rhode Island removed from its produce section all of the foods that exist because of honeybees: 237 out of 453 food items vanished, reports Walsh.

He then asks the necessary question: What's killing them? The TIME article does some of the usual scientific navel-gazing. Much of the mainstream media coverage around honeybee colony collapse just stops there, with scientists scratching their heads, asking questions and spinning a mystery. But, thankfully, Walsh digs into the role of pesticides in all of it. He reports on the lethal effects on bees of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or "neonics" for short.

Neonics are highly toxic to bees. Science shows that these pesticides could be the reason for the widespread die-off, and if these pesticides aren't killing the bees directly, they are likely causing them to lose their way back to the beehive, so they get lost and starve.

But the problem of pesticides is actually morphing and growing as big industrial chemical companies develop and rush to market numerous new types of pesticide chemicals; and those dangerous, new chemicals and pesticides are also being rubberstamped for approval by the Environment Protection Agency. Earlier this year, the EPA approved another bee-killing pesticide called Sulfoxaflor. Sulfoxaflor is shown to be “highly toxic” to honey bees and other insect pollinators. Sulfoxaflor is a new chemistry and the first of a newly assigned sub-class of pesticides in the “neonicotinoid” class of pesticides, which some scientists have linked as a potential factor to widespread colony collapse.

The doubt some are casting on the role of these toxic chemicals in colony collapse is unconvincing to many beekeepers across the country, who have observed it all first-hand and know the patterns better than anyone. And these beekeepers have seen all they need to see in their struggle to keep their businesses alive and survive financially. They are so concerned with the effects of pesticides on their industry that they have enlisted Earthjustice as their lawyers in taking the last-resort action of suing the EPA for continuing to approve new pesticides without considering impacts to bees. Anything but a litigious crowd, the beekeepers feel there's no other recourse to save their struggling industry.

They say that by approving sulfoxaflor and similar pesticides, or even by providing scant information for farmers about how they should apply the pesticides to protect the honeybees, the EPA is dooming their industry. And they have tried and tried to get EPA to take a close look at the repercussions of these chemicals not only on the beekeeping industry but also on our food systems.

Rick Smith, beekeeper and farmer and Earthjustice client in the lawsuit, when we filed the lawsuit in July, said:

The beekeeping industry has proactively engaged EPA to address concerns for many years. The industry is seriously concerned the comments it submitted during the Sulfoxaflor registration comment period were not adequately addressed before EPA granted full registration.

The sun is now rising on a day where pollinators are no longer plentiful.

Randy Verhoek, President of the Board of the American Honey Producers Association, added:

The bee industry has had to absorb an unreasonable amount of damage in the last decade. Projected losses for our industry this year alone are over $337 million.

Explained Bret Adee, President of the Board of the Pollinator Stewardship Council (formerly National Pollinator Defense Fund):

The EPA is charged with preventing unreasonable risk to our livestock, our livelihoods, and most importantly, the nation’s food supply.

This situation requires an immediate correction from the EPA to ensure the survival of commercial pollinators, native pollinators, and the plentiful supply of seed, fruits, vegetables, and nuts that pollinators make possible.

We got involved in this case because the stakes are tremendously high. As Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer put it:

The effects will be devastating to our nation’s food supply and also to the beekeeping industry, which is struggling because of toxic pesticides.

This lawsuit against the EPA is an attempt by the beekeepers to save their suffering industry. The EPA has failed them.

And the EPA’s failure to adequately consider impacts to pollinators from these new pesticides is wreaking havoc on an important agricultural industry and gives short shrift to the requirements of the law.

Stay with us as we fight to save beekeepers and their bees, our nation's food supplies, and the future of our country, which depends on a sustainable and healthy food system.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.