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Thanksgiving Buzz: Pesticides Linked To Diminished Bee Health


Changes in the environment can affect what is available for us to eat. My colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with Allison Aubrey about a little-noticed factor in our food supply that affects what will be available for Thanksgiving dinner.


ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what is this factor?

AUBREY: Well, bees - we're talking about bees. It's been a pretty rough year for beekeepers. The latest survey data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds that beekeepers lost 42 percent of their hives last year.

INSKEEP: OK, so when I think bees, I think honey. I think flowers. I think pollination. But I don't necessarily think about these things that you've brought here today.

AUBREY: Right.

INSKEEP: You've got a pumpkin pie here.

AUBREY: That's right. Well, it turns out the bees pollinate a bunch of the foods on our holiday table. So I have got here some cranberries, some squash, Brussels sprouts - a little browned here. Right next to you, Steve, there is a beautiful pumpkin pie.

INSKEEP: Oh, you bet.

AUBREY: Yeah, so one thing that all of these foods have in common is that they come from crops that are pollinated by bees or other wild pollinators. And it's estimated that 1 in 3 bites of food we take, not just on Thanksgiving but year-round, come from crops that are pollinated most frequently by honeybees. All...

INSKEEP: I'm sure that you're saying interesting things, Allison, but I'm thinking about the fact...

AUBREY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: That there's a pumpkin pie right here, and I don't have a fork or a knife or anything.

AUBREY: All right. We'll get to that, Steve. I have that for you. I'm going to warm it up for you later. But when farmers think about this, they see dollar signs. I mean, all this pollination increases crop values by $15 billion a year.

INSKEEP: And the populations of bees in many parts of the country are crashing. What's happening?

AUBREY: Well, there are a lot of factors involved here, a loss of habitat, for instance. Bees don't have enough places to forage for nectar and pollen. The government has created a task force to evaluate the problem. And earlier this year, they concluded that a lot of things are at play. For instance, mites - in particular, a mite called the varroa mite - are making bees more vulnerable. And another issue is the use of pesticides, in particular, a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. It's a mouthful. They are now among the most commonly used pesticides. And there's a concern about a potential overuse here. In fact, the president's task force has called on the EPA to do an expedited review.

INSKEEP: So an effort to improve one kind of agriculture is destroying another kind of agriculture.

AUBREY: Well, there's some folks who would argue that. And if you look at the science that's been accumulating, over the last few years, there have been multiple studies published showing that while the levels of pesticides that bees are being exposed to is not killing them, it's harming them. One study, for instance, published in Science, found that honeybees exposed to these neonic pesticides seemed less able to navigate. And some never found their way back to their hives. So they were confused, if you will. And last month, in a study of honeybee queens, scientists found that their reproductive anatomy and physiology were compromised.

INSKEEP: What do the pesticide companies say about this?

AUBREY: Well, the companies that make these pesticides say they're not convinced by a lot of these studies. They've supported their own research that, in several instances, finds the bees are not being harmed by the neonic. So, you know, so it's hard to find a consensus here. But I should add that some countries aren't waiting around for a consensus. Earlier this year, in Canada, Ontario put new rules into place with the aim of cutting way back on the use of these neonic pesticides.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. And she's going to have a report on the PBS "NewsHour" tonight, looking in depth at the plight of bees. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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