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Half a billion bees dead as Brazil approves hundreds more pesticides

The pesticides most blamed for destroying bee colonies in Brazil are banned in the European Union. Image by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay

  • Exposure to pesticides containing neonicotinoids and fipronil caused the deaths of more than 500 million bees in four Brazilian states between December 2018 and February 2019, according to an investigation by Agência Pública and Repórter Brasil.
  • Both classes of chemicals are banned in the European Union, but the Brazilian government under President Jair Bolsonaro is clearing the way for their widespread use.
  • With 290 pesticide products approved for use since the start of the year, beekeepers are bracing for an increase in beneficial insect die-off.
  • The real toll on bees from pesticide use is likely much larger, given that no one knows how many wild bees have been impacted by indiscriminate spraying, including in areas beyond plantation borders.

This story is part of the Por trás do alimento (Behind the Food) project, a reporting collaboration between Agência Pública and Repórter Brasil to investigate the use of pesticides. Click to read more on the project’s website. This English adaptation for Mongabay was published first in Portuguese here.

Last century, Albert Einstein predicted that if bees disappeared off the face of the Earth, humans would only have four years left to live. The death of these insects on a large scale, seen as apocalyptic at the time, now constitutes a real warning for humanity.

Between December 2018 and February 2019, more than 500 million bees were found dead by beekeepers in four Brazilian states, according to a survey carried out by investigative reporting outlets Agência Pública and Repórter Brasil. The main cause, according to experts and laboratory analysis, is exposure to pesticides containing neonicotinoids and fipronil, both of which have been banned in Europe because of the threat they pose to bees.

While the figure is alarming, the situation is likely to worsen due to the 290 new pesticide product registrations authorized since far-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January. On July 22, the Bolsonaro administration approved the use of six pesticide products based on Sulfoxaflor, an insecticide known to be highly toxic to pollinators such as bees. These pesticides, authorized for distribution by the Dow Chemical Company, will be used on cotton, tomatoes, wheat, beans, melon, watermelon, soybean and citrus crops starting in October. Beekeepers say they fear the number of dead bees will be even higher from 2020 onward as a consequence of the use of these new pesticides.

Bees are the main pollinators in the majority of ecosystems on the planet. Flying from flower to flower, they pollinate and promote the reproduction of various species of plants. In Brazil, approximately 60 percent of the 141 crops grown for human and animal consumption depend to some extent on pollination by bees, according to a report from BPBES, a platform focused on biodiversity and ecosystems run by independent scientists. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 75 percent of crops used for global human consumption depend on bees.

Incidences of bee deaths and disappearances have been observed in the United States and Europe since the beginning of the 21st century. In Brazil, studies began to draw attention with alarming die off episodes in 2005.

There are no official bee death figures for Brazil, according to IBAMA, the country’s environmental regulatory agency. The numbers reported here were collected from beekeeping associations, organizations linked to state agriculture departments, and university studies.

With 400 million dead bees, the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul — Brazil’s largest honey producer —  accounted for 80 percent of the recent die-off, according to these sources. The state produces 6,000 tons of honey per harvest, approximately 15 percent of the country’s production.

The impact of pesticides on pollinators such as bees has prompted IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, to reassess the licensing of four active ingredients. Image by Image by PollyDot via Pixabay.

The impact of pesticides on pollinators such as bees has prompted IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, to reassess the licensing of four active ingredients. Image by Image by PollyDot via Pixabay.The second-largest number of recorded bee deaths was in the southern state of Santa Catarina, with 50 million deaths, followed by central-western Mato Grosso do Sul (45 million) and southeastern São Paulo state (7 million).

In Cruz Alta, a municipality of 60,000 inhabitants in Rio Grande do Sul, more than 20 percent of all beehives were lost between December 2018 and February 2019, with almost 100 million bees found dead, according to the Beekeepers Association of Cruz Alta (Apicruz). “[The farmers] started using some very strong chemicals. They were sprayed from airplanes in the morning, and in the afternoon the bees were found dead already,” said beekeeper Salvador Gonçalves, president of Apicruz.

The numbers and mortality rates may be even worse among wild bees, but these species are not maintained by beekeepers, so are unknown.

There are about 16,000 species of bees in the world, more than 300 of them native to Brazil, according to IBAMA. Each species tends to pollinate specific plants. Bumblebees, for example, commonly known in Brazil as abelhão, are the main pollinators of passion fruit. “What would happen if this insect went extinct? We would either stop eating this fruit or it would become very expensive, because in order to produce it, pollination would have to be carried out by hand,” said Carmen Pires, an insect ecologist and researcher at Embrapa, the national agricultural research body.

Even among crops that don’t depend directly on pollinators, the presence of bees increases productivity, Pires said. “In soya farming, for example, we can see an 18 percent increase in production. We also need to draw attention to the knock-on effect. Plants need bees to produce seeds and fruit, which are consumed by birds, that in turn are important for the diet of other animals. Bee deaths affect the whole food chain,” she said.

Dead bees since December 2018/400 million/50 million/45 million/7 million/ Source: Estimates by beekeeping associations, agricultural departments and studies carried out by universities.

The primary suspects

One of the worst culprits identified by experts and analysis in the recent bee die-off is the neonicotinoid class of insecticides, derived from nicotine and including the widely used pesticides clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. They can spread to all parts of the plant, from flowers, stems and roots, to even the nectar and pollen, and are used on a range of crops, including cotton, corn, soy, rice and potatoes.

Another factor in the bee deaths is the use of pesticides containing fipronil, which, like neonicotinoids, targets insects’ nervous systems. They’re often applied by aerial spraying to crops such as apples, soybeans and sunflowers; according to a study carried out in 2004 by Embrapa, a government agency focused on farm research, 19 percent of pesticides applied by aerial spraying are dispersed to areas outside of the targeted region.

Even among crops that don’t depend directly on pollinators, the presence of bees increases productivity, Pires said. “In soya farming, for example, we can see an 18 percent increase in production. We also need to draw attention to the knock-on effect. Plants need bees to produce seeds and fruit, which are consumed by birds, that in turn are important for the diet of other animals. Bee deaths affect the whole food chain,” she said.

Challenging proof

Deaths of whole bee colonies, with some hives containing up to 100,000 bees, have become more frequent in the past decade in Brazil, without evidence of any disease to explain such high mortality rates, said Aroni Sattler, an agronomist and professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, who has researched bee health since 1973.

Last year, Sattler led a study into 30 cases of significant bee colony losses in Rio Grande do Sul, at the request of Bioensaios, a private laboratory. The results showed that about 80 percent of bees had ingested or been exposed to fipronil. “Farmers in the region were mixing fipronil in a tank with desiccants and applying these during soil preparation, the growing season and harvesting,” he said, adding that the chemical was “particularly toxic for them.”

Sattler warns that there is an even bigger risk posed to wild bees, since it’s challenging to know how many of them are dying due to the use of pesticides and who’s responsible for its application. “The impact of these pesticides reaches as far as 3 to 5 kilometers [2 to 3 miles] from the crops. Everything in the surrounding area disappears,” he said.

“Some mortalities occur because the farmers are using pesticides incorrectly. Sometimes, out of ignorance, farmers even think that bees damage the crop and so they apply pesticides to get rid of them.”

Aldo Machado, coordinator of the apiculture program at the agricultural department of Rio Grande do Sul, said there needs to be greater awareness regarding the use of pesticides. “We need agronomists to go out in the fields to observe applications, to see if they are being carried out according to instructions,” he said.

The number of beekeepers in Cruz Alta has fallen by half in the past decade, according to the president of the municipal beekeepers’ association, Salvador Gonçalves. Loss of harvest as a result of dwindling bee colonies is the main cause. Image by Pedro Grigori/Agência Pública.

Machado also highlighted the importance of filing complaints with environmental and agricultural watchdogs at both state and municipal levels, in addition to environmental and civil police departments, to drive government action. “Beekeepers must overcome their fear of making complaints. Two years ago, after a surge of cases in Rio Grande do Sul, we carried out a survey and found only two records of complaints. We knew that more incidents were taking place, but the government won’t take them into account without official records,” he said.

But even in cases where there’s been a report filed to prove the relationship between pesticides and bee deaths, it’s difficult to establish who’s responsible, Machado added. “In many cases, several producers use the pesticide, so it is difficult to identify who is responsible for each specific case.”

According to a federal law, each state is responsible for monitoring pesticide use. Under separate legislation, bee deaths could potentially be framed as an environmental crime.

According to IBAMA, it’s very difficult to prove that the deaths are a result of pesticide use that’s in violation of authorized instructions. “When it can be proved that [a pesticide] was used in a place it shouldn’t be, in incorrect quantities, at the wrong time, using incorrect equipment and causing mortality, then, by law, it is classified as an environmental crime,” IBAMA said in a statement.

Working together to protect bees and agriculture

Laboratory tests indicate that contact with pesticides was the cause of death of bees in the state of São Paulo, where as much as 3,700 tons of honey, almost 10 percent of the country’s total production, is collected at each harvest.

Between 2014 and 2017, a study conducted by São Paulo State University (Unesp) and the Federal University of São Carlos (UFScar) mapped the factors contributing to loss of bee colonies in 78 cities where approximately 255 million bees died during the period.

The project, named Colmeia Viva, or Living Hive, and funded by pesticide-producing companies, had a toll-free number that beekeepers could call to file a complaint when bees died. “After carrying out an analysis, we gave a report, which was public, to each beekeeper. They could then use it to take action in court,” said Osmar Malaspina, a professor and researcher at Unesp.

The Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office is investigating bee deaths in four states and the federal district. Image by Image by PollyDot via Pixabay.

The Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office is investigating bee deaths in four states and the federal district. Image by Image by PollyDot via Pixabay.The mapping report was released in 2018, with recommendations to create a national action plan for good practices regarding the application of pesticides, aiming to maintain a productive relationship between agriculture and beekeeping without undermining either.

During the project, 88 field visits were made to collect bees for analysis; 59 cases tested positive for pesticide residues. In 27 cases it was found that pesticides were applied outside of plantation areas, in locations where the affected hives were found.

The initiative also carried out educational work with farmers, showing them best practices for applying pesticides to minimize impacts on bees. “We have noticed a drop in mortality, but we still have to wait a few years to carry out a new study that can confirm this and tell us why,” Malaspina said.

Battle to curb pesticide misuse in Brazil

In 2012, in response to cases of bee mortality, IBAMA began to reassess several of the chemicals extensively used on plantations. The first of these was the neonicotinoid imidacloprid, the most frequently used of the plantation pesticide group. On July 19 of that year, IBAMA banned the aerial spraying of imidacloprid and determined that all products containing the pesticide should have a warning printed on the packaging saying that the product is toxic to bees. However, the Ministry of Agriculture said the aerial application of imidacloprid was necessary for certain crops; three months later, aerial spraying was once again authorized for rice, sugarcane, soy, wheat and cotton crops.

In 2015, IBAMA created a technical working group to come up with a compulsory risk assessment concerning the impact of pesticides on bees. To date, however, it’s still not clear when the assessment will be released. In Rio Grande do Sul, a public civil lawsuit was filed in federal court in October 2017 against IBAMA to compel the agency to conclude its risk assessment within six months. The case is still being heard.

That’s not the only lawsuit arising out of the nexus of bee deaths and pesticide use. In Mato Grosso do Sul, the Association of Honey Producers of Dourados filed a petition in March 2018 requesting prosecutors investigate the deaths of bees. The association said beekeepers’ income and production had decreased due to the die-offs, which they blamed on “the indiscriminate and inappropriate use of pesticides on plantations of sugarcane, soybeans, corn, rice and other crops.” The Federal Prosecutor’s Office of Mato Grosso do Sul is currently deciding whether it will file its own proceedings on the complaint.

More bee protections needed

Globally, a growing number of governments are taking steps to save bees from the threat posed by pesticides. Fipronil was partially banned in the European Union in 2013, and since 2017 has effectively been fully prohibited there after its approval for use expired. Prior to that, it was banned in France in 2004, following complaints after almost 40 percent of insects in French apiaries were found dead. In 2013, licenses to use neonicotinoids were suspended for two years, and in 2018 they were banned permanently.

The United States is also moving slowly in this direction. In 2013, a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that almost a third of honeybees in the country had died in the winter of 2012 and 2013. The following year, President Barack Obama banned the use of neonicotinoids in wildlife refuges. In August 2018, however, President Donald Trump overturned such ban.

Bees aren’t nature’s only pollinating agents — birds, bats, squirrels, beetles and various other species also contribute to plant reproduction — but the large number and variety of bees mean that they play an out-sized role in pollination. With that in mind, May 20 was declared World Bee Day, shining a light on the importance of these insects to global food supplies and human wellbeing.

An International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management was also set up by the FAO, together with the World Health Organization (WHO). But without a reduction in the use of pesticides, bees will continue to be at risk. “We cannot continue to focus on increasing production and productivity based on the widespread use of pesticides and chemicals that are threatening crops and pollinators,” said José Graziano da Silva, the FAO director-general in a news release.

Banner image caption: The pesticides most blamed for destroying bee colonies in Brazil are banned in the European Union. Image by Image by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay.


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