75 Percent of Honey Contaminated With Pesticides
Story at-a-glance –
- In a sampling of honey collected around the world, the majority of samples were found to be contaminated with neonicotinoid pesticides
- Nearly 200 honey samples were tested, with neonicotinoids found in 75 percent of them
- Forty-five percent of the samples contained two or more of the pesticides, while 10 percent contained four or five
- In separate research, queen bees exposed to neonicotinoids were 26 percent less likely to lay eggs
By Dr. Mercola
The process of bees turning flower nectar into honey is one of the marvels of nature. After sucking the nectar from a flower, a honeybee stores the sweet juice in her stomach, carrying an amount close to her own weight, back to the hive. There, she delivers the nectar to an indoor bee, and it is passed from one bee to the next, mouth-to-mouth, until its moisture content reduces to about 20 percent, forming honey.
Other times, the nectar may be stored in honeycomb cells before the bee-to-bee moisture-reducing process, as the storage process helps to jumpstart the evaporation. Once the honey is created, bees store it in cells capped with beeswax to feed newborn and adult bees.1
Humans have also developed a taste for the sweet, sticky treat, which is often regarded as one of the purest sweeteners available. However, recent research has revealed that honey is contaminated with neonicotinoid pesticides, with concerning ramifications for bees and humans alike.
Honey Contaminated With Neonicotinoid Pesticides
In a sampling of honey collected around the world, the majority of samples were found to be contaminated with neonicotinoid pesticides, including acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam. Nearly 200 honey samples were tested, with neonicotinoids found in 75 percent of them. Forty-five percent of the samples contained two or more of the pesticides, while 10 percent contained four or five.2
“The fact that 45 percent of our samples showed multiple contaminations is worrying and indicates that bee populations throughout the world are exposed to a cocktail of neonicotinoids,” the researchers wrote. “The effects of exposure to multiple pesticides, which have only recently started to be explored, are suspected to be stronger than the sum of individual effects.”3
Broken down by continent, 86 percent of North American samples contained neonicotinoids, along with 80 percent from Asia, 79 percent from Europe and 57 percent from South America.4 While the levels of pesticides detected were supposedly safe for human consumption, nearly half of the samples contained concentrations known to harm bees.5
Even the researchers were shocked by the prevalence of the bee-harming pesticides. Lead study author Edward Mitchell, a soil biologist at Switzerland’s University of Neuchatel, told The Globe and Mail, “It just shows us that they are used almost everywhere in the world. It’s really amazing … Bees, by collecting nectar up to 10 or 12 kilometers (6.2 to 7.45 miles) around the hive, they really are good sensors of contamination of pesticides in the environment.”6
What Happens to Bees Exposed to Neonicotinoids?
Neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides on the planet, the researchers noted. As systemic pesticides, the chemicals are taken up by the plants and contaminate flowers, nectar and pollen. “Neonicotinoids are suspected to pose an unacceptable risk to bees, partly because of their systemic uptake in plants, and the European Union has therefore introduced a moratorium on three neonicotinoids as seed coatings in flowering crops that attract bees,” a separate study published in Nature revealed in 2015.7
However, the majority of soybean, corn, canola and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are precoated with neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics). The chemicals persist and accumulate in soils, and since they’re water-soluble they leach into waterways where other types of wildlife may be affected. Adding insult to injury, according to an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids provides no significant financial or agricultural benefits for farmers.8
Yet, the practice continues, even as neonicotinoids have been blamed for declines in pollinators in the U.S. and elsewhere. Neonicotinoids affect insects’ central nervous systems in ways that are cumulative and irreversible. Even minute amounts can have profound effects over time. One of the observed effects of these insecticides is weakening of the bee’s immune system, allowing them to fall prey to secondary, seemingly “natural” bee infections, such as parasites, mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria.
While the effects of different neonicotinoids have long been regarded as interchangeable, each may actually affect bees differently. Bayer’s imidacloprid was found to cut the number of egg-containing brood cells by 46 percent, for instance, while Syngenta’s thiamethoxam decreased the number of live bees by 38 percent.9
Clothianidin, another neonicotinoid made by Bayer, had a curious effect of increasing the number of queens produced, which the researchers noted could potentially backfire if, “say, all those queens turned out to be infertile.”10 Lead researcher Christopher Connolly, Ph.D., of the University of Dundee, told the Guardian, “I think there is sufficient evidence for a ban on imidacloprid and thiamethoxam … “11
Exposure to Neonics in Wild Queen Bees ‘Increases Probability of Population Extinction’
Much of the research surrounding neonicotinoids surrounds commercially bred honeybees and bumblebees, but wild bees are also at risk. One study involved 18 years of U.K. wild bee distribution data for 62 species, which were compared to amounts of neonicotinoid use in oilseed rape, a crop grown to produce canola oil. The researchers found evidence of increased wild bee population extinction rates in response to neonicotinoid seed treatment.
While bees that forage on oilseed rape have historically benefited from its availability, according to the researchers, once the crops are treated with neonicotinoids (as up to 85 percent of England’s oilseed rape crops are) they have detrimental impacts on the bees. In fact, wild foraging bees were three times more likely to be negatively affected by exposure to neonicotinoids than non-crop foragers. Overall, about 50 percent of the total decline in wild bees was linked to the pesticides.12
In another study, researchers fed queen bees a syrup containing neonicotinoids (thiamethoxam) in an amount similar to what would be found in neonic-treated canola fields. Queens exposed to the chemical were 26 percent less likely to lay eggs.13 According to the study, which was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the finding is an ominous warning for the future of bees:14
“Modelling the impacts of a 26 percent reduction in colony founding on population dynamics dramatically increased the likelihood of population extinction. This shows that neonicotinoids can affect this critical stage in the bumblebee lifecycle and may have significant impacts on population dynamics.”
Honey Is Also Contaminated With Glyphosate
Research by a U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) chemist and a colleague from the University of Iowa revealed glyphosate residues of 653 parts per billion (ppb) in some honey samples — an amount that’s more than 10 times the European limit of 50 ppb.15 Other samples contained residues ranging from 20 ppb to 123 ppb. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s widely used RoundUp pesticide.
Bees, as pollinators, travel from plant to plant. With grasslands being increasingly converted into genetically engineered (GE) corn and soybean fields where glyphosate is amply sprayed, it’s easy for them to become contaminated and then transfer that contamination to their honey. Research published in the journal Nature Communications has similarly revealed that pollen collected next to corn fields is contaminated with up to 32 different pesticides.16
At this point, the effects of these chemical exposures on bees is unknown, but common sense would indicate that they can’t be good. In addition to neonics, for instance, glyphosate has been implicated as being at least partly responsible for bee die-offs. In many cases of bee die-offs, the bees become disoriented, suggesting endocrine hormone disruption.
Glyphosate is a very strong endocrine hormone disruptor. GMO expert Don Huber, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University, also cited a study on glyphosate in drinking water at levels that are commonly found in U.S. water systems, showing 30 percent mortality in bees exposed to it.
Syngenta Defends Neonicotinoids
The European Union is considering a permanent ban on neonicotinoids to protect pollinators, but Syngenta is speaking out in their favor, calling pesticides only a “very minor element” in declining bee health and claiming that neonics have been singled out among them. Their rhetoric isn’t surprising, especially considering that insecticides accounted for nearly 13 percent of their revenue in 2016.17
Yet, as the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit wildlife conservation group, explains, “Avoiding pesticide use is the best option for conserving pollinators. Most insecticides (and a handful of fungicides and herbicides) can kill bees directly or have sublethal effects that reduce the number of offspring a female bee can produce.” They also recommend alternatives to pesticides as an important step in pollinator conservation:18
“A plant that is growing vigorously, with minimal stress, can avoid or outgrow many diseases and insect pests … It is also important to recognize and work with naturally occurring pest controls (beneficial insects that prey upon pests). A healthy and diverse landscape with sufficient natural habitat can support large numbers of native predators and/or parasites of insect pests.
Pesticides may eliminate these beneficial insects where they are used, leading to chronic pest problems. Fortunately, many of the same strategies that protect pollinators will support these other native beneficial insects, further reducing the need for pest control. For farms, maximizing crop diversity and practicing crop rotation to disrupt pest populations are some basic strategies to reduce pest problems.”
Playing a Part in Protecting Pollinators
As for honey, at this time there’s no easy way to know whether the variety you buy is contaminated with pesticides, but if the featured study is any indication, there’s a good chance it is. Of even greater concern, however, is the preservation of pollinators as a whole, as they’re essential to the growth of at least 30 percent of the world’s food crops.19
To avoid harming bees and other helpful pollinators that visit your garden, swap out toxic pesticide and lawn chemicals for organic weed and pest control alternatives. But be aware that even some organic formulations can be harmful to beneficial insects, so be sure to vet your products carefully. The Xerces Society explains:20
“Pyrethrin, and spinosad, are both common pesticides in organic farming, and are broad-spectrum insect killers, destroying pest and beneficial species alike. Other organic-approved products are safer to use as long as they are not applied where pollinators are actively foraging or nesting. Less toxic pesticides include horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps.”
Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant an edible organic garden. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide good honeybee habitats. It’s also recommended to keep a small basin of fresh water in your garden or backyard, as bees do get thirsty. In addition, you’ll want to grow your own pollinator-friendly plants from organic, untreated seeds. If you opt to purchase starter plants, make sure to ask whether or not they’ve been pre-treated with pesticides.
Keep in mind that you also help protect the welfare of all pollinators every time you shop organic and grass fed, as you are actually “voting” for less pesticides and herbicides with every organic and pastured food and consumer product you buy. The video above, from the Pesticide Research Institute (PRI), gives examples of 12 pollinator-friendly plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen to add to your garden.
- 1 Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, How Bees Make Honey
- 2, 3 Science October 6, 2017
- 4 Science News October 5, 2017
- 5, 6 The Globe and Mail October 5, 2017
- 7 Nature. 2015 May 7;521(7550):77-80.
- 8 EPA Memorandum October 15, 2014 (PDF)
- 9, 11 The Guardian April 28, 2016
- 10 Scientific Reports April 28, 2016
- 12 BBC News August 16, 2016
- 13 NPR August 14, 2017
- 14 Nature Ecology & Evolution August 14, 2017
- 15 Research Gate June 2016
- 16 Nature Communications May 31, 2016
- 17 Bloomberg July 13, 2017
- 18, 20 Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Managing Pesticides to Protect Bees
- 19 NRDC, Bees