New studies are linking a common pesticide to colony collapse disorder, the crisis destroying bees and threatening crops around the world. Reading the recent coverage, though, I had to wonder if we should be worried about more than insects and agriculture. The reports said that bees took in the pesticides, neonicotinoids, in part from eating high-fructose corn syrup that they were fed as a dietary supplement by beekeepers.
This would be the same corn syrup that’s ubiquitous in our modern human diet. If the pesticides are present in the corn syrup, and contributing to the bee die-off, should we worry about what it’s doing to us?
I did a quick check-in with two experts — Marion Nestle, the frank, reliable, scientifically grounded nutrition professor at New York University, and Rowan Jacobsen, a noted food and environmental writer and author of “Fruitless Fall,” a fascinating study of colony collapse disorder.
I wanted to know, were we already aware that there could be pesticides in our corn syrup? (Bayer, the manufacturer of the pesticide, told Wired they found no discernible traces of it in high-fructose corn syrup; researchers in the Harvard School of Health study said it’s there.) Is this a problem for humans, even though neonicotinoids are less toxic to mammals than insects? Should we have a definitive answer on whether trace pesticides are in such a common ingredient?
“Pesticides and other toxic chemicals are in everything. Everything,” Nestle wrote back.
“Are they harmful? Could be. How harmful? We don’t have the science. It’s too hard to do meaningful studies on low-dose chemicals. All we have are suggestions.”
From Jacobsen’s standpoint, mammals don’t need to worry about the neonicotinoids, “since our nervous systems function quite differently from those of insects.” He also didn’t think much of the new Harvard study, saying researchers exposed bees to levels of pesticides that were far beyond what they would be exposed to under normal field conditions, making their demise no surprise.
“If anything, the amazing thing is that the bees (in the study) lived as long as they did!” he wrote. Also, areas where colony collapse have occurred don’t correlate with areas with high use of the neonicotinoids, so he thinks the jury is still out on the level of their culpability.
I found that somewhat reassuring… until his conclusion.
“Still, low levels of neonics and many other pesticides are ubiquitous in the environment, interacting in all sorts of ways we can’t predict, meaning that a vast, uncontrolled experiment on us and all our ecosystems is under way.
“We’ll find out the results in a decade or two.”
Photo: Russ McDonnell/Fastnet Films, of the movie “Colony“