Roughly one-third of the foods we eat depend on bee pollination, which makes the news of colony collapse disorder devastating bees around the world a serious concern for farmers and beekeepers.
The disappearance of bees has spawned many theories to explain the mystery, including viruses, parasitic mites and lack of food. But the most prevalent theory has centered on pesticide exposure.
In recent months, the pesticide theory received added credence. First, a leaked Environmental Protection Agency memo turned up in December expressing concerns about the affects of Bayer CropScience's pesticide clothianidin on bees.
The next month, the United Kingdom's Independent newspaper reported on a soon-to-be-published report from Jeffrey Pettis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's lead bee researcher, linking another Bayer pesticide, this time imidacloprid, to colony collapse disorder. His research shows that bees' immune systems are weakened and they become more susceptible to disease when exposed to even miniscule amounts of imidacloprid.
Both imidacloprid and clothianidin are part of the neonicotinoid class of chemicals, which are neurotoxins with a structure similar to nicotine.
"While there haven't been any documented cases of colony collapse disorder in Maine, we've definitely been experiencing higher-than-expected losses," said Erin MacGregor-Forbes, president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association.
MacGregor-Forbes said that in Maine, the threat from these pesticides comes from homeowners rather than large-scale agricultural operations.
"A lot of people in Maine use them in the form of Japanese beetle killers, grub killers and weed and feed products," she said. "Spraying flowering plants with any kind of chemical is going to kill bees, it's going to kill moths and many other beneficial insects.
"Last year, it was impossible to go to Home Depot and buy a lawn fertilizer that didn't contain these chemicals. From the Maine Beekeepers Association point of view, the message is that people need to move toward organics."
Roundup Ready Alfalfa
Despite ongoing issues with genetically modified crops contaminating neighboring fields, a variety of bans on GMOs around the world, a lack of independent research on the safety of GMO crops and a sharp decline in GMO crop cultivation in Europe, the Obama administration bowed to well-heeled special interests and recently approved Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa for unrestricted use.
This transgenic version of alfalfa allows it to survive being sprayed with Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, which has been linked to reproductive disorders in independent studies. Other previously approved Roundup Ready crops (such as corn, soybeans and cotton) have caused a huge jump in the amount of this herbicide applied to U.S. crop land.
Alfalfa is the third-largest commodity crop cultivated across the nation, and is most commonly used as feed for dairy cows.
The cross-contamination issue is sure to affect organic dairy farmers, because alfalfa is pollinated by bees who don't discriminate between normal alfalfa plants and those that have been genetically modified. This means that many organic alfalfa fields and seed crops will likely become contaminated with GMO strains.
Organic certifications prohibit the use of GMO crops as feed, and so such contamination has the potential to adversely affect these farmers.
"If you're buying seed and you want a non-GE seed, it's going to be harder and harder to find that," said Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
However, Libby pointed out that alfalfa doesn't grow well in Maine, so most dairy farmers – both organic and conventional – grow red clover mixes instead.
Libby said people who produce their own organic alfalfa sprouts or purchase them in the grocery store will be the first to be affected by Roundup Ready alfalfa.
"That's where the biggest impact in Maine is going to be in the short term," he said.