At Last, an Answer to the Honey Bee Die-Offs?

A new study draws a strong link between colony collapse disorder and an insecticide used on corn.

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Are insecticides responsible for bee population decreases? (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images.)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Ah, humankind and its endless supply of innovations. If only foresight came with all that brain power. 

According to a new study, an attempt to preserve and protect crops may have achieved exactly the opposite. 

Conducted by researchers at the University of Podova in Italy (UPI), the study draws a stronger link between an insecticide used on corn and the sudden die-off of millions of honey bees (also known as colony collapse disorder or CCD), reports MSNBC.

The study—which is one of many focusing on CCD since the sudden uptick in bee deaths in 2006 in the U.S.—focused on a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids gained popularity for their ability to kill insects through nerve paralysis while remaining less toxic to animals. 

No single cause has yet been identified for CCD, though researchers have postulated that other pesticides, tracheal or Varroa mites, the Nosema fungus, and a varity of other viruses could be contributing culprits.

This is not the first time neonicotnoids—which coat kernels to ward off bugs—have been the subject of blame. Their introduction into Europe in 1990 coincided with Europe's sudden loss of springtime bees. Since then, several European countries have banned the pesticide (though the Environmental Protection Agency has said that the decision to ban neonicotinoids in Europe was not connected with CCD.) However, this time, the UPI study focused on the technology used to apply the insecticide.

Scientists suspect that bees could be dying as a result of airborne insecticide, which is expelled in a dense cloud as pneumatic drilling machines forcefully suck seeds in during planting.  

Determing a strong correlation between CCD and neonicotinoids might serve as a canary in the coal mine for human health, but the Italian researchers stopped short of suggesting a ban on the pesticide. Instead, UPI.com reports, the researchers recommend working toward a solution that would prevent seeds from fragmenting inside the drilling machines.

While keeping bugs at bay might be doing corn crops some good, there's a larger problem looming long-term: bees are key in pollinating crops. Kill them off and insecticide concerns will be small potatoes.

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