Synergy

Writing in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson explains that sodium is a poisonous, reactive metal that can be cut with a butter knife, and chlorine is a smelly, deadly gas, yet when added together they make sodium chloride, a harmless, biologically essential compound better known as table salt. Hydrogen, he argues, is an explosive gas while oxygen promotes violent combustion, yet the two combined make liquid water which puts out fires. 

 

We know that bees wax absorbs chemicals from the air - research at Penn State a decade ago year identified 78 different chemicals in bee hives of which 46 were pesticides, including DDT.  The sources vary from industrial pollution, consumer goods like automobiles, agricultural chemicals and genetically engineered organisms, to chemicals that some beekeepers use to control mites.

 

When chemicals are evaluated for toxicity by regulatory agencies they are studied in isolation and only their lethal rather than sub-lethal effects are evaluated.  When the breakdown products of chemicals interact they can be more toxic and more long lasting than the original chemical itself – sometimes thousands of times more so, and that is no exaggeration.  This is the power of synergy : a cocktail of small doses of several chemicals, each acting on its own, can combine to have significant biological effects that none of the chemicals would have by itself. 

 

Waiting in Bee Culture almost ten years ago, Ross Conrad pointed out that realistically few chemical combinations are going to be thoroughly tested for safety either to humans or insects before being marketed.  Consider that to test the synergistic actions of just 1 000 toxic chemicals in combinations of five chemicals each would involve testing over eight trillion chemicals and, at one million per year, would take 8 000 years to complete.

 

Similarly, according to BBC Radio 4's Inside Science program earlier this year, an analysis of 90 studies found that agricultural pesticides sold ready-mixed into ‘cocktails’ can kill twice as many bees.   "Exposure to multiple pesticides is the norm, not the exception," said Dr Harry Siviter, from the University of Texas at Austin, who led the study.   "If you have a honeybee colony exposed to one pesticide that kills 10% of the bees and another pesticide that kills another 10%, you would expect, if those effects were additive, for 20% of the bees to be killed," he said.  But a synergistic effect can produce 30-40% mortality.”

 

Just how many chemicals are we talking about? In his most recent book,  Silent Earth; Averting the Insect Apocalypse, published in September, David Goulson states that each year we manufacture 144 000 different chemicals weighing some 30 million tons.  Add to this the literally hundreds of new chemicals marketed every year and honey bees clearly have the potential to come into contact with a potpourri of man-made chemicals every day. But it’s not only  quantity that matters; it is also quality, and in particular toxicity. 

 

 

 

David Goulson shows that in 1945 DDT was applied at a rate of 4500 grams per acre, whereas the rate for neonicotinoids is 25 grams per acre.  But because the latter are about 7 000 times more toxic to bees than the former, whereas 1 gram of DDT could kill  about 37 000 honey bees, 10 grams of neonicotinoids can kill 250 millionbees. And let’s not forget that all insects are killed, most of whom are beneficial to agriculture.   

 

And it is not only honey bees;  humans too, come into contact with those chemicals daily and we have little idea as to the impact this exposure has on the human life form either short or long term.  An example was included in a NPR program, One A, on July 26th of this year, about declining birth rates.  In 1960, the sperm count in males was 90 million sperm per milliliter.  Last year it was 47 million, ie. a little less than half, and it is rapidly reaching 40 million at which point conception becomes difficult.  The main reason, besides life style and obesity, is exposure to chemicals, which the body confuses with hormones.  Most alarming is that these chemicals are present in the womb and can impact the following three generations!

 

How on earth did this happen?  How did we create a world so toxic that it’s natural capacity for self-renewal has been exceeded?

 

Most immediate, as we prepare our colonies for winter, is a study from New Zealand which examined how  different food sources have differing influences on the digestive tracts of bees.  The worst was sugar syrup, made even more so if yeast or malt was added.  So what is the synergy when we add pollen patties that contain yeast or malt at the same time as feeding sugar syrup? 

 

I would suggest that we simply don’t know, and fear that we are playing a honey bee version of Russian Roulette. 

 

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