Is Roundup killing our bees?

August 5, 2015 by Pat Thomas

When it comes to bees all eyes are and have been, for some time, on the harm caused by a type of insecticide called neonicotinoids, or ‘neonics’.

For two years there has been a moratorium on using neonics in the EU while scientists look more deeply into their toxicity to bees. In that time more evidence of harm has come to light, but in an inexplicable decision the UK government has, in the last two weeks, lifted the moratorium for a small percentage of the UK’s oilseed rape crops, even though figures show that this year’s crops flourished without the bee harming insecticides.

Worse secret files uncovered by the Guardian newspaper revealed that neonic manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta were the only outside groups present in government meetings on whether to lift the ban.

So far, so typical.

Enter Roundup

Now evidence suggests that glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup, the herbicide most widely used on GM crops – also has a role to play in bee deaths.

A new study has shown that exposure to glyphosate (in common with several other pesticides) impaired bees’ ability to find their way directly back to the hive.

The researchers tested whether exposure to three ‘sub-lethal’ concentrations of glyphosate (continuous low doses that mirror the range of exposures which bees encounter in the real world) could affect the homeward flight path of honeybees in an open field.

These results suggest that exposure to glyphosate could indeed impair the bees’ ability to remember landmarks and routes and use these to find their way home. A bee that can’t find its way back to the safety of the hive is likely to die.

This is not the first study to demonstrate Roundup’s mind-numbing effect in bees.

A 2014 study also looked at whether chronic exposure to low levels of glyphosate could affect their feeding behaviour.

These researchers observed that this low-level exposure interfered with the honeybee’s sensitivity to nectar reward and impaired their learning abilities – two behavioural consequences likely to adversely affect their survival abilities.

Previous tests on bees have only looked for signs of acute toxicity, i.e. doses the will cause immediate and obvious harm (this is also an omission in many human toxicological tests); sub-lethal or prolonged exposure effects tend to get ignored.

While these low doses were not found to overtly affect bees’ foraging behaviour, the researchers suggested that healthy forager bees were brining regular amounts of glyphosate back into the hive, where it gets stored and eventually distributed among nest mates with “long-term negative consequences” for the health of the colony.

Multiple toxicities

In 2013, plant pathologist Dr. Don Huber submitted a paper to the Center for Honeybee Research highlighting glyphosate as a possible cause of CCD.

Huber found that glyphosate:

  • Chelates minerals, lowering available nutrients in plants Malnutrition is a consistent factor in CCD
  • Acts like an antibiotic to beneficial bacteria This means it kills off  Lactobacillus and other bacteria necessary for digestion
  • Is a neurotoxin A common symptom of CCD is that honeybees experience neurological associated with disorientation.
  • Causes endocrine hormone & immune disruption Alterations in key hormones and immune system function can be lethal
  • Stimulates fungal overgrowth This could encourage the growth of the fungal pathogen nosema
  • Is a persistent, accumulative poison Residues present in honey, nectar and other plant products, mean honeybees are continually exposed to this toxin

Harmful to humans too

For humans, the big question is not just whether we can protect our bees, but also whether pesticides like glyphosate are also harming our health in the same way.

Studies are beginning to come in more quickly now, but the full extent of glyphosate’s threat to human health can really only be seen when you look at the data as a whole.

This is what the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, a branch of the World Health Organisation) did recently. Looking at all the evidence led the Agency to designate glyphosate as a ‘probable human carcinogen’. The full IARC report on glyphosate has now been published.

But evidence for problems other than cancer is also emerging.

In 2014 German researchers took urine samples from livestock and humans. Amongst the humans, glyphosate levels were significantly higher in those who ate a largely conventional diet compared to those who ate an organic diet. The researchers also grouped their findings according to the health of the humans – those who were chronically ill had significantly higher glyphosate residues in their urine.

Although glyphosate is promoted as safe for humans and animals, links between glyphosate/Roundup and birth defects in laboratory animals have been known for decades – and the same effects have been reported in livestock animals whose feed is contaminated with Roundup.

Similarly, a recent study suggests that glyphosate is the cause of a fatal, chronic kidney disease that is affecting poor farmers around the globe.

Whether or not glyphosate affects the neurological system in humans in the same way it does in bees is still a matter of speculation. Though some researchers, notably Stephane Seneff, believe it does and that exposure is a potential reason for the jump in cases of autism in the US.

Like many known endocrine disrupters, glyphosate may be toxic at lower doses than at higher ones. And most recently glyphosate has shown potential to harm us indirectly by making bacteria more resistant to antibiotics.

Glyphosate use on the rise

Glyphosate use has risen exponentially in countries where GMOs are planted. But even without GM crops, its use has become a problem in the UK. This is because it’s used in parks, schools and on roadsides. It’s also routinely sprayed on grain, oilseed and legume crops – thus wheat, maize and barley but also rapeseed, sunflower seeds, chick peas etc – as a desiccant (to dry them out) before harvest.

According to the Soil Association’s Not in Our Bread campaign, government figures show its use in UK farming has increased by a shocking 400% in the last 20 years. Nearly a third of UK cereal crops (over 1 million hectares) were sprayed with glyphosate in 2013.

Glyphosate doesn’t break down immediately, and can follow the grain into our food supply. Tests by the Defra committee on Pesticide Residues in Food have found that as much as 30% of UK bread contained traces of glyphosate. And, of course, UK wheat is used in other foods including biscuits and pasta.

If, as our government intends, the UK begins planting GMOs by 2016/17 even more of this herbicide will get into our food chain.

A poisonous formulation

But Roundup’s toxicity doesn’t begin and end with glyphosate. Recent data has also shown that this herbicide is made more toxic by the so-called ‘inactive’ ingredients in the formulation

In a study of Ontario farming populations, exposure to glyphosate nearly doubled the risk of late miscarriages in humans. But, say the researchers, the addition of the ethoxylated surfactant in the Roundup formulation doubled the toxic effect of the glyphosate.

These inactive ingredients, along with the glyphosate, end up in our food and our animal feed as well – which means it ends up in us too. Yet, no study has yet shown how much of these ‘inactive’ ingredients we also consume when we eat conventionally grown produce and animal products.

As data like this accumulate, the credibility of those who continue to promote glyphosate and Roundup as being ‘as safe as coffee’, is rapidly disappearing in a toxic cloud of lies and deceit.

Our best hope for a better food future is to embrace agroecological methods of farming, which eschew GMOs and high chemical inputs for planet-friendly ways of producing food. You can read more about these in our article, A vision of food and farming beyond GM.