Think back to summer and imagine the perfect picnic or backyard barbecue. Perhaps there would be steak and veggie kabobs on the grill—and maybe some tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole. Don’t forget lots of juicy watermelon and blackberry pie for dessert, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, of course. At this idyllic outdoor meal, the weather would be picture-perfect, and there would be no buzzing bees or other pesky insects in sight—because you could probably do without them, right?

Well, be careful what you wish for. Because without bees, this perfect picnic meal would be reduced to just meat chunks and plain pie crust. That’s right: no veggies, no tomatoes for the salsa, no avocados for the guac, no berries for your pie, and no vanilla for the ice cream! About 75 percent of the world’s food crops and 90 percent of wild plants depend on pollinators for survival—and some, if not all, of the pollinators are in big trouble.

What’s happening to the bees?

Nature’s pollinators—mostly honeybees, but also bumblebees, native bee species, hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles and more—transfer pollen from one plant to another. This facilitates fertilization, which leads to abundant seed and fruit production. Without these industrious pollinators, the plants would not survive and we would have less fresh food for our tables, as well as fewer plants yielding spices, clothing fibers and essential medicinal ingredients and herbal remedies. Pollination also produces seeds and fruits that birds and other wildlife live on.

It’s an intricate ecological system that has worked quite well for thousands, even millions, of years. But about 10 years ago, beekeepers around the world began noticing something peculiar and foreboding—honeybees that seemed perfectly healthy were abandoning their hives in great numbers, never to return. Scientists, who termed the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), estimate that at least one-third of all honeybee colonies in the United States have disappeared, although other estimates run as high as 50 percent. Some of these experts refer to CCD as “the perfect crime,” because when it happens, there are no bee bodies or other incriminating evidence of any kind to be found. (Most of the research so far has concentrated on honeybees, but agencies like the USDA and the EPA have begun broadening their studies to include all pollinators.) 

So, where did they go? Although a scientific cause has not officially been proven, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service believes the devastating losses could be from a combination of factors, including new pests invading the hives, lack of habitat diversity (caused by overdevelopment), scarcity of pollen and nectar sources (possibly because of shorter or earlier growing seasons as a result of climate change), and the effects of harmful pesticides. Although pesticides aren’t being solely blamed for the decline in bee populations, reducing pesticide use is thought to be the easiest way for consumers to make a difference.

The main class of pesticides under fire is neonicotinoids, a commonly used pest-control ingredient that’s chemically related to nicotine. Neonicotinoids, also called neonics, are found in dozens of commonly used household garden-care brands, such as Ortho Bug B Gon, Aloft and Ferti-lome 2-N-1 Systemic, and they are also widely used in commercial farming. (For a comprehensive list, see centerforfoodsafety.org.)

Neonics absorb into all parts of the plant, and even after a single application, they can remain in the soil for years. Though they don’t always kill the bees directly, neonics definitely affect their brain cells, causing disorientation that impairs memory—honeybees can’t find their way back to the hive with food for the colony, which means the colony starves to death, and native bees lose the way back to their nests.  Other disastrous effects include compromised immune systems, reduced breeding success, and unhealthy or stillborn baby bees, all of which eventually lead to complete colony loss.

“There is a growing understanding of the problems that native and introduced pollinators face, and why some of their populations have been declining,” says David Inouye, PhD, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Maryland and chair of the steering committee of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, a collaborative body of more than 140 organizations working to protect North American pollinators. “Pesticides have always been a problem, and researchers are beginning to pin down the problems bees face from the very commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides.”