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Pesticides and the Plight of the Honeybee

A recent Time Magazine cover story envisioned “A World Without Bees.” One third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared last winter, a 42% increase over the year before and well above the normal 10-15% losses. This alarming trend has been dubbed “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD), a global syndrome that is killing off honeybees in alarming numbers.

Why should investors worry about honeybees? Honeybees are the most economically important pollinators globally, and bee die-offs attributed to CCD pose serious threats to our food supply. According to the US Department of Agriculture, “Bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year” and “[a]bout one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination.” The USDA warns that if losses continue at current levels, “it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry. Honeybees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honeybee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs.” Crops dependent upon honeybees include almonds, blueberries, apples, lemons, zucchini – the list goes on. Honeybees provide an invaluable service that has no substitute. As Time Magazine warned, “eliminate the honeybee and agriculture would be permanently diminished.” Other pollinators, including bumblebees, are also at risk.

Although the causes of this ongoing crisis remain unknown, recent studies show that even low doses of exposure to the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (or “neonics”) undermine bee immunity against pathogens and impair critical brain functions, and may be a contributing factor to CCD. The European Union has taken steps to ban certain neonics, and the EPA has issued warning labels.

As diversified investors, the Domini Funds hold shares in companies dependent on pollinators at several points in their supply chains. Working with other concerned investors, we sent letters to food producers, retailers and home improvement retailers who sell pesticides, including Mondelez International and Lowe’s, where we are taking a lead role. Lowe’s sells neonicotinoid-based pesticides and has been targeted by a Friends of the Earth campaign on this issue. We also spoke with Campbell’s about their approach to pesticide use in their supply chain. We will be encouraging companies to review the science and the risks of neonicotinoids and other pesticides to pollinators, and to act accordingly