Honeybees, Children and Cumulative Impacts

Ted Schettler
Science Director

A news article today from the Minneapolis Star Tribune raises questions: Bee die-off is linked to many causes. “A lethal combination of pesticides, parasites and disease, coupled with a shortage of flowers, has been identified as the cause of a perilous decline in honeybees. But there is insufficient evidence to single out insecticides that many beekeepers blame for the die-off, federal officials said.” (see the report: Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health)

This appears to be a cumulative impacts problem—similar to many complex diseases. Bee keepers describe “being on the brink.” Yet, regulators decide that since there’s no single cause, they won’t address one that is highly likely to be contributing

There is a real coherence developing around recent bee science. A recent paper in Science pointed out that analysis of the bee genome suggests that honeybees lack many of the cellular and humoral immune genes of other insects, making them inherently more vulnerable to infectious and toxic exposures.

Another recent study led to the hypothesis that honeybees that live off the same sweetener found in soft drinks (high fructose corn syrup) could be more vulnerable to the microbial enemies and pesticides believed to be linked to catastrophic collapse of honeybee colonies worldwide. Researchers identified an enzyme found in the wall of plant pollen that appears to activate the genes that help metabolize toxins, including pesticides, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. Although pollen winds up in the honey produced by Apis mellifera, these bees used to pollinate crops spend more time sipping on the same sugar substitute that is ubiquitous in processed foods—high-fructose corn syrup. The honey substitute is an important way for the industry, which contributes about $14 billion to the U.S. economy, to make ends meet.

So it does not seem at all mysterious that combinations of pesticides and infectious agents could result in widespread bee deaths. Bees are inherently vulnerable.

So are children… poverty, poor nutrition, toxic exposures, trauma, infectious disease, and other stressors separately and collectively have life long impacts. We try to address these problems, collectively when we can but knowing that single interventions are often necessary but not sufficient. We got lead out of most gasoline and still drive cars. But it looks as if regulators are unwilling to take on the pesticide industry and their support for neonicotinoids without a evidence of a smoking gun…. a level of evidence that will nearly always be absent in complex disorder analysis.

Geonotic Diseases: a New Taxonomy

Carolyn Raffensperger
Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network

This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the author. The full post can be found on the SEHN blog.


1. There are taxonomies of human health and disease. Taxonomies are conceptual frameworks that organize our thinking by grouping things that share characteristics. One taxonomy of disease is based on the system of the body that is diseased: the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system, the nervous system. Within those systems there can be various disorders such as birth defects, cancer, or poisoning. Another taxonomy is the kind of disease: infectious disease, injuries, or chronic disease, as examples. Within the category of those diseases there can be further subdivisions. Within the domain of infectious diseases there are those known as zoonotic diseases. These are diseases that cross between species and are often carried by a vector such as mosquitoes or ticks.

2. Epidemiology specializes in two kinds of disease,  infectious and chronic. Frequently epidemiologists studying infectious disease investigate causes because there is usually a direct cause and a single effect with infectious diseases. Chronic disease specialists often study effects because many chronic diseases have multi-factorial causes making it harder to study causes.

3. Since the rise of industrialization the disease pattern has changed from primarily infectious disease to primarily chronic disease. Small pox and polio have been replaced by cardiovascular disease, diabetes and asthma.

3. When it focuses on effects, rather than causes of chronic disease, the medical professions emphasize treatment of disease, rather than prevention of disease.

4. The causes of chronic diseases are often complex, ecological (both biological and geological) and result from cumulative impacts of multiple stressors.

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“Connected Wisdom”: Thinking Like a System

Elise Miller, MEd

The other evening, my six-year-old son and I were listening to Connected Wisdom, a new award-winning CD of stories and parables from ancient and modern cultures around the world, collected by Linda Booth Sweeney and told engagingly by Courtney Campbell. Each story is a reminder that humanity is simply one part of an incomprehensively complex, yet exquisitely expressed system. As we listened, I reflected on the myriad structures in our society that seem to be so at odds with this understanding that all life is irrevocably interdependent and interconnected. I wondered when and how did we stop ‘thinking like a system’?

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