By Barbara Kessler

If you’ve been wondering about all the buzz over honeybees, here is some food for thought – or rather some thought about food: Bees play a role in one out of every three bites of food Americans eat.

Pollinators, mainly bees, but also butterflies, songbirds and even bats, perform such a critical function in the food chain that their absence threatens everything from the viability of vast fields of commercial corn and other crops to the tomatoes in your garden. Without the bees and other pollinators, plants can fail to produce the fruits and seeds we eat.

Which is why a San Francisco-based group called the Pollinator Partnership has dedicated itself to the survival of pollinators — from hummingbirds to small mammals to the fragile and busiest pollinators of them all, the bees. Partnership members, along with beekeepers and researchers testified before Congress last week to lobby lawmakers for more funding to research the decline of many pollinators, particularly the loss of millions of bees around the world to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Oft described as a “mysterious” phenomenon, CCD is increasingly being linked, not so mysteriously, to a new class of potent synthetic nicotine-based pesticides that are used on a wide array of crops. Germany recently banned several pesticides in this category because of their suspected role in the deaths of millions of bees; other experts are raising questions about whether plants treated with neo-nicotinoids are toxic to bees because the plants harbor the pesticide in their nectar and pollen.

Beekeepers, researchers and advocates want the U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture to help find answers.

“What I asked for at the testimony was some sort of funding to sample what’s inside our hives. It’s only by following the data that we’ll get a clue on this (CCD), but so far the effort to collect data has been very limited,” said David Mendes, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

Some scientists, including those looking at the issue for the U.S. government, believe that CCD is a result of multiple stresses on the bees, such as loss of habitat, drought and possibly chronic exposure to pesticides, that weaken the bees immune systems, subjecting them to untimely deaths from viruses and other infections.

But Mendes, among others, thinks the trigger could be more specific.

“I’m of the opinion that something is poisoning our bees,” he said, explaining that more sampling of hives should reveal what is causing fundamental changes in bee behavior, such as the hallmark abandonment of hives that occurs with CCD.

Mendes says he and other beekeepers suspect that nicotine-based pesticides may be to blame because they act on the bees’ nervous system, which could explain the changes in the bees feeding and homing behaviors that appear related to CCD.

These pesticides act differently than previous generations of contact pesticides because they are taken up “systemically” or internally by the plants’ roots and leaves, and persist for longer in the soil and treated crops, he said.

Contaminated adult bees could be transferring these chemicals via affected pollen to their young, possibly inflicting neurological damage even at the larval stage, Mendes explained.

The Florida beekeeper, another beekeeper, David Godlin, and experts testifying before the subcommittee urged Congress to treat the matter with more urgency and allocate more funding to explore the pesticide connection, or any other explanations for CCD.