Bees and the web of life

23 05 2013

beesI’m happily planning what will be my new organic kitchen garden, and I keep thinking about agriculture and how it relates to Fritjof Capra’s statement that we are all part of a vast interconnected universe – one that is constantly in flux. And I also keep returning to the subject of how agriculture, as practiced in the “developed” world, impacts us.

Across the United States and around the world, honey bee populations are mysteriously vanishing. Honey bee colony losses are not uncommon, however, the sort of disappearance I’m talking about is unprecedented: This honey bee colony loss (called colony-collapse disorder, CCD) is due to uncharacteristic bee behavior: bees are failing to return to the hive. And we don’t know why.

Given how important honeybees are to the food that we eat — bees help pollinate crops that are worth more than $200 billion a year — the fact that they are dying in large numbers, and we can’t say why, is very, very worrying. And it’s not just honey bees that are dying: according to a study written by a team of scientists including entomologist Sydney Cameron of the University of Illinois, the relative abundance of four species of bumble bees over the past few decades has dropped by more than 90%—and those disappearing species are also suffering from low genetic diversity, which makes them that much more susceptible to disease or environmental pressures.

CCD was first reported in 2006, when commercial beekeepers began noticing that their adult worker honeybees would suddenly flee the hive, ending up dead somewhere else. This led to the rapid loss of the colony. During normal years, commercial beekeepers expect to lose 10% to 15% of their colony, but over the past five years, mortality rates for commercial operations in the U.S. have ranged from 28% to 33%. This could be disastrous for our food supply: according to a study released by the United States Department of Agriculture in May, 2013, “the consequences for the agricultural economy — and even for our ability to feed ourselves — could be dire.”(1)

How is this of such concern? In California, the almond crop (as one example) is so large and intensively grown these days that it has greatly surpassed the region’s inherent ability to supply pollinators. Decades ago, when there were fewer almonds, farmers could rely on pollination just from the beekeepers who lived in the Central Valley. Now, they have to import migrant apian labor.

And now, bees are big business: Scientific AG, a firm based in Bakersfield, California, helps broker pollination deals between local almond growers and apiarists from across America. Joe Traynor, the pollination broker who founded Scientific AG, says that in the 1960s there were 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of groves. Today, groves cover 700,000 acres and the industry claims it supplies 80% of the world’s almonds. In order to meet this pollination demand, more than a third of America’s beehives must be moved to California for the season. Such changes to the industry have been reflected in the prices for bee hives. In 1995 growers could rent a hive for $35. Today, says Mr Traynor, a strong colony would cost $150-200. Beekeepers truck their hives cross country to pollinate almond groves in California, field crops and forages in the Midwest, apples and blueberries in the Northeast and citrus in Florida.

But now the bees are dying and nobody has pinned down the precise cause for CCD.

A lot of things can kill a hive, but nothing has devastated beekeeping in America in the last half century more than the accidental introduction of Varroa destructor in the mid-1980s. A tiny parasitic mite, varroa reproduces fast, and mite populations can and do overwhelm colonies and kill them outright. Varroa is credited with wiping out the wild bee population in North America. Breeding a varroa-resistant bee is the holy grail of American beekeepers. And often varroa mites are cited as a cause of CCD, but varroa mites were present in North America 20 years before CCD.

Other types of fungus (such as Nosema ceranae, a parasitic fungus from Asia which impacts a bee’s ability to process food) have been mentioned. But there is almost certainly a further factor causing stress on the bees—a poor diet.

It is increasingly being recognized that managed bees need food supplements. In some places, a decline in the area of pasture land on which they can forage, the loss of weedy borders and the growth of crop monocultures mean it is hard for bees to find a wide enough range of pollen sources to obtain all their essential amino acids. In extreme cases they may not even find enough basic protein. Writing in Bee Culture, February 2009, Mr Traynor observes that places where crops with low-protein pollens are grown (such as blueberries and sunflowers) are also places where CCD has appeared.

The suggestion is that poor nutrition has weakened the bees’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to viruses and other parasites. Feeding bees supplements, rather than relying on their ability to forage in the wild, costs time and money. Many beekeepers therefore try to avoid it. Anecdote suggests, however, that those who do fork out find their colonies are far more resistant to CCD.

New research suggests yet another potential contributor to CCD. The problem? We’ve been stealing the bees’ honey, which aids the bee’s “immune systems”—detoxification enzymes used to rid the body of foreign chemicals, like pesticides – and instead feeding them high fructose corn syrup. Commercial beekeepers feed bees high fructose corn syrup instead of honey for the same reason that commercial food manufacturers feed it to us: it’s cheaper.(2)

And of course, there are pesticides. Systemic pesticides like imidacloprid and clothianidin, so-called “neonics,” are persistent in soils for as long as two years, are water-soluble so they can travel far from their original application, and they’re taken up by plants’ roots and circulated throughout, so leaves, nectar, pollen, fruit – indeed, all of the plant is contaminated. The European Union recently instituted a two year ban on neonics. Research at Washington State University has found that pesticides embedded in old honeycombs is a major contributors to CCD.(3) They found traces of insecticides, herbicides, miticides and fungicides in honeycombs and bees raised in those hives had “significantly reduced longevity”.

Even more far-fetched concerns for CCD include cellphones and GMO crops.

But here’s the thing: Australia is one of the few nations in the world to have remained free of varroa mite (so far). And Australia – which has cellphones and towers, migratory and commercial beekeeping, neonic pesticides in agriculture, high fructose corn syrup for supplemental feeding, and environmental factors like drought and urbanization and all the rest – has had zero incidents of colony collapse disorder.
So, going back to Fritjof Capra and his insistence that the “web of life” is made up of a series of interconnected things, could it not be because of all of the above? Bees are stressed by loss of habitat, infection from fungus and mites, pesticides and poor nutrition – perhaps they’re just reaching the tipping point?


TED Talks and endocrine disruptors

18 04 2013

Last week we talked about endocrine disruptors in fabric, and how they might affect us, a reposting from a few years back. This post is also a bit aged, but startling and topical nonetheless.

Today’s post features a video clip from TEDWomen, featuring filmmaker Penelope Jagessar Chaffer and Dr. Tyrone Hayes, an endocrinologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert in how genes and hormones direct the developmental stages of amphibians. Dr. Hayes believes if the health of frogs is effected, then so too is the health of humans. In 2002, Nature published research by Hayes and colleagues showing that “developing male frogs exhibited female characteristics after exposure to atrazine … at exposure levels deemed safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)”.(1)

Filmmaker Penelope Jagessar Chaffer – who has won several British Academy Award nominations for her films – was curious about the chemicals she was exposed to while pregnant: Could they affect her unborn child?.

It was her question about the effects of chemicals on her unborn child which led to her production of the documentary/surrealist film Toxic Baby. Today she works to bring to light the issue of environmental chemical pollution and its effect on babies and children.

Here Hayes and Chaffer tell their story. It’s stunningly disturbing.

(1) Tyrone Hayes, Kelly Haston, Mable Tsui, Anhthu Hoang, Cathryn Haeffele & Aaron Vonk, “Herbicides: Feminization of male frogs in the wild”, Nature 419, 895-896 (31 October 2002) | doi:10.1038/419895a

Toxic Baby

13 06 2012

Since I’ve managed to figure out how to embed videos in the blog, I can’t seem to help showing you some of the most electrifying clips I’ve seen.  This is one of them – please watch it!

Filmmaker Penelope Jagessar Chaffer was curious about the chemicals she was exposed to while pregnant: Could they affect her unborn child?

Ms.  Chaffer won her first British Academy Award Nomination for her BBC4 debut, Me and My Dad, followed by Shakespeare’s Stories for the BBC, for which she received a BAFTA nomination.

It was her question about the effects of chemicals on her unborn child which led to her production of the  documentary/surrealist film Toxic Baby.   Today she works to bring to light the issue of  environmental chemical pollution and its effect on babies and children.

In working on the film, she worked with scientist Tyrone Hayes, an expert on amphibians at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is a critic of atrazine (a herbicide used on corn), which he has found to interfere with the development of frog endocrine systems.

Onstage together at TEDWomen, Hayes and Chaffer tell their story.  It’s stunningly disturbing.

Pesticide residues in cotton fibers

19 05 2011

We’re often asked if there are traces of pesticides in conventionally grown natural fibers – because people make the assumption that if pesticides are used on the plants, then there must be residuals in the fibers.  And because the chemicals used on conventional cotton crops are among the most toxic known, such as aldicarb ( which  can kill a man by just one drop absorbed thru the skin) and endosulfan (thought to be the most important source of fatal poisoning among cotton farmers in West Africa), as well as a host of confirmed carcinogens[1],   that seems a reasonable cause for concern.

But that question misses the whole point, as we’ll explain.

According to the modern agricultural industry,  cotton agriculture uses integrated pest management (IPM) systems to promote cotton’s environmental stance (author’s note:  reduction of costs doesn’t hurt either).

As the result, the use of chemicals on cotton crops is down:  On average “only” 20 lbs. of pesticides are applied to an acre of cotton today – as opposed to about 40 lbs. in the past. 

IPM is a great advance on the part of agriculture to use biological controls.  But 20 lbs. per acre is still a lot of really bad chemicals being used.  So the Bremen Cotton Exchange,[2]  on behalf of the industry, has sponsored a series of tests which were carried out by the Hohehnstein Research Institute  according to Oeko-Tex 100 Standard (also known as Eco Tex).  They tested for 228 possible substances including:

  • Formaldehyde
  • PCP
  • pH Value
  • Heavy Metals
  • Defoliants

All the test series confirm that the treatment and use of pesticides in cotton production, according to their report,  “does not pose any hazard for the processor of the raw material and none at all for the end consumer.”  This is the industry’s position, based on the test results from their studies.  On the other hand, there are other studies that do find pesticide residues in cotton textiles –  of nine different organochlorine pesticides at levels of 0.5 to 2 mg/kg.[3]  So there seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether there are pesticide residues in the cotton fibers or finished cloth.

But there is not much difference of opinion in the fact that pesticide residues pollute our soils.    Many different studies have found pesticide residues which pollute agriculture soils in various parts of the world. [4]

“Pesticide Residues in Soil & Water from Four Areas of Mali”, From Journal of Agricultural, Food & Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, issue 1, 2007

And just recently,  Science News reported that children exposed in the womb to pesticides have lower IQs than do kids with virtually no exposure.  According to Science News:

“Three new studies began in the late 1990s and followed children through age 7. Pesticide exposures stem from farm work in more than 300 low-income Mexican-American families in California, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and their colleagues report. In two comparably sized New York City populations, exposures likely trace to bug spraying of homes or eating treated produce.”

Among the California families, the average IQ for the 20 percent of children with the highest prenatal organophosphate exposure was 7 points lower compared with the least-exposed group.

“There was an amazing degree of consistency in the findings across all three studies,” notes Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. And that’s concerning, he says, because a drop of seven IQ points “is a big deal. In fact, half of seven IQ points would be a big deal, especially when you see this across a population.”[5]

There is no dispute about the fact that cotton crops are grown using many millions of pounds of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.  And research shows that extensive and intensive use of synthetic fertilizers, soil additives, defoliants and other substances wreak terrible havoc on soil, water, air and many, many living things – such as in the study cited above.

So what is the point that’s being missed?  Because conventional agriculture – despite advances in IPM – uses so many chemicals which are bad for us, shouldn’t the crops be grown organically?  That cuts to the chase –  in organically raised crops, there would be no toxic residues in the fibers, nor would the chemicals be wreaking havoc on our soils, water and air.  So the question of whether there are pesticide residues in the fibers becomes moot.  And though the United States and other countries might have banned the use of some chemicals, such as DDT, they’re still in use in parts of the world.

We’ve often touted the benefits of organic agriculture, and this seems to be yet another.  We think organic farming is so important that we’ll spend some time on the subject in our next few posts – because there are some who say that organic farming is just not the answer.  Are we between a rock and a hard place?

[1] Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. (cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are known cancer-causing chemicals. All nine are classified by the U.S. EPA as Category I and II (dangerous chemicals).

[2] The purpose of the Bremen Cotton Exchange is “to maintain and promote the interests of all those connected with the cotton trade”.

[3] Zhang, X., Liao, Q and Zhang, Y, “Simultaneous determination of nine organochlorine pesticide residues in textile by high performance liquid chromatography, SEPU, 2007, 25(3), 380-383.

[4] ALSO: Journal of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, Issue 1, 2007; “Pesticide Residues in Soil and Water from Four Cotton Growing Areas of Mali, West Africa   ALSO: Luchini, LC et al., “Monitoring of pesticide residues in a cotton crop soil”, Journal of Environmental Science and Health, January 2000, 35(1): 51-9  SEE ALSO:

How to get rid of chemicals in fabrics. (Hint: trick question.)

10 11 2010

Can you wash or otherwise clean conventional fabrics to remove all the toxic residues so that you’d end up with  a fabric that’s as safe as  an organic fabric?  It seems a reasonable question, and sure would be an easy fix if the answer was yes, wouldn’t it?  But let’s explore this question, because it’s really interesting.

Let’s start by looking at one common type of fabric: a lightweight, 4 ounce cotton printed quilting fabric.  In this case the answer is no (and as you’ll find out, our answers will always be no, but read on to see why).

The toxic chemicals in conventionally produced (versus “organically” produced)  cotton fabric that cannot be washed out come from both:

1.      the pesticides and herbicides applied to the crops when growing the cotton and

2.      from the dyes and printing inks and other chemicals used to turn the fibers into fabric.

Let’s first look at the pesticides used during growing of the fiber.

Conventional cotton cultivation uses copious amounts of chemical inputs.  These pesticides are absorbed by the leaves and the roots of the plants. Most pesticides applied to plants have a half life of less than 4 days before degredation.(1)   So pesticides can be found in the plants, but over time the chemicals are degraded so the amount to be found in any bale of cotton fiber is highly depending on time of harvest and how recently the crop had been sprayed.  

Gas chromatography easily shows that  common pesticides used on cotton crops are found in the fibers, such as:  Hexachlorobenzene,  Aldrin, Dieldrin, DDT and DDT. (2)   Look up the toxicity profiles  of those chemicals if you want encouragement to keep even tiny amounts of them out of your house.   With time, as the cotton fibers degrade, these residual chemicals are released.

We could find no studies which looked at the fibers themselves to see if pesticides could be removed by washing, but we did find a study of laundering pesticide-soiled clothing to see if the pesticide could be removed.  Remember, this study (and others like it) was done only on protective clothing worn by workers who are applying the pesticides – so the pesticides are on the outside of the fibers  –   NOT on the fibers themselves during growth.  The study found that, after six washings in a home washing machine, the percent of pesticide remaining in a textile substrate (cotton)  ranged from 1% to 42%.  (3)

If you’re trying to avoid pesticides which are applied to cotton crops, you’d do better to avoid cottonseed oil than the fiber (if processed conventionally) because we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear.  Most of the damage done by the use of pesticides is to our environment – our groundwater and soils.

Before we go further,  let’s do away with the notion that organic cotton, woven conventionally, is safe to use.  Not so.  There are so many chemicals used during the processing phase of fabric production, including detergents, brighteners, bleaches, softeners, and many others that the final fabric is a chemical smorgasbord, and is by weight at least 10% synthetic chemicals (4), many of which have been proven to cause harm to humans.

The chemicals used in conventionally processed organic cotton fabrics make the concerns about  pesticides used in growing the crop pale in comparison:  If we use the new lower chemical inputs that GMO cotton has introduced, it’s now possible to produce 1 lb. of conventionally grown cotton, using just  2.85 oz of chemical pesticides – that’s down from over 4.5 oz used during the 1990’s – a 58% decrease.   So to produce enough cotton fiber to make 25 lbs of cloth,  it would require  just 4.45 lbs of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and insecticides.  Processing that fiber into cloth, however, requires between 2.5 – 25 lbs. of chemicals.  If we take the midpoint, that’s 12.5 lbs of processing chemicals – almost three times what it took to produce the fiber!

There are over 2,000 different kinds of chemicals regularly used in textile production, many of them so toxic that they’re outlawed in other products.  And this toxic bath is used on both organic fibers as well as non-organic fibers – the fibers are just the first step in the weaving and finishing of a fabric. (Make sure you buy organic fibers that are also organically processed  or you do not have an organic fabric.   An organic fabric is one that is  third party certified  to the Global Organic Textile Standard. )      Fabrics – even those made with  organic fibers like organic cotton IF they are conventionally produced and not produced according to GOTS –  contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, azo dyes, dioxin, and heavy metals.  Some of the chemicals  are there as residues from the production, others are added to give certain characteristics to the fabrics such as color, softness, crispness, wrinkle resistance, etc.    And these chemicals are designed to do a job, and do it well. They are designed to NOT wash out.  The dyes, for instance, are called “fiber reactive” dyes because they chemically bind with the fiber molecules in order to remain color fast.   The chemical components of your fabric dye is there as long as the color is there. Many dyes contain a whole host of toxic chemicals.  The heavy metals are common components of fabric dyes.  They are part of the dye and part of the fabric fiber as long as the color remains.

And these chemicals are found in the fabrics we live with.  Studies have shown that the chemicals are available to our bodies:  dioxins (such as the 75 polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and 135 polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs)) were found in new clothing in concentrations ranging from low pg/g to high 300 ng/g in several studies. (5)


How do these chemicals get into our bodies from the textiles?  Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and it’s highly permeable.  So skin absorption is one route; another is through inhalation of the chemicals (if they are the type that evaporate – and if they do evaporate, each chemical has a different rate of evaporation, from minutes or hours to weeks or years) and a third route:  Think of microscopic particles of fabric that abrade each time we use a towel, sit on a sofa, put on our clothes.  These microscopic particles fly into the air and then we breathe them in or ingest them.  Or they  fall into the dust of our homes, where people and pets, especially crawling children and pets, continue to breathe or ingest them.

In the United States, often the standards for exposure to these toxins is limited to  workplace standards (based on limits in water or air) or they’re product specific: the FDA sets a maximum limit of cadmium in bottled water to be 0.005 mg/L for example.  So that leaves lots of avenues for continued contamination!

The bad news is that existing legislation on chemicals fails to prohibit the use of hazardous chemicals in consumer products -–and the textile industry, in particular, has no organized voice to advocate for change.  It’s a complex, highly fragmented industry, and it’s up to consumers to demand companies change their policies.  In the United States we’re waking up to the dangers of industrial chemicals, but rather than banning a certain chemical in ALL products, the United States is taking a piece meal approach:  for example,  certain azo dyes (like Red 2G) are prohibited in foods – but only in foods, not fabrics.  But just because the product is not meant to be eaten doesn’t mean we’re not absorbing that Red 2G.  Phthalates are outlawed in California and Washington state in children’s toys – but not in their clothing or bedding.  A Greenpeace study of a Walt Disney PVC Winne the Pooh raincoat found that it contained an astounding 320,000 mg/kg of total phthalates in the coat – or 32% of the weight of the raincoat! (6)

Concerns continue to mount about the safety of textiles and apparel products used by U.S. consumers.  As reports of potential health threats continue to come to light, “we are quite concerned about potentially toxic materials that U.S. consumers are exposed to everyday in textiles and apparel available in this country,” said David Brookstein, Sc.D., dean of the School of Engineering and Textile and director of Philadelphia University’s Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety (ITAPS).

The good news is that there are fabrics that have been produced without resorting to these hazardous chemicals.  Look for GOTS!  Demand safe fabrics!

(1)  “Degradation of Pesiticides on Plant Surfaces amd It’s prediction – a case study of tea leaves”, Zongmao, C and Haibin, W., Tea Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Zhejiang, China.

(2) “Extraction of Residual Chlorinated Pesticides from Cotton Matrix, El-Nagar, Schantz, Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and management,  Vol 4, Issue 2, Fall 2004

(3)  Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 1992  (23, 85-90)

(4) Laucasse and Baumann,  Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

(5) “Dioxins and Dioxin-Like Persistent Organic Pollutants in Textiles” Krizanec, B and Le marechal, Al, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Smetanova 17, SI-2000, Maribor, Slovenia, 2006;