Bees are dropping dead in Brazil and sending a message to humans

Bruce Douglas & Tatiana Freitas

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) – Death came swiftly for Aldo Machado’s honey bees. Less than 48 hours after the first apis mellifera showed signs of sickness, tens of thousands lay dead, their bodies piled in mounds.

“As soon as the healthy bees began clearing the dying bees out of the hives, they became contaminated,” said Vice President of Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul beekeeping association Machado, “They started dying en masse.”

Around half a billion bees died in four of Brazil’s southern states in the year’s first months. The die-off highlighted questions about the ocean of pesticides used in the country’s agriculture and whether chemicals are washing through the human food supply – even as the government considers permitting more. Most dead bees showed traces of Fipronil, a insecticide proscribed in the European Union (EU) and classified as a possible human carcinogen by the United States (US) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January, Brazil has permitted sales of a record 290 pesticides, up 27 per cent over the same period last year, and a bill in Congress would relax standards even further. Manufacturers of newly permitted substances include Brazilian companies such as Cropchem and Ouro Fino, as well as global players including Arysta Lifescience, Nufarm and Adama Agricultural Solutions. Giants such as Syngenta, Monsanto, BASF and Sumitomo also won new registrations.

The fertile nation is awash in chemicals. Brazil’s pesticide use increased 770 per cent from 1990 to 2016, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN). The Agriculture Ministry says that Brazil ranks 44th in the world in the use of pesticides per hectare and that, as a tropical country, it is “incorrect” to compare its practices with those of temperate regions.

European honey bees at a beehive in Sao Roque, Brazil. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Still, in its latest food-safety report, Brazil’s health watchdog Anvisa found that 20 per cent of samples contained pesticide residues above permitted levels or contained unauthorised pesticides. It didn’t even test for glyphosate, Brazil’s best-selling pesticide, which is banned in most countries.

The silent hives, critics say, are a warning.

“The death of all these bees is a sign that we’re being poisoned,” said President of the Apiculturist Association of Brazil’s Federal District Carlos Alberto Bastos.

Agriculture is the biggest contributor to Brazil’s growth, composing around 18 per cent of the economy. Its power – from pop culture to politics – is unmatched. Major producers sponsor samba groups, as well as a nationwide “little Ag” school programme and arguably, the most influential grouping in congress.

Like US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro was elected with strong support from agribusiness and has expressed disdain for environmental concerns. “This is your government,” Bolsonaro promised lawmakers from the agriculture caucus, and his administration has allowed the industry wide leeway to use whatever chemicals it likes.

About 40 per cent of Brazil’s pesticides are “highly or extreme highly toxic,” according to Greenpeace, and 32 per cent aren’t allowed in the EU. Meanwhile, approvals are being expedited without the government hiring enough people to evaluate them, said coordinator at Greenpeace Brazil Marina Lacorte.

“There isn’t another explanation for it, other than politics.” she said.