Adding to the ongoing environmental problems facing the home of the Amazon right now, the bees of Brazil have suffered a catastrophic collapse this year.
Almost half a billion bees died in four of Brazil's southern states in the first few months of this year, Bloomberg reports. In Brazil, just like other parts of the world, the cause of this problem is fiddly and multi-faceted, but one factor clearly stands out above the rest: pesticides.
In 2012, Brazil passed the US as the largest buyer of pesticides and regulators have consistently found that agribusiness is using unapproved pesticides or exceeding allowed levels. The chief culprit behind the current bee die-off in Brazil is fipronil, a broad-spectrum insecticide that kills by disrupting the insect's central nervous system. Like all agricultural insecticides, fipronil is designed to attack pests eating crops, however, by their very nature, insecticides are also toxic to bees. Fipronil is highly toxic to many fish, aquatic invertebrates, some lizard species, certain groups of birds, and – of course – bees.
While the situation in Brazil is especially dire, the trend is being felt elsewhere in the world. In the US, for example, some 37 percent of managed honey bee colonies were lost between October 2018 and April 2019.
Bees contribute to the reproduction of various plants, with 75 percent of the world's crops depending on pollination by bees and other animals, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. A decline in bees could, therefore, potentially threaten supplies of coffee, apples, almonds, tomatoes, cocoa, and many other crops. So, any problem for the bees is a problem for us, too.
Fipronil has been the source of much controversy across the world and is subject to restrictions in the European Union due to its links to bee deaths, most notably the infamous die-off of honey bees in the French countryside between 1994 and 1998. Despite these apparent concerns, the controversial insecticide has been given the green light in Brazil over recent years, with German chemical giant BASF registering for the use of a product containing fipronil.
This approval was part of the huge spike in new pesticide products under former President Michel Temer and current President Jair Bolsonaro. Since 2016, over 1,000 pesticides have been approved for agricultural use. By no coincidence, Bolsonaro has repeatedly expressed strong disdain for environmental regulations and maintains a close relationship with agribusiness.
The right-wing populist president has been dubbed “Captain Chainsaw” by his adversaries, referencing his military background and extremely lax attitude towards deforestation. Just this month, it was reported that over 2,254 square kilometers (870 square miles) of the Amazon rainforest was chopped down in Brazil during July 2019 alone, a 278 percent increase on the same period in 2018.