It’s hard to say for sure when the bees started disappearing.

But around 2006, reports of massive declines in these pollinators began circulating. The familiar drone of springtime buzzing went silent in many places. Beekeepers discovered hives with queens and ample stocks of food, but anemic numbers of workers to service them. Few bee corpses littered the earth, but something was clearly amiss.

Over the past decade, concerns about an epidemic Colony Collapse disorder (CCD) were mounting. Entomologists recorded sharp population declines of close to 30% annually.

This demographic collapse posed catastrophic ecological and agricultural consequences. Bees are the unsung heroes of food cultivation. A third of what we eat is pollinated by honeybees. Without that essential work, there would be a lot less food to go around. In a real sense, if bees didn’t exist, we might not either. 

At first, no one could explain this vanishing act. Scientists still maintain a host of conditions can depress populations. But diligent research soon uncovered a significant cause of the sudden disappearance of bees: pesticides called neonicotinoids.

While not toxic to human beings, these commonly-used pest controls can interfere with bees’ executive functioning and fertility. Those impairments depress bee numbers over time. And because neonicotinoid dustings travel far, take a long time to decay, and persist in trace amounts in plants, they can devastate colonies.

So, knowing what we do about the dangers of neonicotinoids, how do we protect bees and other pollinators?

That’s where experts disagree.

Much of their disagreement hinges on their assessment of how useful neonicotinoids are and how possible it is to reduce their threat.

One significant voice in the scientific community favors what we might call a containment strategy. They begin from the observation that neonicotinoids are used in seed coverings for 90% of cash crops for a simple reason: they work. Even in trace amounts, they pack a lethal dose, and can boost crop yields up to 5%.

It would be very difficult to adopt a cold-turkey approach to these powerful pesticides, so scientists should focus on how to limit exposure.

On this tack, the best way to achieve this goal is to prevent neonicotinoid dust from seed coverings from escaping into the air in the first place. By installing filters on planters, these scientists hope to mitigate the effects of this pesticide on bees. Preliminary tests of these filters have been encouraging, showing almost 99% reduction in airborne neonicotinoids.

That’s an impressive fix by any estimate.

But a second group of scientists, whom we’ll call the abolitionists, argue this solution isn’t radical enough. It won’t remove all of a known toxin from the environment. Even trace amounts of neonicotinoids can harm bees. And because this dust stays in ecosystems for a long time, it takes a long time to eliminate. Exposure levels will taper off significantly, but not entirely.

More importantly, simply reducing neonicotinoid distribution grants the continued use of these pesticides as an inevitability. But there are good reasons for questioning this premise. Studies have thrown into question the vaunted effectiveness of neonicotinoids, with some research showing little to no benefit to using nic-coated seeds.

Given the lack of empirical benefit and the demonstrable risk of using these pest control measures, the argument for their continued use doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

So what should concerned farmers and ecologists do?

The best tack might be marrying the approaches. The immediate strategy should be offering these filters to a wide audience and getting manufacturers to make these neonicotinoid filters standard features in their equipment. In the meantime, lobbying manufacturers to find alternatives to neonicotinoids so they can be taken out of circulation should become a priority.

There is some encouraging news to report: bees are disappearing in lower numbers these days. That’s cause for rejoicing–but also for careful planning moving forward.