A little more than six years ago, 30 scientists and beekeepers from around the country met on Hutchinson Island to discuss a mysterious honeybee disorder that threatened the future of the nation’s agriculture.
Since that February 2007 conference, millions of dollars have been spent on research to attempt to solve what is called colony collapse disorder. The major symptom of the disorder is that bees abandon their hives, never to return. The confusing and devastating phenomenon is still happening, with beekeepers reporting 31 percent losses from all causes once again last winter.
“We have had a lot more research pumped into beekeeping. Have we found the cause of CCD? No,” said David Westervelt, chief of apiary inspection at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Gainesville.
Westervelt, who is also a beekeeper, believes along with many others that the losses are caused by a variety of factors. The list includes beekeeping practices, viruses, mites, diseases, insecticides, poor nutrition, loss of wilderness and the tendency for bee colonies to be used to pollinate one type of crop at a time.
“If a human is eating only McDonald’s hamburgers and you are only allowed a double Big Mac, and you are also stressed because you have to do this variety of work always, and you have a cold on top of that and a bacterial infection, you don’t feel too well. That is virtually where the bees are at,” Westervelt said.
“When everything is combined together, then you get that 30 to 40 percent loss,” Westervelt said.
Maryann Frazier, a leading bee researcher and entomologist at Pennsylvania State University, said, “In terms of trying to understand a little bit about what is going on, there is progress. In terms of fixing the problem, there is not.
“We do recognize it is not one thing at work here. It may be a different combination, depending on where the bees are located and their management,” said Frazier, who was among those at the 2007 Florida meeting.
“We have learned what bees are being faced with. Bees are picking up a lot of pesticides from the environment. There are diseases we did not know of before,” Frazier said.
Dave Hackenberg, the beekeeper who first reported the phenomenon in 2006 in Florida when 80 percent of his bees in the Ruskin area “flat disappeared” said very little progress has been made toward finding a solution. Hackenberg, a Lewisburg, Pa., beekeeper for half a century, serves on the National Honey Bee Advisory Board.
Hackenberg is convinced that pesticides are to blame for the bees’ problems, especially a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The escalation of bee colony losses began around 2006 when “neonics” began to be widely used. They were introduced in the United States in the early 2000s. Bees managed to fight off the other maladies until the pesticides tipped the scale, he said.
Neonics work “systemically” by being taken in through the plant’s vascular system and are found in its nectar and pollen. Corn, soybean and other seeds are coated with the insecticides and a powder before being planted. That pesticide dust drifts through the air. Bees and other insects die because the chemical attacks their nervous system and memory, a number of scientists say. The disorientation causes them to be unable to find their way back to the hive.
Before the rise of Colony Collapse Disorder, beekeepers met regularly with U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers to discuss ways to improve the industry’s economics, Hackenberg said. Now representatives of the major pesticide companies are at such meetings also.
“The pesticide people show up at every bee convention. Every time there is a meeting that has to do with research, the pesticide people are there in full force to make sure nobody is taking anything away from them,” Hackenberg said.
“Their answer is, ‘It ain’t us,’ ” Hackenberg said.
Frazier said it’s important that the pesticide companies be involved and said they are an ongoing source of research funding, but they should not be in the “driver’s seat.”
“There have been incidents in the past where influence was exerted that was not appropriate. These people are the people that have to provide the funding to determine whether pesticides are toxic to bees and other animals. They should not be influential in terms of determining what needs to be done,” Frazier said.
In Florida bee losses have been exacerbated over the last few years as citrus growers’ struggle to fight off greening disease. A tiny psyllid spreads the bacterial malady that kills trees and growers have increased spraying, including launching massive aerial attacks on thousands of acres at once.
Hackenberg no longer puts his bees in citrus groves.
Bob Harvey, a beekeeper in St. Lucie County and New Jersey, said the citrus spraying was more prevalent this season. After groves were treated, he didn’t see dead bees, but three or four weeks later, the bees had dwindled, and he lost one third of his queen bees, he said.
Harvey said he pulled his bees from the groves before they made any orange blossom honey. He and other beekeepers predict that between greening disease’s spread and the bee decline, orange honey could become scarce.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency put pesticides at the bottom of the list of probable causes of colony collapse disorder, Hackenberg’s opinion is backed by mounting evidence that neonics are causing sublethal effects.
Lethal means the pesticide kills bees in a short period of time. Sublethal means it shortens their lives or interferes with their immune system and the ability to navigate.
This year the European Union banned three neonics — thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid — for two years in crops attractive to bees, a move that Bayer Crop Science called “draconian.” It asserted the chemicals are not the culprit.
Based on the weight of the evidence, Germany, France and Italy had already banned the chemicals, said Paul Towers, spokesman, Pesticide Action Network.
“The EPA and USDA have largely turned a blind eye, even when their own evidence has pointed to it. The agency has chosen to allow them to keep it on the market,” Towers said. The EPA recently approved another neonic for cotton crops.
Pesticide companies including neonic manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta as well as companies such as Monsanto and Dupont, which use the chemicals to coat the seeds they sell, have become proactive in fighting backlash.
Monsanto, which employs Jerry Hayes, former chief apiarist at the Florida Department of Agriculture, as its chief bee health lead, hosted a “Bee Summit” near St. Louis in June. There, varroa mites were blamed for much of the bee health problem.
“If beekeepers let mite pressure get out of control, it becomes an uphill battle and they usually lose,” Hayes said in a statement.
University of Florida associate professor of entomology Jamie Ellis, who attended the summit, said “The multi-factorial explanation was the common theme.”
Ellis said at the moment he doesn’t believe the link between pesticides and losses is greater than that between nutrition, pests, pathogens and losses.
“Pesticides impact bees, but they are part of the multi-factorial explanation, and not the sole, suspected culprit,” Ellis said.
Bayer has established a “Bayer Bee Care Center” in Germany and expects to open a second one in North Carolina this year. The company said in a statement this shows its commitment to environmental stewardship, sustainable agriculture and the protection of beneficial insects such as honey bees.
Frazier and other experts said the standards are different in the EU, where a more precautionary approach is taken, even if the evidence is not 100 percent.
USDA spokeswoman Kim Kaplan said the agency did a massive study of bees, comb and nectar in hives and found 240 types of pesticides, but no pattern. Although no correlation was found between neonics and bee losses, research into sublethal effects is ongoing.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only requires testing for lethal effects, not sublethal, Kaplan said.
Kaplan said another commonality seems to be poor nutrition. If there are not enough nectar-producing flowers, or if bees are pollinating a crop that is not doing well, beekeepers need to provide supplemental nutrition.
Stepany Alvarez-Ventura, agri-ecology program coordinator at Florida International University in Miami, conducted research that found greater access to a variety of flowers at an organic farm, as opposed to a conventional farm, helped bees survive despite a high incidence of mites.
“CCD is definitely due to a combination of factors, but pesticides play a very, very important role in weakening the immune system,” Alvarez-Ventura said.
While the EU’s ban is a step in the right direction, Alvarez-Ventura said, the pesticides will likely linger in the environment and continue to impact the bees’ health.
Frazier sums it up: “We are not really making any progress. It is extremely frustrating to stand by and watch all this happening and putting so much effort into it and still not be coming up with the answer.”
Why we need the honey bees and where their health stands
Healthy honey bee colonies are critical for meeting the demands of food production in the United States.
Currently, the survivorship of honey bee colonines is too low for researchers to have confidence that the nation’s crop pollination needs can be met.
Historically, the U.S. had as many as 6 million colonies in 1947, with declines since then to 4 million in 1970 and 3 million in 1990. Today’s colony strength is about 2.5 million.
Pollination demands have increased in recent years. California’s almond crop requires more than 60 percent of the nation’s managed colonies.
Honey bee colonies have been dying at a rate of about 30 percent a year over the past few winters, which leaves virtually no cushion of bees.
Source: Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health
More than 100 crops require pollination to be their most productive.
Some of them are:
Apples, avocados, blueberries, canola, cantaloupe, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, grapefruit, macadamia nuts, pears, plums, prunes, pumpkins, soybeans, squash, sunflower seeds, tomatoes, vegetable seeds, watermelons.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Although there’s no comprehensive amount available for how much has been spent on bee-related research from private, state and federal sources, federal funding for bee research has increased
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service has long been a major source of bee research funding.
Before Colony Collapse Disorder became widespread, the Department of Agriculture devoted about $7.6 million a year to all types of bee research.
It began to step up funding in fiscal year 2009 and in 2012, allocated $10.1 million. This fiscal year funding amounts to $11.4 million.
Its sister agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has funded all types of pollinator research for years, including $2.8 milion in 2004. From 2008 to 2010, funding ranged from $3.4 to $4.3 million, and in 2011, reached $11.2 million.