Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is the Mystery of the Disappearing Honey Bees Really a Mystery?

A Spring Without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply, by Michael Schacker, presents a compelling case for immediate action on behalf of the honey bee. This thoroughly-documented narrative details the stresses on hives today and includes an in-depth discussion of the practical ways bees can be saved without hindering crop production.

I’d heard about disappearing hives and wondered what could cause bees to fly off and never return. It struck me as highly unusual bee behavior – but I’m no bee expert. Turns out it is unheard of. And not only that, but predators like wax moths and hive beetles, who usually jump at the chance to move in to an abandoned hive, have been observed to hold back for weeks.

Clearly, something is wrong.

I’d read about the disappearing bees in France and the debate there over pesticides but since it never made the news in a big way here I assumed it was not anything that concerned the US. Then I read reports about possible confusion of the bees due to cell phone towers or maybe even their orientation to the sun. In short, I read about everything but a possible chemical component. Until this book.

Appalled at what Schacker has written and I’ve gone on to verify, I feel compelled to share this information.

It is clear the bees, who don’t have a robust immune system to begin with, are being pushed to their limit. Varroa destructor mites in the hive leave them susceptible to disease. Hives trucked around the country, following the crops like miniature migrant workers, leave them stressed. The substitution of lower-cost, syrup-based winter feeds leave the honey bees introduce chemicals to their food supply. Residue from a new type of pesticide, Imidacloprid, in the pollen and areas around the pollinating crops also impacts the honey bee.

I have no interest in bashing chemical companies, but the fact remains that IMD had been put into production via Section 18 Pesticide Emergency Exemptions with the EPA. This allows the manufacturer to get the product to market before the mandated testing has been performed. In theory this has valid applications, I’m sure. In practice, this means we have an unproven toxin being applied to our food supply. In the case of Imidacloprid – a neurotoxin derivative of DDT – almond, blueberry, and a host of other crops dependent upon pollination by bees are being sprayed or planted with painted seeds without benefit of thorough study of IMD’s effect.

One could claim the use of such exemptions helps get beneficial products to market and allows the US to enjoy a variety of foods at a reasonable price. Even with this positive view of exemptions, prudence dictates testing for harmful effects to animals and people. But we also know that the testing required for any new chemical or medicine has hoops to jump through that make very little sense. However, in the case of IMD, where bees have literally abandoned over 30% of the their hives in conjunction with pollination of IMD crops, something between no hoops and too many is definitely in order. Quickly.

To satisfy beekeeper concerns after the fact, IMD has been tested. The problem is, the testing has been done at lethal levels. These tests show that bees will avoid anything approaching this concentration. But they’re not encountering this level in the fields. They’re ingesting a number of sub-lethal amounts as they pollinate crops, sip from water pooled in the area of the crops, rest in areas covered with IMD. The net effect to the bee is a growing chemical load. One that is too much for them to carry.

Whether IMD would be as disastrous to the bees if it were the only stressor is a moot point. The fact is that in combination or not, it appears to be the last straw. Bees who ingest bits of IMD over the course of their foraging trip become “drunk” and disoriented. They lose the ability to find their way back to the hive. They don’t die at the entrance to the hive as bees do when they’ve been poisoned by pesticides. The IMD is not killing them outright but it is confusing them to the point where they cannot navigate their way home – and so die.

In France, the evidence and outcry by the beekeepers has been enough to ban IMD. Within a couple of years of the ban, the hives were back to their former numbers. That has been compelling enough to the French that IMD has been banned. Here in the areas where the bee die-offs have occurred (all IMD areas), bees feasting on the pollen of untreated crops have not been affected. With all the advances in organic farming and the premium paid for organic goods, it is worth our time to look into banning IMD, insisting on thorough testing of toxins with a neurological mechanism, and broader implementation of organic farming methods.

Using pesticides on crop pests results in the need for ever-stronger pesticides as the pests develop resistance to the formerly lethal dose. Quitting this escalation now, while we still have bees to save, makes a lot more sense than continuing doggedly on our way, insisting that something cannot be the problem because it isn’t a problem in the lab at a lethal level when we can observe and verify that the newly-introduced variable is the IMD. And even if we’re wrong. Even if what we think is solid evidence pointing to IMD is not actually evidence of the true cause and something else is harming the bees, what is the harm in putting a three-year moratorium on IMD and seeing if Colony Collapse Disorder becomes a thing of the past? It’s not as if we are looking at data from one beekeeper. Or one crop. Or even from one country!

Bottom line, our crops need pollinators and the bees need our help. Now. Check out the steps you can take to give them a hand.


Schacker, Michael. A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply. Connecticut/The Lyons Press (2008).

No comments: