What’s Behind Bee Die-Off? U.S. and Europe Disagree

By Guest Blogger | May 7, 2013 2:16 pm

by Richard Schiffman

Bees are dying all over the world, and nobody is sure why it is happening. Up to 40 percent of U.S. beekeeper hives failed to survive the past winter, making this the worst season so far on record. In part this was the result of a mysterious and growing phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in which bees fly off en masse and never return to their hive.

Agricultural production is beginning to take a hit from the loss of bees. In California’s Central Valley at the end of February, there weren’t enough commercially bred bees to pollinate all of the 800,000 acres of almond trees. Some desperate almond farmers actually flew in the precious insects from Australia to service their trees. Almonds aside, fully one out of every three bites of food that we eat were produced with the help of insect pollinators.

Domestic bees aren’t the only ones in trouble. Wild pollinators have been diminishing too. Feral honey bee populations in the U.S. have dropped an alarming 90 percent in the last 50 years. Some species are teetering on the edge of extinction. Fifteen pollinators are listed as endangered in the U.S. alone. The World Conservation Union forecasts that, largely as a result of global declines in wild pollinators, over 20,000 flowering plant species are likely to disappear over the next few decades.

While some food crops like almonds depend on commercially bred bees, others use primarily wild insects  to pollinate them. A study published in the journal Science in March concluded that wild pollinators are equally if not more important than domestic honey bees. The continued loss of feral pollinators, the researchers warn, could spark a crisis in our agricultural system from which it would be difficult to recover.

Pollinators, moreover, are considered indicator species for the overall health of the environment. When domesticated bees and their wild cousins fare poorly, it is a sign that all is not well in the natural world.

Chemical contributors

But scientists are finding it hard to pinpoint which factors in particular are the most responsible for the rise in pollinator mortality. That’s because a lot of different things have gone wrong lately. For one thing, wild habitats such as meadows and grasslands that the pollinators depend on for a varied diet are shrinking, as urban sprawl and the spread of monoculture agriculture encroaches upon them. The introduction of non-native species has also reduced the numbers of native pollinators in the U.S. and elsewhere. The European honey bee, which is the one that commercial beekeepers raise, is actually an invasive species which is competing with American insects for limited resources. In some areas, moreover, there is evidence that erratic weather and shifts in rainfall patterns due to climate change may already be a factor in the decline of certain species.

Something else that has been getting a lot of attention, especially in Europe, is the impact of agro-chemicals on both wild and domesticated bees. In a landmark move late last month, the European Union imposed a provisional two year ban on the use of the most common class of pesticides in the world, the neonicotinoids (neonics for short). A growing body of research now shows that the neonics, a chemical relative of nicotine which acts as a nerve poison in insects, harm bees by disrupting the navigational ability which they use to find flowers and make their way back to the hive.

In one of the most widely publicized studies, scientists at Harvard were actually able to duplicate the symptoms of CCD by exposing bees over a 23 week period to a low dose of  imidacloprid, a neonic which is produced by the German  company Bayer AG. Another report published in PLOS One found “remarkably high” levels of neonics and other agro-chemical toxins in pollen collected by honeybees, leading, the researchers said, to significant reductions in overall honey bee fitness. Yet another study conducted by Jeffrey Pettis, the head of the US Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory, concluded that exposure to the neonic imidaclopid (the most popular pesticide in the world) makes bees more susceptible to infection by a variety of common pathogens.

Only part of the problem

While these chemicals clearly hurt bees, most researchers believe that insecticides are only a part of the problem. The spread of the blood-sucking bee parasite the Varroa mite may also be weakening bees and making them more prone to CCD. Another suspect is the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin in the pollen of genetically modified corn, which German scientists found compromised bee immune systems.

And certain practices of commercial beekeepers could be contributing to the collapse of their own hives as well. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month suggests that the high-fructose corn syrup that bees are fed lacks critical elements which help bees fight off the ill effects of environmental toxins, like the neonics, as well as pathogens. The entomologists from the University of Illinois said that this nutritionally bereft equivalent of junk food deprives bees of the enzyme p-coumaric found in their own honey, which is crucial in the regulation of their immune systems.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report [pdf] last Thursday which points to a “complex set of stressors and pathogens,” including agro-chemicals, as likely suspects in recent bee die-offs. But it stopped short of making any specific policy recommendations. The Environmental Protection Agency says that it is currently reviewing the situation and will come out with its own recommendations in 2018.

This seemingly casual approach led commercial beekeeper Larry Pender to comment, “I can’t wait for the regulators to take their time, because we need these bees now.” He told CBS News that he lost a half million dollars last year alone, and had to lay off five of his seven workers. Beekeepers like Pender are clearly hurting. But with so much of our human food supply on the line, the stakes could not be higher for the rest of us as well.

Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist, poet and author of two books based in New York City. You can read more of his work here.

Image by Marjan Veljanoski / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: bees, pesticides
  • JonFrum

    I live just outside the border of the city of Boston, USA. There is no farming near me, and very few people do much gardening nearby. Yet I see far fewer honeybees than in years past. There has been no local development over this period, and I live next to a large wetlands reserve. Whatever is causing the loss of honeybees locally is not likely to be any of the favored environmental toxins. Thank God for the bumblebees.

    • Andres

      Neonics are not just used on farms; they’re also used in gardens. There are plenty of gardens right across the river from Boston (in Cambridge and Somerville). Honey bees are known to fly up anywhere from 3 to 7 miles for their food, so anyone keeping bees in Boston can assume that they’re going into Cambridge. Simply because there aren’t any gardens near you, you can’t assume that the toxins aren’t close by.

      I used to keep bees on a pesticide-free (but not certified organic) farm in Lexington, MA. They did terribly every year. I was suspicious of the mosquito spraying that the town did, but it could’ve been any number of factors.

      At the same time, I also kept bees in someone’s yard in Somerville, MA. They did wonderfully every year.

    • http://twitter.com/JuliaAllis Julia Allis

      I’ve also seen a rise in the number of bees locally in the past two years (compared to the crunch of previous years, that is), among small gardens, parks and nature preserves, which seems to me to lend credence to the idea that chemicals play a large role in this issue. Personally, I’m betting that the European ban on neonics is going to see some great results.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elorson Eric Lorson

    Why was this titled – US and Europe disagree? There is no disagreement – only the companies that make the pesticides are complaining. EVERYONE else is in agreement. I just worry that Monsanto will kill these regulations the same way the NRA killed gun background checks that everyone supported.

    Our media has to take respinsibility to not create hype that does not exist just to gain readers – we cannot afford it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.e.clarke Daniel Pandancules Clarke

      Neonicotinoids have nothing to do with the insecticides in GMO’s, so Monsanto doesn’t really have to worry about the control of them. Also they could technically produce genetically modified crops containing p-coumaric in order to provide the bees with the proper defenses. Finally if the bees die out and the agricultural field suffers, so will Monsanto.

    • Plenum

      Totally agree. Bee species claim no nationality, yet the title relegates the issue to a political problem – and if not, then to cultural distinctions – when the issue is scientific.

    • my accounts

      I think the disagreement mentioned is in reference to the action taken by each side:

      Europe- provisional 2 year ban on neotics.

      USA- USDA made zero policy recommendations and EPA decide to wait 5 years to form an opinion because they don’t think a 90% reduction in bee population is enough to be(e) concerned about.

    • TJP

      One fight at a time Eric. Focus

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1531501552 John W. Boyd Jr

    Going back in time to the point before CCD, and and seeing if there is a correlation between the addition of new “pesticides” (insecticides) to the toxic mix we drench our crops in, and the decline in pollinators. ought to be telling.

  • http://twitter.com/grapedoc Steve Savage

    “Monoculture agriculture” is not expanding. CCD is happening in plenty of places where there are neither neonics being widely used or Bt corn. It is an important issue, but perhaps one that should be covered by people who understand the science and the agriculture better.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Beatriz-Moisset/1213556847 Beatriz Moisset

      Monoculture agriculture IS expanding, at least when it comes to almonds. The acreage has been growing steadily for years. Not surprising that there are not enough bees to pollinate them.

    • Matina Vourgourakis

      Because discover magazine doesn’t know a thing about science?

    • louise

      Please expand your claims as I am unfamiliar with the data- can you give us some examples where CCD is expanding where neonics is not being used. ANd what the relative difference in CCD die off rates are. (ie, if Bees are not being exposed to Neonics in a certain area, what is the relative difference in CCD die off percentages?) Neonics MAY only be “part” of the problem- but even if it is a tiny part we should be temporarily banning them until it can be proven it NOT harmful AT ALL. If CCD can be reproduced in a laboratory with the neonics, how can this not be taken seriously? If 40% of the human population was dying off- I think you’d have a little quicker response then “YEARS “to complete a study, Quickest way to get a study done is to ban it while it is being analyzed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.burton.77 Chuck Burton

    Pesticides breed harmful insects that are ever more resistant to pesticides, just as anti-bacterrials do for bacteria, at the same time as they kill beneficial insects such as bees and aphids. Why are pesticides allowed, except to pad the bottom lines of big chemical companies?

  • Alan Gilmore

    There’s too many capitalizing and lobbying with this and on this. It’ll get much worse soon. Some brave leadership is needed without a hand in the lobbyists’ pocket.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jw-Saret/1806829726 J.w. Saret

    Oh look, cheap bee food (HFCS) gene mod plants/pesticides, urban sprawl, mono-culture. A warped notion of freedom is diminishing the food supply.

  • Sharilyn Wood Stalling

    Let’s name names. The second most deadly neonics proven to kill bees enmass, clothianidin, was given a (an OK) conditional use permit because of 5 people….Dr. Stephen Bradbury, head of Pesticide Programs, Michael Wagman, Dr. Thomas Steeger, Mike Corban, and Lois Rossi. These 5 are not the EPA but are people in the EPA who ignored their own scientists who wrote a 110 page document stating the numerous ecological dangers of this neonic and that it killed all invertebrates not just bees. Don’t give our politicians and the EPA credit for the insanity. Let’s give credit where it is due and the main culprit for okaying neonics is Dr. Stephen Bradbury. Get him fired!!

  • aberr

    Blanketing the earth with RF EMF wireless two-way transmitters (“smart” meters) of course would be the last thing our government will consider. The period of time over which a dose has been administered and the duration and frequency of Exposure is a measure of possible harm. Smart meters are 24/7. And the non-ionizing radiation emissions from them are a class 2b carcinogen. They’re making plenty of people sick.

    • http://www.facebook.com/drjill.sm DrJill Moncilovich

      About the idiotic smart meter stuff: We don’t need “big government” telling us to be responsible and use less electricity. What we need is a decline in the “entitlement mentality” and a return to the work ethic and “can do attitude” that our country was founded upon.. Which was very strong, small community government which handled problems only the larger ones went up the legal food chain. We don’t need the nanny state to care for us – all the nanny state can do is honor the special interests groups and make slaves out of the population.

      • chad

        I hate to say it, but if anyone can’t see that our country has been bought and paid for already by big business has blinders on. And it doesn’t matter on what side of the political divide you sit. Big money (mostly multinational if you follow the branches) owns this country and politicians sold and are selling it and us. We are pushed, persuaded and manipulated to be a nation of consumers not manufacturers and exporters.the bee situation is just another sad drop in the bucket and another indictment of ALL polititions AND agencies that are meant to protect citizens and other creatures alike. As the saying goes: If you only knew how bad its gotten and how far its gotten….lemmings, all of us, running over a cliff while still on our cell phones.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    My opinion we are using too much chemicals for food growth is main reason bee dying.

    • http://www.facebook.com/drjill.sm DrJill Moncilovich

      GMO’s, antibiotice [breed super bacteria], pesticides [breed super insect issues] Yup we have “messed with Mother Nature” and are now paying the price.

      • tikitools1

        I can envision Monsanto
        and Bayer getting into the pollinator business as well..
        Insects that aren’t killed by their herbicides so you can have
        weed free gardens and GM super-pollinators.

  • tikitools1

    “The Environmental Protection Agency says that it is currently reviewing
    the situation and will come out with its own recommendations in 2018.”

    Somehow Monsanto has a hand in this

    • http://www.facebook.com/drjill.sm DrJill Moncilovich

      Too little Too Late! We beekeepers see what is going on. Bees in certain areas with certain pesticides and GMO crops do lousey and bees in other areas with less of this crap do well. Not rocket science – Just “don’t mess with Mother Nature”.

  • Thomas Mills

    The overuse and misuse of insecticides and herbicides is the most likely cause. Once the bees, and all other pollinators reach their respective critical mass all arguments will become mute.

  • Perye Maher

    Must be the objective game behind Monsanto GMO’s.

  • Jexiah8bit

    Overuse of Monsanto products. The US Courts will never admit this because Monsanto makes too much money for too many powerful people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/randy.black.12 Randy Black

    So sad. Really makes me upset that the people who are set to lay down calls for action can’t grasp the concept of our dependency on these little guys. We’re supposed to use them in the future on Mars too….

  • Graham Miles

    I seems to me that the EPA is putting everything on the back burner. If this is the way they treat everything then the government should fire the leadership and replace it with responsible, qualified people. It’s not just the EPA not doing their job so much as they are not acting quickly enough for the protection of societies in general.

  • anna

    The increase in Electromagnetic energy around our planet since the installation of thousands of cell phone towers is also a contributing factor. Not only does it increase the risk of brain cancer and leukemia but it interrupts the natural world of bees, butterflies and birds. What a unbelievable testament to the stupidity of man! We will destroy our own world for a few dollars!!!

  • mrmdcf

    Have they observed the collapse? I have seen it. My wife and I have watched our neighbor’s bees for years buzzing around all the flowers on our farm. Then one day we were standing in the yard and heard this chorus of hums coming toward us; it was the neighbor’s bees in a bunch each one flying around in circles and the whole swarm just floating away with the wind – away from the hive. That’s the last they were seen. So while habitat reduction, European bees, beekeeprs’ faults etc. make a nice long news story, the reality is one thing caused that and likely it’s a new pesticide.
    Roy

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