Wednesday, November 05, 2008

To Bee or Not to Bee

Anyone who has watched the news or picked up a newspaper lately has been witness to the extreme position in which the human race has placed itself. The precarious feeling of standing on a teeter totter with one foot trying to balance feeding the world, while the other is trying to balance nature and doing what is best for the earth. In one part of the United States we see farmers trying to defend their crops against the invading pests and just a few miles away we find a commercial beekeeper opening his hives to find that he lost up to 80 percent of his colonies over the winter. These two situations may not seem related but in fact they both have a common theme, the honeybee. This small, flying insect that seems to be as much a part of spring and summer as the gardens and flowers that they pollinate is in danger. It faces threats on every front. Unfortunately, we as a human race, are responsible for many of these threats from the pesticides that we use to the way we handle the bees. If these issues are not addressed soon, we could lose a valuable part of our food and our future.

The honeybee has been pushed into the news recently with the mysterious disease that is called, Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. During the winter of 2006-2007, there was a reported loss of 30% of all the hives nationally with the winter of 2007-2008 reporting 37% loss (Mendes 2). This is devastating news to the world’s food supply. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, every 3 out of 10 bites of food we take is thanks to a honeybee. They are directly responsible for pollinating crops like blueberries, almonds, squash, cucumber and most fruit grown on trees. They pollinate 15 billion dollars worth of food grown in America, annually (CSBA 1). With these figures in mind, the world is racing to find a reason for CCD. So far, there have been many theories ranging from pesticides to bad nutrition, but there is not a definitive answer. Perhaps, it is because it is not just a single cause but a combination of causes that have been waiting like a time bomb to explode.

Bees are an insect and they are not the only insect that is part of the equation. There are insects that are good for plants like bees, ladybugs and preying mantis. These insects pollinate and keep other insects that would destroy a plant under control. Then there is another insect that will eat and destroy crops. Farmers deal with the threat of these other insects destroying their crops. According to the Southeast Farm Press, this past June farmers faced the loss of their corn crop due to the stink bug. These insects can survive over the winter in wheat fields that were plowed in the fall and will be then planted in the spring with corn (Robinson 9).

Corn is important to the economy not only for food, but with the demand to steer away from the use of fossil fuels. With Ethanol now being produced from corn and used as another way to fuel cars, farmers are turning over more fields for growing corn. If their crops are destroyed they lose not only their income but America loses a valuable fuel source. Unfortunately, many of the choices that the farmers have in killing destructive pests also kills the other insects like the honeybee. One solution that farmers use is neonicotinoids. This is a group of pesticides that were introduced on the market in the mid 1990’s. “Basically, neonicotinoids block the insect neural action. In other words, affected insects often just sit around doing nothing until they desiccate, get sunstroke or become picked off by a predator or disease” (Shetlar 80).

So far, these pesticides have been effective in preventing pests, but at what cost? The pesticides that fall under neonicotinoids, which includes clothianidin, have already been banned in Germany and a similar insecticide banned in France. Germany’s Federal Agricultural Research Institute is quoted by the Sierra Club as saying, ”It can unequivocally be concluded that poisoning of the bees is due to the rubbing-off of the pesticide ingredient clothianidin from corn seeds” (Harmon par. 3).

The response to these actions in Europe has fueled the debate here at home but with the income and need for corn being so great it has been harder to get action. According to the Colorado State Beekeepers Association website, the Natural Resources Defense Council has filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), for “withholding the toxicity of pesticides to bees”, they also are stating, “EPA granted a registration to a new pesticide manufactured by Bayer CropScience under the condition that Bayer submit studies about its product’s impact on bees” (CSBA 1). The pesticide in question, being manufactured by the Bayer Company, is one of these neonicotinoids. Why would the EPA not release the results of these findings? We could make lots of conclusions one of which could be the money that the Bayer Corporation has to help hide the issues. Let us not forget what David Hackenburg of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, “Massive bee die-offs started occurring after regulatory agencies rubber stamped the use of neonicotinoid spraying and coatings” (Harmon par.7) .

Pest destroying our crops is not the only issue we have to take into account. There are also pests that are destroying the bees. During the mid 1980’s a threat was found to have invaded the U.S. beehives. This tiny threat is the mite. It has also had a devastating affect on the survival of our honey bees. The two main mites that can destroy a hive is the Varroa and the Tracheal mite. These mites have not been attributed as a cause of CCD but the way we treat this threat might be. Again the issue is a pesticide but this time it is one that the beekeeper used directly in the hive.

When the mite emerged on the scene, beekeepers rushed to find an answer and a quick fix. Keep in mind that commercial beekeeping is also a big money maker. Trucks carrying hives of bees are transported around the country to pollinate a specific crop. When the bees are done they will be packed up and moved to another field, perhaps across the country. If farmers do not have bees then their crops will not produce. Again we find ourselves on a teeter totter deciding between money and food and the bee. In response two hard pesticides were presented.

The first miticide to appear was Apistan and when mites became resistant to that then CheckMite entered the market. According to Bee Culture Magazine, “It is well known that both the above materials accumulate in the comb and can cause if not acute, at least persistent ongoing problems that interfere with the delicate biology of a honey bee colony” (Sanford 19). Keep in mind that both of these “miticides” are still sold in beekeeping catalogues today and even encouraged to be used. In the book, Beekeeping for Dummies, written by Howland Blackistan he says, “Regardless of whether you detect varroa mites, I suggest that preventative miticide treatments be administered to your hive once in the spring and again in autumn” (A180).

The fear of what might happen is often the reason preventative medicines are used. We have seen this example in humans. For too long doctors prescribed antibiotics to children to prevent them from getting sick and now we have found that many diseases have mutated or become resistant to the very thing we used to prevent it. So too is the case with the bee. Bees, like humans, have always had a chance of getting sick from certain diseases. Foulbrood is one such disease. The way to treat it is antibiotics.

Antibiotics are helpful when used correctly. That statement is also true when caring for a hive today. The problem is that many beekeepers feel pressured to give these antibiotics regularly as part of their seasonal management of their hives. They have been scarred by the threats that bees are facing and trying to keep up with the quick fixes that we as humans try to pass off as science. Bruce Royden Brown of CC Pollen Co explains, “Science tries to present a stable picture of its findings and in the end, it’s only partial, fragmented truth that is always moving”. He also adds, “Most science is driven by economic, profit driven pressure”(A1). In the end, a beekeeper is once again trying to perform a balancing act, how to protect their hive from disease and how to stop the weakening trend of bees in general.

Any beekeeper who has lost a hive can tell you of the guilt that is felt. To see a hive become sick or weakened, to open a hive at the end of a long winter only to find that it is dead or queenless is a beekeepers nightmare. They find themselves asking what they could have done to prevent it and could they have done more. These are the feelings that companies who sell the medicines and antibiotics play upon when selling their products.

Let us try to imagine the guilt that would be felt if we lost the bee population. Could we survive the loss of such an important part of our ecosystem? Bees have survived for millions of years without the aid of humans but may be destroyed by the science of humans. In our response to this situation we need to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Colony Collapse Disorder is the current disaster hitting our environment but it’s really just a consequence of our over indulgent behavior concerning pesticides and our intrusive behavior into a highly organized part of nature. If we are going to succeed in balancing food and nature we need to take money out of the equation. Perhaps Bruce Royden Brown said it best, “Go back to the basics; give the bees what they need…It is vitally important for us as human beings, maybe even for reasons beyond our comprehension” (A4).

Works Cited

Blackiston, Howland. Beekeeping for Dummies. New York: For Dummies, 2002.

Brown, Bruce R. "Bee Nutrition & Bee Medication: What the bee Really is not What it is Getting." Total Health 08 Mar. 2008. 24 Sept. 2008. EBSCOhost. Front Range Community College, Longmont. 24 Sept. 2008.

Harmon, Alan. "The Sierra Club Wants Neonicotinoids Treatments Stopped, Now!" CSBA. 23 Sept. 2008. Colorado State Beekeepers Association. 23 Sept. 2008

Mendes, David, Vice President. “Health of Bee Pollinators”. Wash D.C.. FDCH Congressional Testimony. 24 Sept. 2008.

"National Resources Defense Council Sues EPA to Get Public Records on Pesticides." CSBA. 18 Aug. 2008. Colorado State BeeKeepers Association. 23 Sept. 2008 http://www,

"Organic Farming Can feed the world...Can Conventional farming?" Natural Life Sept.-Oct. 2007: 40+.

Robinson, Ray. "Corn Growers given plant bug alert." Southeast Farm Press 04 June 2008: 7+.

Sanford, Malcolm. "CCD-The Role of Emerging Pests, Pesticides and Pathogens." Bee Culture July 2008: 19+.

Shetlar, Dave. "Get to Know Neonicotinoids." Landscape Management Apr. 2008: 78+.


This above was an English paper written by Becky Broberg, © September 25, 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A Spring without Bees, by Michael Schacker, talks about the whole problem of colony collapse disorder. It's a great read, filled with lots of information. Supports the idea that the pesticide imidacloprid is to blame, explains it all and has ideas on how to solve the problem.