By Tom Turner
On a fine June morning last year at a Target store outside Portland, Oregon, customers arrive to a startling sight: the parking lot was covered with a seething mat of bumblebees, some staggering around, most already dead, more raining down from above. The die-off lasted several days.
It didn’t take long to figure out that the day before a pest-control company had sprayed a powerful insecticide on surrounding Linden trees to protect them from aphids; but nobody warned the bees to stay away. In the end, an estimated 50,000 bumblebees perished.
The tragedy at Target wiped out as many as 300 bumblebee colonies of bees no longer available to pollinate nearby trees and flowers.
The deadly pesticide is one of a fairly new family known as the neonicotinoids—”neonics” for short—developed a decade or so ago to replace organophosphates and carbamates, which are also highly toxic but dissipate far more quickly.
Scores of plants—fruits, vegetables, ornamentals—are sprayed with neonics. The chemical penetrates the leaves and is taken up by the plant’s vascular system, turning the plant poisonous to insects eating the leaves, pollen and nectar. Alternatively, the plant’s seeds are soaked or the soil is treated with the chemical, with the same result. This is convenient for keeping beetles off your roses. It is lethal for bees and other pollinators.
And even if it doesn’t kill directly, as happened at the Target lot, sub-lethal doses interfere with the bees’ immune systems and make them vulnerable to pests. They can also damage the bees’ ability to navigate back to the hive.
Several of the neonics, incidentally, are made by Bayer, the same Bayer that made the aspirin in your medicine cabinet. Bayer is a German company; yet, since 2013, neonics may not be used on bee-attractive crops in Germany or any other country in the European Union.
This prohibition on use in the EU is a manifestation of what’s known as the Precautionary Principle, a fancy way of saying “Look before you leap.” In the United States we do it backwards: Chemicals are deemed innocent until proven guilty, sometimes with disastrous results.
Consider the honeybee
She has been domesticated by humans for some thirteen millennia. She is the only creature besides us who manufactures food for humans. She stings only in self-defense. She pollinates a substantial fraction of the plants humans consume. One calculation has it that every third bite of food you eat was pollinated by a bee.
The use of “she” here is deliberate. All worker bees are female, as is the queen. The only guys are the drones, a fraction of the total in a hive that has sixty to a hundred thousand individuals. The drones’ only job is to impregnate the queen, which may sound like a cushy gig but he dies in the act. Come fall, the remaining drones are unceremoniously evicted from the hive to save the precious winter resources for the worker bees.
Domesticated bees are around two thirds of the total bee population in the world, the rest are wild. Butterflies pollinate too, and other insects, and hummingbirds, even bats in the tropics. In the United States, Europe, and elsewhere domesticated bees are a major player in agriculture.
The population of bees, domestic and wild, fluctuates considerably from year to year. Drought will reduce the amount of wild food the bees need to survive. Storms can wipe out colonies. Natural diseases can ravage populations. But bee colonies are resilient and can bounce back from adversity. At least it used to be that way, until the winter/spring of 2006/2007.
Colony collapse disorder takes hold
In that season, the die-off of domesticated bees was so bad bee researchers coined a new phrase: Colony Collapse Disorder. Where the normal annual loss of colonies ran around 10 percent, that year it was over 30 percent, with some beekeepers losing more than 80 percent. And even those stats underestimate reality.
Jeff Anderson, a beekeeper in Minnesota and California points out that the official statistics from the federal Department of Agriculture counts only wintertime die-offs, but in the new bee-unfriendly world there are die-offs all year round: Now he loses half or more of his bees in most years. Other beekeepers have similar stories.
And what makes these die-offs different is that frequently the bees just vanish. A beekeeper will open a hive to find only brood—developing bees—and a queen, maybe a few drones. The worker bees have disappeared. Anderson calls this the Perfect Crime—no bodies, no murder weapon, no bees.
One prevailing theory is that a chemical has damaged the bees’ ability to find their way home; they simply get lost, run out of gas and die.
Bill Rhodes, a former professional football player turned beekeeper, lives in Umatilla, Florida, where his bees pollinate citrus orchards. In the summers his bees go to North Dakota or Wisconsin to prepare for winter. In the spring he trucks his bees to California’s Central Valley where they help pollinate almond orchards.
Beekeeping is a huge business—it takes an estimated million and a half hives to pollinate the almonds each year, producing a crop worth $6 billion give or take, twice what California’s wine industry is worth. A major fraction of all commercial bee hives in the U.S. make the journey to the almond orchards every year.
Rhodes started noticing some problems about 10 years ago. The bees simply weren’t behaving the way they should. At first he thought, he was just a “piss-poor beekeeper,” but soon he knew that wasn’t right. Something had changed in the bees’ lives.
In 2004, he trucked 16 semi-trailer loads of bees to California. “I got paid for two.” The bees just weren’t performing, which was as bad for the orchardists as it was for the beekeepers, not to mention the consumers of almonds.
Rhodes phoned a friend in the pest control business and learned about a chemical called imidacloprid that was used on termites. “The termite becomes disoriented. It lowers its immune system. Viruses will kill him. I also learned that the stuff was used on sunflowers. Sunflowers were the last thing to bloom in South Dakota where my bees had been for the summer. It was suddenly starting to make sense.”
Zac Browning raises bees in Idaho and North Dakota and, like many of his colleagues, trucks them to California in the spring when almond orchards are in bloom. He outlines a phenomenon that has combined with pesticides and other bee hazards to make life extremely difficult: the conversion of bee-friendly areas—or as Browning calls them, “beetopias”—to vast swaths of industrial soybean and corn fields.
Both soybean and corn are almost exclusively genetically modified to be resistant to the deluge of pesticides sprayed on the fields to kill weeds. Corn and soy provide very little food for bees even without all the poisons.
Browning describes yet another problem: “In North Dakota a calm day is a 20-mile-an-hour sustained wind,” he says. The herbicides are sprayed on huge fields. They drift all along the periphery of the field, across the road ditches, next to the waterways, and “everywhere imaginable where bee forage would be. The bees are starving. The herbicide kills all the natural forage, and then the bees are concentrated only on crops that have insecticide applied to them.”
Erin MacGregor-Forbes is an accountant in Portland, Maine, who raises bees for fun and a little profit. She is also a serious student of bee politics and bee science. What worries her most is the fact that many of the plants you buy at Home Depot or another big supplier have been treated with neonics.
"Homeowners are planting flowers in their yards thinking they’re helping bees and they’re basically planting poison plants, [sic\"
MacGregor-Forbes says. The phenomenon holds true for lawns as well: Lawn fertilizers frequently contain weed-killing substances. Bees don’t care about lawns, but the chemical will persist in the soil for three years, so if someone tears out a lawn and plants flowers or vegetables, those will be poisonous to bees.
Susan Kegley, a self-described rookie beekeeper, is a Ph.D. chemist and head of the Pesticide Research Institute in Berkeley. She has dug into data collected by the federal Department of Agriculture and the USGS, and has been helping Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie as digs into the law surrounding pesticides and bees. Her charts are dramatic and stunning. As pesticide use has soared, honey production has plummeted. Likewise, as massive new plantings of corn and soy have blanketed the upper Midwest, honey production has fallen as bee deaths have climbed. More....