by Thom Kilburn
Throughout the ages, countless cultures and civilizations have venerated the bee. In Aegean cultures, bees were believed to be the sacred insect that bridged the natural world to the underworld. Ancient Egyptians revered the honeybee and its honey to the extent of naming King Menes, founder of the first Egyptian dynasty, “the Beekeeper.” All subsequent pharaohs were ascribed the same nickname. Even prehistoric man loved honeybees. Honey Hunting, the 8,000 year-old cave painting found near Valencia, Spain, depicts the image of a person extracting honey from a hive. The painting represents one of man’s earliest domestic pursuits and hints at the genesis of the honeybee’s adoration in prehistory.
Our relationship with the honeybee has been a fruitful and extensive affair that continues to this very day—over a third of all the world’s produce is pollinated by bees. In addition to honey, these hard working insects are responsible for many of the foods we enjoy on a regular basis. From blueberries to apples and onions to avocados: we have bees to thank.
But our favorite pollinator is in grave danger. It’s estimated that over the past six years, approximately 30 percent of all bees in the United States have either disappeared or failed to pollinate. This phenomenon of plummeting honeybee populations has come to be commonly known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Although limited occurrences resembling CCD have been documented as early as 1869, the issue garnered international attention in October 2006 when David Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper from Florida, told his story. Of his 3,000 colonies, only close to 600 remained. Once Hackenberg’s grim report was widely publicized by the media, other large-scale commercial migratory beekeepers across the nation began speaking up—reporting losses ranging from 30-90 percent of their hives. In some cases, the remaining colonies were so weakened that they might no longer be viable to pollinate or produce honey.
“[CCD] is not just affecting the beekeepers, it’s affecting the farmers that produce the food, and in the end it’s going to affect the consumer,” said Hackenberg in an interview with BBC.
So, what is causing the honey-maker holocaust? Why are there such widespread colony disparities in regions around the globe?
Scientists, environmentalists, beekeepers and activists alike have long since named a smorgasbord of culprits that could be the cause of CCD. However, there are multiple and interacting causes of CCD: monocultures, flowerless landscapes, pesticides and a lack of action from government agencies have all contributed to the death of the honeybee.
To understand how these factors began intertwining, attention must be directed to the mid-twentieth century. Honeybee colonies have been steadily declining since World War II (with the advent of new farming practices in lieu of the war efforts back home.) According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Statistics Service, there were 4.5 million colonies in the U.S. in 1945. Currently, there are less than 2 million.
Around the time of the war, we began planting only one or two plant species, like corn or soybeans, to increase our production yields. These farms would encompass countless acres and would later dominate a majority of the rural midwest.
In order to make room for these large-scale monocultures, farmers began removing cover crops like natural wildflowers and many flowering plants—things that honeybees depend on for survival. Without these vital sources of pollen, bees had no reason to linger around vast and flowerless plots of land.
In addition to the decimation of cover crops, farmers also began using pesticides toward the middle of the 20th century. In order to sustain monocultures, chemicals that prevented bugs from feasting on the crops were essential. With an endless supply of food that monocultures provide insects, an outbreak of harmful pests is all too likely without the use of pesticides or genetically modified seeds.
However, while some commercial farmers regard pesticides as both useful and effective, the USDA says that they may be contributing to CCD. Scientists have long been concerned that pesticides (and possibly some fungicides) may have sub-lethal effects on bees. Upon being exposed to the chemicals, they aren’t instantly killed, but, their development and behavior are systemically impaired.
“It may be that the honeybee has become the victim of these insecticides that are meant for other pests,” said Hackenberg. “If we don’t figure this out real quick, it’s going to wipe out our food supply. A third of all the world’s food is pollinated by bees.”
Of particular interest is the class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, which have become increasingly utilized over the past 20 years. They are extremely popular in the U.S., Australia, Europe and elsewhere to help grow corn, soy, cotton and canola. Neonicotinoids were introduced as a less toxic replacement of organophosphate pesticides, which were known to kill bees and wildlife, and have been linked to health problems in farmers. By almost universal agreement among agriculturalists, neonicotinoid pesticides trump their predecessors.
Nevertheless, honeybees are still affected by neonicotinoids when they are used as a seed treatment—the chemicals are known to work their way through the plant up into the flowers and leave residues in the nectar. Like most other pesticides, neonicotinoids affect bees on a sub-lethal level by impairing the functionality of their central nervous system. While scientists have a number of hypotheses to explain why bee populations are declining, many of them and various agriculturalists have coalesced around neonicotinoids as the most likely causative agent for CCD.
Last May, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a new type of neonicotinoid-related pesticide called sulfoxaflor. Like most neonicotinoids, it acts as a neurotoxin that leads to an insect’s paralysis and eventual death. According to studies conducted by the EPA, “sulfoxaflor exhibits behavior and navigational abnormalities in honeybees.”
Environmentalists, beekeepers, and other groups that were already in the process of suing the EPA to block the sale of other classes of neonicotinoid pesticides have launched new legal initiatives to overturn the agency’s recent sulfoxaflor ruling.
“These cases are a critical part of the story for our nation’s beekeepers and their survival,” said Peter Jenkins, attorney for the Center for Food Safety.
“Beyond that, sulfoxaflor threatens native bees, other insects, birds and ecosystem health generally. The many groups joining our brief—and we think all Americans—have a huge stake in ensuring EPA does not continue its ‘business as usual’ approach of green-lighting more and more dangerous insecticides,” Jenkins added.
Many of these lawsuits against the EPA invoked ordinances established by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in defense of honeybees, as a response to their rapidly declining populations. Each suit sought to convince the EPA to ban sulfoxaflor as well as a few other neonicotinoids and to mandate new regulations on pesticides in general.
According to a legal document from one of the lawsuits, “The EPA failed to rigorously examine the uses and impacts of sulfoxaflor, particularly in light of the environmental stressors already faced by pollinator populations. Further, EPA’s decision [to approve sulfoxaflor] considers only the alleged benefits of sulfoxaflor, while wholly ignoring the significant costs that registration will have on the agricultural economy, food security and the environment.”
With such monumental and political odds stacked against the world’s honeybees, the future may seem bleak. Nevertheless, some beekeepers remain optimistic. For example, Marla Spivak, Ph.D., associate professor of apiculture at the University of Minnesota, says everyone can help bees in two easy direct ways.
“Plant bee-friendly flowers and avoid pesticides on them,” said Spivak. “Go online, search for flowers that are native to your area and plant them. We need a beautiful diversity of flowers that blooms over the entire growing season, from spring to fall.
“Maybe it seems like a small countermeasure—to just go out and plant flowers, but when bees have access to good nutrition, then we ourselves have access to good nutrition through their pollination services. By giving them more food sources, we’re allowing bees to engage their natural defenses to ward off harmful chemicals and parasites,” said Spivak.
Additionally, the Greene County Beekeepers Association will be convening for their next meeting on Tuesday, February 18, at 6:45 p.m. in the Greene County Media Room, located at 575 Ledbetter Rd, Xenia, Ohio.