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Entomologists: “Stop feeding corn syrup to honeybees.” Duh.

photo by rebeccacabage.com
By John Upton via grist.org
 
If you want to a kill a honeybee hive’s buzz, take all its honey away and feed the bees a steady diet of high-fructose corn syrup.
 
Believe it or not, apiarists have been doing just that since the 1970s — feeding HFCS to their colonies as a replacement source of nourishment for the honey that gets taken away from them to be sold.
 
And believe it or not, HFCS, which is bad for humans, is also bad for honeybees. It’s especially bad for those that are exposed to pesticides, which these days is a high proportion of them.
 
It’s not that HFCS contributes to honeybee diabetes, nor does it result in honeybee obesity. But it weakens their defenses. And right now, the bees need all the defenses they can get in order to survive.
 
When honeybees collect nectar from flowers, they also gather pollen and a substance called propolis, which they use to make waxy honeycombs. The pollen and propolis are loaded with three types of compounds that University of Illinois entomologists discovered can help the bees detoxify their cells and protect themselves from pesticides and microbes.
 
“The widespread apicultural use of honey substitutes, including high-fructose corn syrup, may thus compromise the ability of honey bees to cope with pesticides and pathogens and contribute to colony losses,” the scientists wrote in a paper reporting their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.From Phys.org:

The researchers aren’t suggesting that high-fructose corn syrup is itself toxic to bees, instead, they say their findings indicate that by eating the replacement food instead of honey, the bees are not being exposed to other chemicals that help the bees fight off toxins, such as those found in pesticides.

Cutting the crappy sweeteners from honeybees’ diets and allowing them to eat a bit more of their own honey won’t necessarily save them in a world doused in pesticides. But it might give bees back some of their natural defenses against the poisons they encounter every day.

It’s time to share more honey with the honeybees that make it.

[read original article on grist.org]

Read full story · Posted in News

LA WEEKLY: “Could L.A. Become a Honeybee Mecca?”

By Gendy Alimurung

LA Weekly Article

Look inside a plain wood box, in a truck, in the driveway of Rob and Chelsea McFarland’s house on certain spring nights, and you will see them. Bees.

How did they get there? Turn back the clock two years, to another season, another swarm. This one arrived in the afternoon while Rob was working in the backyard — one bee at first, then thousands, clustered into a ball the size of two footballs. It landed in a tree.

Instead of killing the bees, Rob called a group he’d read about online, which “rescues” them: the Backwards Beekeepers. That evening, wearing only a T-shirt and jeans and no protective suit, a volunteer from the group clipped the branch of bees, dropped it into a cardboard box and sealed it up. Rob, now 33, and wife Chelsea, 31, were astounded. “It revealed to me the gentle nature of bees,” Rob says.

Soon he started going on rescues, too — as many as three a day. He climbed a tangerine tree in the middle of the night and brought down the biggest open-air hive Chelsea had ever seen. With a frenzied smile, Rob gripped the severed branch with massive honeycombs dangling off it — a 60-pound lollipop of bees. Chelsea snapped a picture.

Then the dawning realization: “Where the hell do we put them?” It is a recurring question that will consume their next few days, then months, then years.

The tangerine tree hive sat on their roof for a spell. The McFarlands live in a modest house in the Del Rey neighborhood, a narrow, two-mile strip that cleaves Culver City from Mar Vista. They don’t exactly have a lot of space. And what kind of neighbor welcomes a swarm?

By some miracle, after weeks of shlepping hives across the city — after the crazy logistics of matching up people who had bees but didn’t want them with people who want bees but didn’t have them — Chelsea secured a spot: a small, scrubby hilltop in agrarian Moorpark, overlooking an organic farm owned by a friend of a friend. The McFarlands christened the hilltop the HoneyLove Sanctuary.

Today it hosts 16 hives in colorful wood boxes, each from somewhere around L.A., rescued from water meters and birdhouses and compost bins, places Rob can’t recall anymore.

“Each one of these is a family,” Chelsea says. “We’re usually rushing to beat the exterminator out there.”

For the past two years, the McFarlands’ house has been a halfway home for rescued bees. Rob, a YouTube channel manager, rescues them after work in the evenings, and the bees spend the night in his truck on the driveway until he can shuttle them up to the hilltop in the morning.

You do not choose to become obsessed. As anyone who has ever fallen in love with this insect says, “The bees choose you.”

“We always kind of have bees at our place,” Chelsea admits, with a sheepish grin.

LA Weekly frame

Commercial bees — the ones used to pollinate crops in the agriculture industry — are dying off in record numbers, presenting a serious crisis to global food production. Yet in urban areas, bees thrive. No pesticides or monocrops mean healthy living conditions. As improbable as it sounds, cities like Los Angeles may be the bees’ best hope for survival.

But there’s a catch.

Urban beekeeping is legal in New York, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Denver, Atlanta, San Francisco, Paris, London, Tokyo and Vancouver. In New York and San Francisco, people keep hives on the roofs of luxury hotels and apartment buildings.

In Los Angeles, however, bees exist in a legal gray area. The county allows them. But the city has no laws specifically pertaining to urban beekeeping. Currently, if bees are found on public property, the city’s only option is to exterminate them. As a result, the past few years have seen the emergence of groups like the Backwards Beekeepers, which are devoted to rescuing and keeping these wild swarms of so-called “feral” hives within city limits.

The Backwards Beekeepers represent a whole new kind of thinking about bees. While older, established groups frown on feral hives, the Backwards Beekeepers see them as the way of the future. Where traditional bee clubs use pesticides and antibiotics to help struggling bee populations, the Backwards Beekeepers favor organic, “natural” methods. The city, in a Backwards Beekeeper’s eyes, is a bee’s ideal stomping ground.

Yet as long as the rules about keeping hives on private property are anyone’s guess, beekeepers live in fear. No one has been prosecuted, but that doesn’t seem like security enough. And so Rob and Chelsea McFarland have been working to change the city’s codes one neighborhood group at a time.

When the McFarlands consulted beekeepers in Seattle, they were advised to build support from the ground up. So the McFarlands formed a nonprofit foundation, HoneyLove, and they do endless events and outreach: wax symposiums, honey tastings, mead workshops, pollen parties, art shows, festivals, concerts, garden tours, grocery consortiums, school visits, equipment demonstrations, film screenings, radio shows, television appearances, guest lectures and video blogging. They organized a four-month feasibility study with the Mar Vista Neighborhood Council, which includes surveys with residents, testimony from a pediatric pulmonologist on the effects of bee stings and, for a little bedtime reading, 75 scholarly articles on beekeeping.

In the process, their small social circle has become a massive one; the bees opened up a community for them in a way that nothing had before. “You’d be amazed at how many people have a particular interest in bees for one reason or another,” Rob says.

How does someone get into bees? For the McFarlands, the more salient question is, how did they manage so long without bees?

The couple is well versed in the art of taking up causes. Previously they championed orangutans. But orangutans were an abstraction, thousands of miles away in the forests of Borneo. Bees were literally right in their backyard.

Chelsea, a video editor and something of a natural-born cheerleader, wanted to fix their bad rep. “You see a swarm coming, and it’s, like, ‘Killer bees! Run for the hills!’?” she says. “But actually it’s the least aggressive a bee will ever be. Because they have nothing to defend. They’re all homeless. They have no honey. They have no babies.”

Rob, who is quiet and thoughtful, with a mind prone to drawing connections, saw the intrinsic fascination of the insect itself. There were infinite, engrossing facts to learn. Did you know that bees see in ultraviolet light, so flowers look like neon signs to them? Did you know that bees are essentially plants’ way of having sex?

Collecting signatures at the Mar Vista Farmers Market one morning, they meet Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who is there picking up greens for his turkeys and chickens and finches and cockatiels… [continue reading article via laweekly.com]

LA Weekly Paper

Read full story · Posted in HoneyLove Buzz

READ: “Portlanders add bee crisis to areas honey-do list”

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Beekeeper Damian Magista transfers a new hive of bees to the rooftop of the New Seasons Market in Happy Valley. The Portland grocery chain is educating customers about the vital role that bees play in the food chain.

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT – Beekeeper Damian Magista transfers a new hive of bees to the rooftop of the New Seasons Market in Happy Valley. The Portland grocery chain is educating customers about the vital role that bees play in the food chain.

Written by Jennifer Anderson via portlandtribune.com

You’ve heard of eco-roofs and rooftop gardens, but the latest twist to hit Portland comes with a sweeter payout: rooftop honeybee hives.

New Seasons Market recently installed a honeybee hive atop its store in Happy Valley, a picturesque suburb 15 minutes east of Clackamas that’s a mix of newer homes and farmland.

“They’ll go to all these neighborhoods, start pollinating everyone’s gardens and yards, the fruit trees and farms,” says Portland beekeeper Damian Magista, surveying the skyline from the grocery store’s roof. “It’s a great environment here. There’s plenty of food.”

In other words: Happy bees make lots of honey.

By late August, Magista expects the bees to produce enough honey to start selling it at the Happy Valley store.

But that’s not the primary motivation for New Seasons’ “Bee Part of the Solution” campaign.

The company aims to educate people about the honeybee’s critical link in the ecosystem, and the fact that they are dying out worldwide, due to what’s known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

The number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A May 2 report by the U.S.D.A. and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency points to a variety of stressors, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure.

Scientists at the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab have been focusing on two factors in particular.

They’re studying the impact of a honeybee pest called the invasive varroa mite, as well as poisoning by pesticides applied to crops or to hives to control insects, mites and other pests.

New Seasons sees it as part of its mission to educate people about the phenomenon, because of the direct link to the food chain.

“There is an important link between the health of American agriculture and the health of our honeybees for our country’s long-term agricultural productivity,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, upon the release of the latest federal report.

New Seasons could install a second rooftop hive at its Sellwood store in Southeast Portland in June after a process required by Multnomah County to notify neighbors.

The initial hope was to install honeybee hives on all 12 of the local grocery chain’s rooftops (a 13th location opens late August in Northeast Portland’s Eliot neighborhood). But Washington County won’t allow it, so the Progress Ridge store in Beaverton may miss out.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT – Katie Passero dresses as a bee to work the counter at New Seasons Market, as part of the companys Bee Part of the Solution campaign.

The rooftop hive idea was sparked by an incident last summer, when a swarm of bees made its home above the New Seasons sign at its Raleigh Hills store in Southwest Portland. Local TV cameras came and documented the removal of the swarm, which was safely relocated.

A few other grocery store chains have begun rooftop hive projects, including Bi-Rite in San Francisco, which New Seasons used as a model, says Mark Feuerborn, the Happy Valley store manager.

Feuerborn, a home beekeeper who’ll manage his store’s hives, is excited for what’s to come. A “bee cam” will let people peek in on the hives and the honey harvesting. Shoppers can draw a direct link to the products in the store through new displays of honey-based products — everything from lip balm and candles to jars of pure, unprocessed honey made in Portland.

“Two miles away is Saelee Farms,” Feuerborn says. “We can see our bees pollinating their products, ending up on our shelves. This is a way for people to remember that.”

Lots of local buzz

Interest in urban beekeeping has soared in recent years.

“Portlandia” could even write an episode called “Put a bee on it.”

There’s a Portland Metro Beekeepers’ Association, whose members keep bees for hobby and business.

The Portland-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit invertebrate conservation group, launched a “Bring back the pollinators” campaign. That’s attracted more than 1,000 people who signed a pledge to do four things: grow a variety of bee-friendly flowers that bloom from spring through fall; protect and provide bee nests and caterpillar host plants; avoid using pesticides, especially insecticides; and talk to neighbors about the importance of pollinators and their habitat.

There’s also a Portland Urban Beekeepers group, which aims to promote the public’s awareness of “apiculture” and the overall health and diversity of bees in the Pacific Northwest. Club president Tim Wessels says his group started with a dozen or so people meeting informally in 2010. Last spring they’d grown so large that they created officer positions and began meeting monthly. Today there are 115 members who pay the $15 annual dues, plus another 240 members on Facebook.

As president, he’s asked people why they’re drawn to bees, and he more or less gets the same answer: “Well, the bees are hurting, aren’t they? We just want to help out and see if we can bring the population back.”

Others just like honey, and he’s cool with that, too.

Wessels and fellow beekeeper/business partner Glen Andresen are working with a grad student at OSU’s Honey Bee Lab and retired entomologist Dewey Caron on an effort to breed a local queen bee. Most of the purchased queens here come from Southern California or Kona, Hawaii, Wessels says. Unsurprisingly, they’re not able to survive Oregon’s winters.

Wessels believes it’s possible to breed a Portland honeybee with “hygienic behavior,” which is their behavioral mechanism of disease resistance. After the queen lays an egg in a cell, if a worker bee somehow determines mites are in the cell, it would remove the mite. The result is that the mites aren’t able to reproduce.

It might sound like a far-fetched idea, but Wessels and his team have about 100 hives around Portland, and they’re collecting swarms that did survive this past winter.

“If we are successful in developing a more locally adapted honey bee, perhaps others can use this model in other cities,” he says.

Sweet new products

Magista, the beekeeper working with New Seasons, owns a startup company called Bee Local, which harvests and sells micro-batches of artisan honey varieties — with flavors made distinct by the flora and fauna of each neighborhood. He works with backyard beekeepers in the Mt. Tabor, Laurelhurst, Powellhurst and Brooklyn neighborhoods, and the buzz is spreading.

Beekeepers estimate there are about 500 hives being kept by people in Portland, many on rooftops, since bees are attracted to trees at about the 15-to-20-foot height.

One of those rooftops is at Noble Rot restaurant in Portland, and more could soon follow. That’s good news for honey connoisseurs.

“What dictates the taste is the flowers and forage in that particular area,” says Magista, who won a 2013 “Local Food Hero” award in March, presented by Ecotrust.

“It’s more than just the honey, it’s really about getting people to be more in touch with their immediate environment. What can I do at my home, in my yard to make a difference?”

[read original article via portlandtribune.com]

Read full story · Posted in News

WATCH NBC: “Bee shortage threatens farmland”

Bee shortage threatens farmland: Mites, diseases, and pesticides are all suspected of contributing to bee colony collapse disorder. The bees are dying at such a fast rate that farmers who rely on bees for pollination are now reserving them five years in advance. NBC’s Anne Thompson reports.

Read full story · Posted in News

READ: How neglecting bees could endanger humans

Bees pollinate much of our food supply, but a pesticide threatens their survival
BY RICHARD SCHIFFMAN

(Credit: StudioSmart via Shutterstock)

(Credit: StudioSmart via Shutterstock)

If you are an almond farmer in the Central Valley of California, where 80 percent of the world’s production is grown, you had a problem earlier this spring. Chances are there weren’t enough bees to pollinate your trees. That’s because untold thousands of colonies — almost half of the 1.6 million commercial hives that almond growers depend on — failed to survive the winter, making this the worst season for beekeepers in anyone’s memory. And that is saying a lot, because bees have been faring increasingly poorly for years now.

Much of this recent spike in bee mortality is attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious condition where all the worker bees in a colony simply fly off as a group and never make it back to the hive. Scientists have been studying this odd phenomenon for years and they still aren’t sure why it is happening.

But a slew of recent studies have pointed an accusing finger at a class of pesticides, the ubiquitous neonicotonoids (neonics for short), which include imidacloprid and clothianidin, manufactured by Germany’s agro-giant Bayer, and thiamethoxam, made by Syngenta. The neonics, the world’s leading insecticides, are applied on a whopping 75 percent of the farmlands in America, according to Charles Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Neonics are a so-called systemic pesticide. That means that they are taken up by the plant’s vascular system and get impregnated into all parts of the plant that an insect encounters, including the leaves, seeds, nectar and pollen. Corn and soybean seeds are typically coated with the pesticide before planting. Fruit trees and many vegetables are sprayed.

Few researchers believe that the neonics alone are to blame for the bees’ troubles, which appear to result from a perfect storm of contributing environmental factors. Pollinators have been called the canaries in the coal mine for ecosystem health. The declining numbers of both wild species and domesticated bee colonies worldwide is regarded as a troubling barometer of the state of the environment, reflecting habitat loss, the spread of agricultural monocultures, infestation by viral pathogens and bee parasites like the Varroa mite, climate change and even electromagnetic radiation, which seems to interfere with bees’ homing ability.

But the neonics, which contains a chemical related to nicotine that attacks an insect’s nervous system, have been demonstrated to kill bees — and especially the queens — when applied in high enough doses. And a growing body of research suggests that at sub-lethal concentrations, these agro-chemicals mess with their navigation, foraging and communication abilities, throw off their reproductive patterns, and weaken bee immune systems, making them susceptible to sudden colony collapse.

One study published by scientists at Purdue University in 2012 showed high levels of clothianidin and thiamethoxam in bees found dead near agricultural fields. Other bees at the hives were observed exhibiting uncoordinated movement, tremors and convulsions, all signs of insecticide poisoning.

In yet another study conducted by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health, which I reported on in Reuters last April, researchers actually re-created colony collapse disorder in several honeybee hives simply by administering small doses of a popular neonic, imidacloprid.

These and other recent studies led the European Union to call on Monday for a provisional ban on neonics for two years to see what impact this has on Europe’s endangered bees. The use of the pesticides had already been temporarily suspended in Germany, France and Italy.

The vote in Brussels was split (15 of the 27 EU countries voted for the ban). The British Newspaper the Observer said that there was “a fierce behind the scenes” campaign to prevent the ban. The paper reported that agricultural multinational Syngenta, facing what it called “serious damage to the integrity of our product and reputation,” threatened to sue individual European Union officials involved in publishing the damning report about the dangers of neonics. The U.K. voted against the ban, alleging that the science is inconclusive and that barring the pesticides would be hugely expensive and potentially cripple food production.

But the ban had lots of public support, including a petition signed by over 2.5 million Europeans. And it was universally applauded by environmentalists, who have been fighting for it for years. Andrew Pendleton of the U.K division of Friends of the Earth said: “This decision is a significant victory for common sense and our beleaguered bee populations. Restricting the use of these pesticides could be an historic milestone on the road to recovery for these crucial pollinators.”

Pressure has been building in the U.S. to restrict the neonics. A coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups filed suit in March against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to ban the pesticides, saying that the agency didn’t consider the impact of the pesticides on vital pollinators. The American Bird Conservancy published in March a review of 200 studies on neonics, including industry research obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which concluded that the neonics are lethal to birds and other wildlife and to the aquatic systems on which they depend.

These threats to wildlife are significant, but the world’s attention is rightly focused on bees, which are responsible for pollinating nearly a third of our food supply. These industrious insects are in serious trouble. And if their decline continues unchecked, we humans may soon be in trouble too.

[click to view original article via salon.com]

Read full story · Posted in News

READ: Non-profit HoneyLove.org is buzzing as lush’s charity pot partner

LUSH Blog 041613

 

Today we’re excited to share HoneyLove, one of our Charity Pot partners with you. We knew there was no better way to get you buzzing than to have Chelsea and Rob write about the amazing work that they do, and all the ways that you can help!

In the Spring of 2011, HoneyLove co-founders Chelsea and Rob McFarland would have never guessed that a swarm of honey bees showing up in their backyard would provide the inspiration for what has quickly become their life’s passion—a non-profit organization committed to conserving honey bees. Fast-forward to 2013 and HoneyLove has created an impressive local organization with a global footprint.

Bees pollinate 80% of the world’s plants including 90 different food crops, which means that 1 out of every 3 bites of food is thanks to a bee. However, since 2006, more than one third of honeybee colonies collapsed nationwide, a global phenomenon now called Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. And while there is no one smoking gun causing CCD, scientists now widely agree that it is a result of a combination of factors, made manifest by industrial beekeeping and the use of agricultural pesticides such as neonicotinoids.

While the situation is dire, honey bees permanently living in urban environments seem to be relatively unaffected by CCD. Why? Urban bees find more than enough varied forage in home gardens, landscaping and weedy areas to feed themselves throughout the seasons. And since the vast majority of the forage in the city is pesticide-free—because most homeowners aren’t dumping industrial-strength chemicals on their yards—bees have one less mortal enemy to contend with. While the city represents the bees’ best shot at surviving and thriving, HoneyLove still has a lot of work to do to ensure we will have a healthy ecosystem in the future. HoneyLove.org inspires and educates urban beekeepers at free educational workshops and beekeeping mentoring sessions. Attendees learn all about how to become urban beekeepers along with fun and interesting facts about bees; for example:

• Bees collect 4 things, water, nectar, pollen, and propolis.

• The honey bee is the only insect that produces food eaten by man.

• 1 lb of honey is the product of bees visiting two million flowers and flying 55,000 miles.

• Honey is the only food that does not spoil (bacteria can’t grow in it, and because of its low moisture content and low pH – honey can last indefinitely).

You can learn more fascinating bee facts here

“By working with LUSH’s Charity Pot, we were able to really step up our education efforts in a short time. We host monthly workshops ranging from real practical beekeeping topics to things like mead-making, beeswax symposiums, honey tastings, and how to plant a pollinator-friendly garden. We try to find something for everyone. We want to give people easy ways to contribute to the future of honey bees, knowing full well that not everyone wants to put on the suit and do the whole beekeeper thing” explains Rob.

“On HoneyLove’s website everyone can find something to do to help the bees, ranging ‘easy’ to ‘hard-core’, depending on how sticky you want to get your hands” jokes Chelsea.

Easy ways you can help today:

PLANT bee-friendly plants in your yard and put out a water source. Bee-friendly plants include native and old-fashioned “heirloom” varieties, borage, sage, mint, thyme, lavender and most other herbs too.

BEE INSPIRED on the HoneyLove BLOG by all the buzz, photos, recipes, DIY projects and more!

SIGN THE PETITION to help legalize beekeeping in Los Angeles! You don’t even have to be a resident to sign. Dozens of other cities have legalized urban beekeeping including San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Denver, and New York—help HoneyLove add LA to that list!

BECOME A HONEYLOVE MEMBER to join in the action and attend workshops

MAKE A DONATION it is 100% tax-deductible

LEARN MORE ways to get involved

 

[click here to read on the Lush Blog]

Read full story · Posted in HoneyLove Buzz

HoneyLove.org featured on KPFK 90.7FM

KPFK RADIO ARCHIVE: 4/8/13
http://archive.kpfk.org/mp3/kpfk_130408_143040deadlinela.MP3

What’s up w/ URBAN HOMESTEADING in LA? Join Laurie Kaufman & Barbara Osborne to learn about urban bees, backyard chickens and more with Erik Knutzen (rootsimple.com) & Rob McFarland (HoneyLove.org).

kpfk

Read full story · Posted in HoneyLove Buzz

WATCH: “Killing Bees — Are Government And Industry Responsible?”

Please take 30 SECONDS to VOTE for a PESTICIDE FREE LOS ANGELES!!
VOTE HERE: http://myla2050.maker.good.is/projects/HoneyLove

Earth Focus Episode 44 via Link TV

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VOTE TODAY for a PESTICIDE FREE LA!

Please take 30 seconds to help out our urban pollinators:
VOTE & COMMENT NOW for a PESTICIDE FREE LOS ANGELES!!
http://myla2050.maker.good.is/projects/HoneyLove

vote2050cartoon

 

[art via seppo.net]

Read full story · Posted in HoneyLovin

WATCH: “A Disastrous Year for Bees…” via New York Times

Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms
By 

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.

The pesticide industry disputes that. But its representatives also say they are open to further studies to clarify what, if anything, is happening.

“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”

Jim Wilson/The New York Times Beekeepers with Big Sky Honey worked with hives used to pollinate almond groves in Bakersfield, Calif.

Beekeepers with Big Sky Honey worked with hives used to pollinate almond groves in Bakersfield, Calif.
Photo Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

In a show of concern, the Environmental Protection Agency recently sent its acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and two top chemical experts here, to the San Joaquin Valley of California, for discussions.

In the valley, where 1.6 million hives of bees just finished pollinating an endless expanse of almond groves, commercial beekeepers who only recently were losing a third of their bees to the disorder say the past year has brought far greater losses.

The federal Agriculture Department is to issue its own assessment in May. But in an interview, the research leader at its Beltsville, Md., bee research laboratory, Jeff Pettis, said he was confident that the death rate would be “much higher than it’s ever been.”

Following a now-familiar pattern, bee deaths rose swiftly last autumn and dwindled as operators moved colonies to faraway farms for the pollination season. Beekeepers say the latest string of deaths has dealt them a heavy blow.

Bret Adee, who is an owner, with his father and brother, of Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota, the nation’s largest beekeeper, described mounting losses.

“We lost 42 percent over the winter. But by the time we came around to pollinate almonds, it was a 55 percent loss,” he said in an interview here this week.

“They looked beautiful in October,” Mr. Adee said, “and in December, they started falling apart, when it got cold.”

Mr. Dahle said he had planned to bring 13,000 beehives from Montana — 31 tractor-trailers full — to work the California almond groves. But by the start of pollination last month, only 3,000 healthy hives remained.

Annual bee losses of 5 percent to 10 percent once were the norm for beekeepers. But after colony collapse disorder surfaced around 2005, the losses approached one-third of all bees, despite beekeepers’ best efforts to ensure their health.

Nor is the impact limited to beekeepers. The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees. Fewer bees means smaller harvests and higher food prices.

Almonds are a bellwether. Eighty percent of the nation’s almonds grow here, and 80 percent of those are exported, a multibillion-dollar crop crucial to California agriculture. Pollinating up to 800,000 acres, with at least two hives per acre, takes as many as two-thirds of all commercial hives.

This past winter’s die-off sent growers scrambling for enough hives to guarantee a harvest. Chris Moore, a beekeeper in Kountze, Tex., said he had planned to skip the groves after sickness killed 40 percent of his bees and left survivors weakened.

“But California was short, and I got a call in the middle of February that they were desperate for just about anything,” he said. So he sent two truckloads of hives that he normally would not have put to work.

Bee shortages pushed the cost to farmers of renting bees to $200 per hive at times, 20 percent above normal. That, too, may translate into higher prices for food.

Bill Dahle, the owner, described a startling loss of honeybees last year.
Photo Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Precisely why last year’s deaths were so great is unclear. Some blame drought in the Midwest, though Mr. Dahle lost nearly 80 percent of his bees despite excellent summer conditions. Others cite bee mites that have become increasingly resistant to pesticides. Still others blame viruses.

But many beekeepers suspect the biggest culprit is the growing soup of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that are used to control pests.

While each substance has been certified, there has been less study of their combined effects. Nor, many critics say, have scientists sufficiently studied the impact of neonicotinoids, the nicotine-derived pesticide that European regulators implicate in bee deaths.

The explosive growth of neonicotinoids since 2005 has roughly tracked rising bee deaths.

Neonics, as farmers call them, are applied in smaller doses than older pesticides. They are systemic pesticides, often embedded in seeds so that the plant itself carries the chemical that kills insects that feed on it.

Older pesticides could kill bees and other beneficial insects. But while they quickly degraded — often in a matter of days — neonicotinoids persist for weeks and even months. Beekeepers worry that bees carry a summer’s worth of contaminated pollen to hives, where ensuing generations dine on a steady dose of pesticide that, eaten once or twice, might not be dangerous.

“Soybean fields or canola fields or sunflower fields, they all have this systemic insecticide,” Mr. Adee said. “If you have one shot of whiskey on Thanksgiving and one on the Fourth of July, it’s not going to make any difference. But if you have whiskey every night, 365 days a year, your liver’s gone. It’s the same thing.”

Research to date on neonicotinoids “supports the notion that the products are safe and are not contributing in any measurable way to pollinator health concerns,” the president of CropLife America, Jay Vroom, said Wednesday. The group represents more than 90 pesticide producers.

He said the group nevertheless supported further research. “We stand with science and will let science take the regulation of our products in whatever direction science will guide it,” Mr. Vroom said.

A coalition of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the E.P.A. last week, saying it exceeded its authority by conditionally approving some neonicotinoids. The agency has begun an accelerated review of their impact on bees and other wildlife.

The European Union has proposed to ban their use on crops frequented by bees. Some researchers have concluded that neonicotinoids caused extensive die-offs in Germany and France.

Neonicotinoids are hardly the beekeepers’ only concern. Herbicide use has grown as farmers have adopted crop varieties, from corn to sunflowers, that are genetically modified to survive spraying with weedkillers. Experts say some fungicides have been laced with regulators that keep insects from maturing, a problem some beekeepers have reported.

Bees on a honeycomb pulled from a hive at Big Sky Honey. Photo Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Bees on a honeycomb pulled from a hive at Big Sky Honey.
Photo Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, said analysts had documented about 150 chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.

“Where do you start?” Dr. Mussen said. “When you have all these chemicals at a sublethal level, how do they react with each other? What are the consequences?”

Experts say nobody knows. But Mr. Adee, who said he had long scorned environmentalists’ hand-wringing about such issues, said he was starting to wonder whether they had a point.

Of the “environmentalist” label, Mr. Adee said: “I would have been insulted if you had called me that a few years ago. But what you would have called extreme — a light comes on, and you think, ‘These guys really have something. Maybe they were just ahead of the bell curve.’”

[view article on nytimes.com]

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