Honey bees are one of nature’s most important assets, as pollinators of many flowers, fruits and vegetables, as well as honey producers. Keeping the insects around is a big deal to both those in the bee business and those who just like to eat.
But massive losses in honey bee populations are making many in and out of the industry nervous. A phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is grabbing most of the bee headlines and has since 2006, when the condition was given a name and people outside of the beekeeping arena became aware of just what losing so many bees could mean.
Kentucky state apiarist Sean Burgess said the state suffered high winter losses this year, something beekeepers did not need.
“A lot of beekeepers have lost up to 50 percent of their colonies, with an average of 35 to 40 percent losses this year,” he said.
While some winter losses are expected, those experienced this year were likely the result of early spring temperature swings from warm back to cold.
“The weather would warm up during the day, and bees would go out and forage, along with a lot of activity inside the hive. When the temperature dropped at night, the bees were forming loose clusters and freezing and dying,” Burgess said.
Normally, despite the winter temperatures outside, a tight cluster within the hive keeps inside temperatures in the low 90s.
However, the swings in temperatures this spring, coupled with last year’s extremely hot, dry weather, delivered a one-two punch to the bees and beekeepers. Burgess said unless bees were being fed supplementally last fall, the populations were already light going into the winter season.
All this will ultimately affect consumers. Burgess said, first, there will be less honey on the market and there will be fewer pollinators around for agricultural crops.
“Beekeepers right now are busy splitting their hives, trying to get their numbers back up to where they were, but that’s going to mean not as strong colonies to take advantage of the nectar flow,” he said.
And that could mean big dollar losses, as the value of bee pollination in the United States is about $19 billion, said Burgess, who is also a beekeeper himself with a 600-hive commercial operation in South Mississippi.
He said while he can’t speak as to whether other states are seeing the same losses as Kentucky, he did incur similar losses to his operation as temperature swings were present in that area, too.
Burgess also said that beekeepers could conceivably build back up their hive numbers this year, but the newer colonies won’t have the field force an unaffected hive would have.
While natural occurrences in the weather definitely have the ability to affect honey bee populations, many feel there are other factors contributing, like the use of pesticides. Modern agriculture is dependent on the use of pesticides to produce larger crops for ever-increasing world demands, but just what effects those chemicals are having on honey bees is now being debated on a very public stage.
Studies across the country and in other parts of the world have shown a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids may be harming many species, including the honey bee. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a statement last month that noted agency scientists have identified a number of risks posed to bees by three neonicotinoid insecticides.
“The [EFSA] was asked by the European Commission to assess the risks associated with the use of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam as seed treatment or as granules, with particular regard to their acute and chronic effects on bee-colony survival and development; their effects on bee larvae and bee behavior; and the risks posed by sub-lethal doses of the three substances,” the statement read.
Of those three, imidacloprid is one of the most widely used insecticides in the world. One of the conclusions of the study suggested the use of these chemicals should only be considered acceptable around crops not attractive to honey bees.
In the United States, a group of beekeepers and five different environmental and consumer groups have sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for “failing to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides.” In a release from the Center for Food Safety (CFS), one of those five groups, the agency pointed out that the EPA was formally petitioned a year ago and asked to suspend the use of clothianidin, one of the two pesticides listed in the suit.
“Beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups have demonstrated time and time again over the last several years that EPA needs to protect bees. The agency has refused, so we’ve been compelled to sue,” said CFS attorney Peter T. Jenkins. “EPA’s unlawful actions should convince the court to suspend the approvals for clothianidin and thiamethoxam products until those violations are resolved.”
Bayer Crop Science, the maker of clothianidin, sees things differently and in a document posted on its website notes that there has been no demonstrated effect on bee health associated with use of clothianidin or other neonicotinoid-based insecticides.
Randy Ison, president of the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association, said while CCD has brought most of the attention to the loss of honey bees, he feels like it is a pest known as the Varroa mite that is most dangerous to bees. The tick-like parasite first showed up in this country in the 1980s and was responsible for destroying most feral bee colonies along with devastation to managed colonies.
Ison said the problem with finding a chemical that can rid a colony of the Varroa mite is the fact that the bees are making a food that humans consume, which is something the EPA has to take into account when issuing permission to use such chemicals.
“That really changed things in the 1980s and made the domestic honey bee more important as pollinators,” he said. “In the last 20 years, we’ve gotten a lot better at controlling the Varroa mite, but that was probably the most devastating thing for honey bees in the last 20 to 30 years. CCD is not as threatening to the bee population; however, it has brought a lot of attention to the needs of the bees.”
Regardless of what is killing honey bees, most will argue it is something that will ultimately affect all consumers. In addition, the matter will likely remain a “he said, she said” issue, with environmental and food safety groups arguing for discontinuing the use of many chemicals while pesticide companies support studies showing no connection between their products and the loss of honey bees.