hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2015


Hives of controversy

As bees vanish, critics build a case against a class of pesticides


Contributing writer


Ross Conrad, a former president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, works with his bees at Dancing Bee Gardens in the town of Cornwall. Conrad is among the beekeepers in the Northeast who’ve become convinced that honeybees are being harmed by a relatively new class of pesticides. Joan K. Lentini photo


Jim Doan, a commercial beekeeper from western New York, traveled to Albany on a sunny August day to bear witness to a government meeting on safeguarding the honeybee.

The session last month was the first public meeting of a new state panel developing a “pollinator protection plan” for New York. It was dubbed a “listening session,” even though the only people invited to speak were the 12 appointed members of the new task force.

Pesticide companies and their lobbyists were well represented, Doan said. Besides the two beekeepers on the panel, he counted only five other beekeepers in the room. He fears the new task force will only make things worse for bees.

“It’s very difficult for a beekeeper to think he can get a fair shake,” Doan said.
The previous day he had flown home from Florida, where he had discovered that more than a thousand of his honeybee colonies had died. Only 60 hives survived. Six months earlier, the same hives were working in California, pollinating almonds.

“It was typical colony collapse disorder,” Doan said. “There was not a bee in the box.”
In colony collapse disorder, adult worker bees mysteriously disappear from a hive, typically leaving behind a live queen, immature bees and, often, plenty of food. Normally, when bees are overcome by disease, parasites or starvation, they die in the hive. But researchers came up with the name “colony collapse disorder” in 2006 after a dramatic increase in the number of hives in which bees simply left their hives and never came back.

The phenomenon, originally thought to occur only in winter, has continued to devastate bees for the past decade. Since 2006, more than 30 percent of honey colonies have been lost nearly every year in the United States, with significant losses occurring even in the warmer months.
Doan said his third-generation family business, based near Lake Ontario in western New York, had 5,600 hives when it took its first big hit nine years ago. At the time, he said, “I honestly believed it was my fault.”

Since then, he estimates he has lost nearly 20,000 hives. Despite plowing all of his family’s resources -- including the proceeds of the sale of their 112-acre farm -- back into the business, Doan said he has been unable to maintain anywhere close to the number of bee colonies he once had. And the number, he said, keeps dropping.


Chemical culprit?
According to the federal government, the cause of this devastation remains a mystery. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency both say no single cause of colony collapse disorder has been identified. The agencies have suggested a host of factors -- such as parasites and diseases, malnutrition and stress -- that may be at play.

Researchers operating on government grants and in state and federal research institutions are investigating various influences on honeybee health and looking for clues to the decline of wild bee species as well, but their findings have been inconclusive and contradictory.

But other scientists have amassed a great deal of evidence implicating a chemical culprit. They contend that a relatively new class of insecticides called neonicotinoids are behind colony collapse disorder. The chronic sub-lethal effects of these chemicals, they say, are weakening the insects and destroying their social organism. Regulators in Europe and in Canada’s most populous province have supported this conclusion.

In the United States, many distraught beekeepers have become convinced that neonicotinoids are behind their losses, and they have joined forces with some large environmental groups to push for changes.

Doan, for example, is one of four beekeepers named as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit they filed two years ago along with a coalition of environmental groups including the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club. The suit, which is still pending, demands that the EPA suspend the pesticide registrations of certain neonicotinoids that the plaintiffs claim have proven particularly toxic to bees.

Neonicotinoids, so named because of their chemical similarity to nicotine, have become ubiquitous over the past 15 years in the food system as well as in the environment at large. A new study by the American Bird Conservancy, which is concerned about neonicotinoids because the chemicals harm birds and the food web they depend on, found one or more these insecticides in 91 percent of the foods it sampled in the congressional dining rooms.

A neonicotinoid called imidacloprid is now the top-selling insecticide in the United States, and this overall class of insecticides may be the most widely used type globally – even though the use of some of the chemicals has been restricted in Europe. In the United States, hundreds of millions of acres of commodity crops are grown from seed coated with neonicotinoids, including virtually all conventional corn and most soybeans, sunflowers, wheat and canola.

Like many other insecticides, neonicotinoids kill insects by disabling their nervous systems. Neonicotinoids are designed to bind to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at the nerve synapses, resulting in paralysis.

But at much lower doses, scientists have shown that neonicotinoids harm bees, with effects on navigation, learning, behavior and immune function. Exposed bees become less able to perform daily tasks, and their colony suffers. In one study, honeybees exposed over time to neonicotinoids spent more of their time foraging but brought back smaller loads of pollen than bees from unexposed colonies.

Chemical companies invented neonicotinoids as an improvement over nicotine, a botanical poison from tobacco that had become obsolete for pest control. One benefit of the new synthetic compounds is their relative safety to people and other mammals at the time of application. And unlike nicotine, they don’t degrade quickly, so they retain their value as pesticides for much longer.

On the downside, however, these new chlorinated compounds may persist in the soil for years and are slow to break down in water as well.


Poisons that don’t wash off
Neonicotinoids differ from most insecticides in that they are systemic. When a plant is grown from neonicotinoid-treated seed, the insecticide is translocated to all its tissues. The plants themselves become toxic to the insect pests that try to feed on them, and the insecticides don’t wash off because they’re internal.

When bees drink nectar and collect pollen from treated crops -- or from dandelions or other weeds they visit near treated areas or even in subsequent years – they pick up small amounts of neonicotinoids. Another route of exposure is the fluid some plants, like corn, exude through their leaves to eliminate excess moisture. When bees drink this “guttation” fluid from neonicotinoid-treated crops, it can kill them.

A recent study by a Harvard School of Public Health professor found that bees are continuously ingesting neonicotinoids in the Northeast. The study by Chensheng “Alex” Lu, published in late July by The Journal of Environmental Chemistry, is the latest in a series of projects in which Lu has examined the link between neonicotinoids and the decline of honeybees.

In the new study, Lu’s team found at least one neonicotinoid insecticide in more than 70 percent of pollen and honey samples collected from April to August 2013 from foraging bees in Massachusetts. The researchers analyzed 219 pollen samples and 53 honey samples that cooperating beekeepers obtained from 62 hives in 10 of the state’s 14 counties. The concentrations of neonicotinoids found were in a range that could lead to detrimental health effects in bees, Lu said.

“There is no safe level for pollinators like bees, in part because of the cumulative effects over time,” Lu said in a telephone interview. “This is very serious.”

Finding pesticides in bee pollen wasn’t a surprise, but the prevalence and concentrations of neonicotinoids were alarming, he said. In 2007, Penn State University researchers identified 46 pesticides and their breakdown products in bee pollen, with up to 17 different pesticides in a single sample.

Searching for a connection
Lu’s research and his findings have made him a lightning rod for criticism from chemical companies, and his work has faced criticism from some of his peers. But his findings strike many beekeepers as disturbingly on target.

When he first became curious about the cause of colony collapse disorder several years ago, Lu said he began by ruling out other theories – ranging from mites to climate change to cell phone towers – for not correlating well in time and space with the rather abrupt appearance of the epidemic. Then he developed a hypothesis about a new source of exposure to neonicotinoids that researchers had not yet considered.

Many beekeepers give their bees high-fructose corn syrup as a feed to replace the honey they harvest. The corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, which used to be the beekeepers’ standard supplement. It’s also easier to handle; commercial beekeepers can even dispense it with hoses.
But with the widespread adoption of neonicotinoid-treated corn seed, Lu said, high-fructose corn syrup became contaminated with the insecticide.

In 2003, the EPA approved an emergency request by the German drug and pesticide conglomerate Bayer for a neonicotinoid called clothianidin to be allowed as a corn seed treatment. Critics say clothianidin is significantly more toxic to bees than other neonicotinoids then used on seeds. Within a year of clothianidin being allowed onto the market, beekeepers began reporting what would soon be dubbed colony collapse disorder.

Lu said the impetus for clothianidin’s new use was that the European corn borer had developed resistance to corn that had been genetically engineered to express proteins of the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Bt corn had been effective against the caterpillar pests until it was overused.

Initially only a small fraction of corn seed was treated with clothianidin. But over the past 11 years, the rate of treatment of corn and soybean seed increased by more than 80 percent, according to a 2015 Penn State study.

The seed treatment is used prophylactically, rather than in response to actual problems with insect pests.

“Basically farmers are told it’s crop insurance,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, who monitors the issue for the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

Farmers -- and even the businesses they buy seed from -- may not be aware that the seed is treated with neonicotinoids, as a recent call to a southern Vermont farm supply store revealed. (The owner said the tag on a sack of seed corn indicated it was treated with Cruiser Maxx Corn 250. This seed treatment, a brand name manufactured by the chemical company Syngenta, contains three fungicides plus clothianidin.)


Demonstrating a link
Lu decided to test his hypothesis in 2010 by comparing honeybee colonies fed high-fructose corn syrup with various sub-lethal doses of a neonicotinoid to control colonies fed unadulterated high-fructose syrup. But first his team had to locate some neonicotinoid-free syrup. They were able to buy a barrel of syrup, manufactured years earlier, from a beverage distributor.

In its first months, Lu’s initial experiment didn’t reveal much. All the bees behaved identically in the short term and, as late as November 2010 (the study began in the spring), the hives all looked the same. The researchers debated whether to simply end their study.

“We thought they weren’t hurting the bees at these concentrations,” said Richard Callahan, a beekeeper in Worcester County who has a doctorate in entomology and has assisted Lu with his honeybee research.

But in December, some of hives began dying. It was a blind study, so the hands-on collaborators didn’t know what dose of neonicotinoids, if any, was in the numbered vial that they were adding to the high-fructose corn syrup they fed to each hive. When they broke the code, they realized that the first hives to die were the ones that received the highest doses.

The researchers opened the hives in March. Where a hive should have 20,000 bees, the hives that had received neonicotinoid-treated syrup had only 50 or 100, Callahan said.

During the winter, bees don’t normally leave their hives. In the only control hive that died, the researchers found an inch-deep pile of dead bees at the bottom of the hive. But in the neonicotinoid-exposed hives, most of the bees had simply disappeared.

Because the control hives were interspersed with the neonicotinoid-treated hives, the deaths of the bees in the treated hives couldn’t be blamed on mites or some other factor -- “which is why industry got so scared,” Lu added.

When Lu sought to publish the results of his 2010 study, some journals resisted taking the manuscript. He eventually published the results two years later in an Italian journal called the Bulletin of Insectology, setting off a global discussion on the role of neonicotinoids in colony collapse disorder.

“The effects of the exposure that we introduced to the colonies didn’t show up until later generations,” Lu recounted. “It’s so fascinating.”

In contrast, he said, the USDA and EPA have focused only on short-term results in which bees’ exposure to neonicotinoids doesn’t cause any visible changes.

“They never want to discuss the cross-generational effect,” he said.

Lu said he thinks it’s lucky that the problems of honeybees have helped to alert people to broader environmental threats posed by neonicotinoids. As domesticated social insects, the bees provide a special opportunity for research, he said.

“You couldn’t study wild bees,” Lu explained. “God gave us this last chance.”


Mites and other factors
Not everyone agrees that neonicotinoids are a factor in, let alone the cause of, colony collapse disorder.

At Betterbee, a honeybee supply house in Greenwich, N.Y., that caters to hobbyists and small-scale commercial beekeepers, mainly in the Northeast, co-owner Jack Rath became visibly upset by the suggestion that pesticides could be the main culprit in colony collapse.

“The reason I cringed somewhat is that some folks are focusing on neonicotinoids as the problem,” Rath said.

A former large-animal veterinarian, Rath said there are many causes of colony collapse disorder and that to single out one “is not valid.”

He said he was familiar with Lu’s earliest studies, which he criticized for feeding bees “arbitrary” doses of neonicotinoids.

He conceded, however, that the pesticides are ubiquitous and “certainly” are overused.
“You can hardly find seed corn without neonicotinoids on it,” Rath said. “I don’t see why all corn has to be treated.”

But people who focus only on neonicotinoids, he said, “aren’t going to recognize other problems at least the same order of magnitude.”

Of the ones on his radar, Rath said the most serious is the varroa mite, which arrived in the United States in 1985. The parasite feeds on bee larvae’s blood, called hemolymph. Moving from bee to bee, these mites transmit potentially deadly bee viruses.

But Rath acknowledged that when bees expire from a viral load, they typically do so inside the hive, rather than abandoning the hive as they do in colony collapse disorder.

Living in a colony with a bad varroa mite infestation will shorten bees’ life span, because the young bees were weakened in the larval stage, which the mite prefers, he explained. The adult bees that are in a hive in the fall have to live until spring. But colonies are at risk of freezing if they lack a critical mass of warm bee bodies to make it through the winter.

“Personally, I’m far more concerned about helping people manage mites” than about the threat of neonicotinoids, Rath said.

Changing views
Ross Conrad, a beekeeper in Cornwall, Vt., is convinced neonicotinoids are the decisive factor behind colony collapse disorder, but he didn’t always hold that view.

“I used to believe, like many today, in the current thinking regarding CCD: that it has multiple causes from disease and mite pressures, to chemicals, environmental and dietary stress,” he wrote on the Web site of his business, Dancing Bee Gardens.

But he said “one small detail” kept bothering him: After the adult worker bees abandon the hive in colony collapse disorder, common insect pests don’t immediately invade the hive as they normally would.

Conrad contends that this characteristic distinguishes colony collapse from the mass die-offs of honeybees in the past. He knows of no evidence that honeybee diseases and parasites deter such scavengers.

“Of all the problems – mites, viruses, other diseases, nutrition -- pesticides are the thing that we have the most control over,” Conrad said. “Yet they’re the thing we’re doing the least about in this country.”

Conrad began learning about honeybees 23 years ago as an employee of a 1,000-hive commercial enterprise. Six year later, he acquired his own bees. He eventually wrote a book, “Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Beekeeping,” published in 2007 by Chelsea Green.

He said his hives have good winter survival because “my whole focus is to reduce the stress on the bees in every way I can.”

Unlike the many beekeepers who rely on chemical miticides, Conrad doesn’t use any chemicals in his hives, and he replaces old combs that may contain pesticides. He also avoids overharvesting and instead leaves plenty of honey for the bees.

When he finds a colony is short of food for overwintering, he feeds the bees real pollen and honey. If he doesn’t have real food and the bees need supplementation to avoid starving, he makes syrup from cane sugar, fortified with natural sea salt and chamomile or thyme tea for micronutrients. He does not use sugar made from sugar beets, which are genetically engineered and sprayed with Roundup and neonicotinoids.


Cumulative, synergistic effects
Conrad, a former head of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, said one of his big concerns is the persistence of the neonicotinoids in the environment.

“You can stop using the pesticide ... and it’s still in the soil, even though you’re not using it,” he said.

Bees also drink water that may be contaminated, he noted.

Neonicotinoids represent a shift away from the idea of integrated pest management and “smart farming,” he said, because pesticides are applied regardless of whether any pests are present. That’s more expensive and not good for the environment, Conrad said.

Seed treatments for crops like soybeans may not even benefit growers. A recent EPA study determined that neonicotinoid-coated soybean seeds planted in Iowa did not result in better protection from insect pests than untreated seed.

Conrad attributes the neonicotinoid problem to the lack of meaningful regulation of pesticides. He noted that EPA evaluates each pesticide in isolation, rather than looking at the formulation as a whole. Brand-name pesticide products, he noted, often contain ingredients that make the “active ingredient” more potent.

The EPA also doesn’t require tests for synergistic effects. And chemicals might affect an organism differently at different stages of life, but the government doesn’t require testing on all life stages.

Conrad said Vermont doesn’t have any confirmed cases of colony collapse disorder. It wasn’t clear, though, what criteria the state uses to determine an occurrence.

“Really, the only way to know if that’s what happened to your bees is to catch a hive when the queen is still there and there’s a lot of brood but very few adult bees,” Conrad said.

Andy Card, with 29,000 hives, ranks as one of the nation’s largest beekeepers. When he asked a well-known bee researcher at a university for help testing hives for neonicotinoids, he says he was met with hostility and told he probably has a mite problem.

The western New York beekeeper said he is tired of being told varroa mites are his real problem.
“Varroa mites are baseline,” Card said. Because they’ve been around for years, he indicated, he’s had to learn how to live with them.

Card said he has observed the effects of pesticides on his bees and honey production. Starting around 2006, when the corn seed industry was switching from imidacloprid to clothianidin (both are neonicotinoids), honey production in the hives he used for pollination services fell from about 40 pounds to a mere 12 pounds per year.


Exposure far from farms
It’s not just agriculture that is exposing bees to neonicotinoids. In California, where data on pesticide use is reported to the state, non-agricultural use of neonicotinoids has matched or even exceeded farm use in some years, according to Finck-Hayes.

In the Massachusetts study of pollen and honey contamination, Lu said many participating beekeepers sampled from hives in suburban areas. Neonicotinoid residues in these areas likely come from chemical lawn services and tree care companies, rather than from agriculture, he said.

In addition, the ornamental and vegetable plants sold in big-box stores frequently have been pre-treated with neonicotinoids.

When Friends of the Earth sampled bee-friendly flowering plants sold at Home Depot, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart in 18 cities across North America, the group found more than half had been pre-treated with neonicotinoids and contained residue levels that could harm bees.

Finck-Haynes said her group has been putting pressure on Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop selling plants t`reated with neonicotinoids and` pesticide products containing the chemicals. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions directed at these corporations.
Last summer, Home Depot announced that it would start labeling plants treated with neonicotinoids. But Finck-Haynes said the labels the company uses are inadequate.

A label found on a treated plant at an area Home Depot store reads, “This plant is protected from problematic aphids, white flies, beetles, mealy bugs and other unwanted pests by neonicotinoids.” It does not explain what neonicotinoids are or make any reference to their potential hazard to honeybees.

Lowe’s didn’t commit to any action until April this year, when the chain said it would phase out neonicotinoids from all plants and products within four years.

Finck-Haynes said Friends of the Earth is continuing to talk with both retail chains. They are also encouraging businesses and nurseries “not to swap out neonicotinoids for something more harmful to the environment,” she said.

‘Pollinator protection’
For some beekeepers who’ve been hit repeatedly by colony collapse disorder, trying to avoid exposure to neonicotinoids can feel like a losing battle.

North Dakota is the nation’s leading honey producer, but Doan, the New York beekeeper, said North Dakota’s “pollinator protection plan,” the first to be unveiled in the country, doesn’t do much to guard against pesticide exposure. The plan requires beekeepers to remove their bees from areas that will be sprayed with pesticides. Farmers and pesticide applicators are responsible for notifying the beekeepers 48 hours in advance of spraying but can’t be held liable for poisoning bees.

Doan calls this strategy “ludicrous.”

“I would love to know where we’re supposed to go,” he said.

The plan would do nothing to protect wild bees that also are vital to pollination.

Doan lives not far from Rochester, N.Y., in a region where flat land allows for huge expanses of corn, soy and wheat and gigantic combines that would be unimaginable in hilly New England. Farmers in his area, Doan said, have stepped up corn production to serve an ethanol plant on Lake Ontario.

State pollinator-protection plans will override well-established federal rules that prohibit spraying neonicotinoids or other bee-killing pesticides whenever bees are actively foraging or when crops are flowering.

At the same time, the EPA has been requiring changes to pesticide labels, ostensibly to add protections for pollinators.

But Jeff Anderson of California Minnesota Honey Farms, who has been closely watching EPA’s label revisions, contends they are actually narrowing protection for honeybees.

When beekeepers bring hives to pollinate crops or orchards under contract to a grower, for example, that grower is prohibited from spraying. But the EPA changes would allow neighboring landowners to make such pesticide applications. As in the North Dakota plan, the beekeeper would be responsible for moving or protecting the hives.

“What that means to me as a beekeeper is they’d like me to remove my bees from the agricultural landscape to facilitate off-label pesticide use,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he enjoyed beekeeping “before all these pesticides.” But when beekeepers lose their bees, he said, they lose income and must invest more money to get back on their feet.
He said he aims to start with 3,000 colonies every spring. He currently has 1,500 colonies, having lost 1,000 this summer.


Limits in Europe, Canada
This spring, the EPA placed a moratorium on new uses of neonicotinoids -- its first action against these insecticides since colony collapse disorder emerged. But more than 500 neonicotinoid products, with more than 100 approved uses, are already on the market.

Although the federal government has so far avoided blaming neonicotinoids for bee problems, however, use of the pesticides has been sharply limited in Europe and in the Canadian province of Ontario.

Starting in December 2013, the European Commission imposed a two-year ban on three common neonicotinoids as seed treatments and as sprays on bee-attractive plants and cereal crops. Earlier that year, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that neonicotinoids pose “an unacceptable risk” to bees.

Lu explained that under the precautionary principle used in Europe, if there’s enough evidence to suggest a pesticide is a problem, its use can be restricted or banned. In the United States, in contrast, the EPA is required to weigh the risks associated with a particular pesticide against its benefits. The burden of proof rests with the EPA to prove the pesticide presents a strong enough danger before it can act.

In Ontario, the provincial government has adopted a program to reduce plantings of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by 80 percent by 2017. Ontario’s beekeepers have been losing unusually large numbers of honeybee colonies each winter for the past eight years. After the winter of 2013-14, they reported losing 58 percent of their colonies.


Delaying tactics?
If neonicotinoids are harming bees, why aren’t more beekeepers united in speaking out against them?

Conrad said that although it’s very hard to get beekeepers to speak with a unified voice, that’s only part of what’s going on.

“Pesticide companies have been too effective with their misinformation,” he said.

Callahan, one of the beekeepers working with Lu, agrees that this is the modus operandi of the chemical companies.

“They’re coming up with research that muddies the water, just like the tobacco industry and the lead industry,” Callahan said. “It’s an old, proven technique that works: delay, delay, delay.”
Doan suggested other factors are at play.

“There are even commercial beekeepers that blame it on mites,” he observed.

The fact that neonicotinoids don’t kill honeybees immediately makes it much harder to recognize their dire effects, he added. Doan said beekeepers are more familiar with older chemicals like Marathon and Sevin that are extremely lethal to bees at the time they’re applied.

Given the essential role of the honeybee in pollinating economically important crops, they are considered the third most valuable livestock in the United States, Conrad said. But there are efforts under way to bypass the bees’ contribution.

Plant breeders, for instance, are trying to come up with varieties of almonds that don’t need pollinators. (The almond crop requires about two-thirds of the nation’s honeybees – more than 1.6 million hives – for pollination every year.)

And there’s another innovation that Conrad didn’t mention. Engineers are developing robotic bees as a stand-in for bee pollinators – and as a way of coping with colony collapse disorder. These tiny flying drones, which will have to weigh less than 1 gram, are not yet technically viable. But some believe they could be within the next 10 to 15 years.


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