Encouraging News about Honeybee Health

A recently released study in Europe reports some good news about honeybee health, which should prompt public officials to reexamine a recent ban on some agricultural products. “It’s the first major study of pests and diseases that affect honeybees. A lot of it seems very encouraging,” honeybee researcher Tom Breeze, says in a Reuters news story.

The study examines honeybee populations in Europe after recent disappearances of entire bee colonies during the winter—a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder—which began in 2006 and has continued to be a problem with large losses reported after the winter of 2012-2013.

After hives suffered considerable losses in some places in Europe, the EU took a knee jerk response by banning a class of pesticides that makes food production more affordable. Ironically, the ban is supposed to ensure agricultural productivity by protecting these pollinators, but elimination of crop protection products may undermine food production, and it’s not likely to solve colony collapse disorder.

The chemicals, called neonicotinoids, are systemic products that can be applied to seeds, which eventually produce plants that systemically can fight off pests without the need for regular spraying. There are many reasons to doubt claims that neonicotinoids cause, or significantly contribute to, colony collapse disorder in any case. For more details, read Jon Entine’s superb Forbes.com series on the topic, as well as the many articles posted on SafeChemicalPolicy.org.

This latest study adds another wrinkle to the debate, indicating that the problem is not as widespread as people think, and that other factors are in play, such as cold weather. It underscores why we need to continue to study the issue rather than push rash and unhelpful bans.

Specifically, it examines bee mortality during the winter of 2012-2013 when many beekeepers reported missing colonies.

honeybee_mortality_europe_2The report notes that beekeepers expect to lose a certain amount of bees every winter, and the story authors say that “acceptable” winter mortality rates range from 10 to 15 percent. They selected 10 percent for Europe, while noting that in the U.S. the acceptable loss is up to 15 percent, and that “this threshold can be discussed because in some areas beekeepers can experience lower or higher mortality rates considered bearable.” That said, the good news is that many of the countries in the study experienced losses below the 10 percent level. You can see a snapshot of the data in the chart provided in this post and the distribution in the map from the report included here as well.

Unusually high losses of bees in the winter was largely isolated to northern climates of Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Belgium. The honeybees suffered most in colder climates during an unusually cold winter. In fact, the report notes:

When looking at the map, high rates of winter mortality were located in the Northern member states of the European Union suggesting a strong geographical influence probably due to climate. It should be remembered that the 2012-2013 winter has been particularly long and cold in Europe. The effect of long and cold winters on colony survival is well known in cold countries although it has not been accurately documented in scientific papers. Specific statistical analysis will be performed in the future to better study the spatial distribution of colonies losses.

map_bee_mortalityThe distribution on this map is interesting given that neonicotinoids were used in many places where bees survived very well. For example, beekeepers complained the chemicals were wreaking havoc in Greece in 2013, yet the nation actually had a lower than acceptable hive loss for that year. This situation underscores the fact that some beekeepers and environmental activists are jumping the gun, blaming neonicotinoids for colony collapse disorder even in regions and years where evidence of a problem is lacking.

Other interesting findings includes the fact that 47 percent of all honeybee hives in this study [which covered 80 percent of all honeybee hives in Europe] experienced losses under the acceptable level of 10 percent. Another 27.7 percent experienced losses of only 10 to 15 percent. In other words nearly 75 percent of the hives experienced losses below 15 percent, which is indicates a reasonably good honeybee hive survival rates for a large portion of the hives in Europe. In fact, only 5 percent of the hives suffered more than 20 percent losses.

This report highlights the fact that if we want to save our pollinators, we need to continue researching the likely causes of colony collapse disorder rather than arbitrarily banning pesticides. Not only may bans be unhelpful, they could lead farmers to use substitute products that are are more dangerous to honeybees and that don’t work as well, reducing crop production and raising consumer prices.