Good News and Bad News about Honeybees

News stories related to honeybee health the past few weeks are all over the map. Some headlines claim that new research proves that honeybees are dying off because of pesticides, while others say honeybees are doing just fine. But reality is different than either scenario. Beekeepers surely have their challenges, but banning pesticide’s won’t help them or their bees.

Much of the media “bad news” comes from a recent Harvard University study, which some say proves that a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids are to blame for colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which bees leave the hive and never return.

If we don’t ban these chemicals, these stories suggest, our food supply may be at risk. Yet ironically, if we do ban them, our food supply may be at greater risk because farmers will have a tougher time fighting pests that destroy crops. And they may have to resort to other pesticides that place bees at greater risk.

Yet the Harvard study did not really settle the issue anyway. In this study, researchers fed bees a relatively high level of the pesticides, which may not be a good reflection how the chemicals impacts bees in the real world. All this proves is that high pesticide levels can harm bees, it doesn’t prove that actual real-life exposures have the same impact. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who is the director of a honeybee research initiative called Bee Informed, pointed that out in a New York Times story, which notes:

Dr. vanEngelsdorp said that Dr. Lu and his colleagues gave the bees doses far beyond what they would encounter in nature, and over longer periods of time, so the new study only shows that “high doses of ‘neonics’ kill bees — which is not surprising.

Meanwhile a survey on honeybee health conducted by Bee Informed shows that bees did much better during the winter of 2013-2014 than prior years. And this happened despite the fact that neonicotinoids were used that year like the others. What explains the improvement? Beekeeper and policy scholar Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center explained in a recent blog post:

Such a significant decline in winter mortality indicates beekeepers are effectively changing their management techniques in response to losing hives. It also shows how hyperbole about honeybees is harming thoughtful discussion about the causes of CCD.

In fact, Engelsdorp noted that losses could have been much lower if beekeepers better managed varroa mites, which present a major challenge to honeybee health. And ironically, pesticides–which beekeepers use in hive to fight of mites and other insects that harm honeybees–are part of the solution. A press statement on the study explains:

“What is clear from all of our efforts is that varroa is a persistent and often unexpected problem,” said vanEngelsdorp. “Every beekeeper needs to have an aggressive varroa management plan in place. Without one, they should not be surprised if they suffer large losses every other year or so. Unfortunately, many small-scale beekeepers are not treating and are losing many colonies. Even beekeepers who do treat for mites often don’t treat frequently enough or at the right time. If all beekeepers were to aggressively control mites, we would have many fewer losses.”

There is no easy answer, but it does appear that pesticides are not the cause of CCD and bans won’t fix things, they will simply make it harder for farmers to grow food. It seems clear that many factors affect honeybee health, and the biggest risks come from diseases and other natural pests. The answer lies in better management of these risks. And if we eventually do find that pesticides are part of the problem–and this is yet to be determined–we should look for ways to manage the risks rather than ban useful products outright without regard to the consequences.

Any policy should ensure beekeepers can continue the great work they do while, at the same time, recognize the fact that farmers need tools–including pesticides–to produce an affordable food supply.