“Tampering” With Nature To Save Honeybees

Environmental groups are calling for an immediate suspension of an entire class of pesticides in order to save ailing honeybee populations—and they won’t wait for results of a recently launched federal effort to study the problem. But the greens' strategy won’t help the honeybees because it targets the least likely cause of recent beehive losses and ignores the more likely ones.

Underlying the activists’ ban-now-think-later approach is the assumption that mankind’s “tampering” places our food supply at risk by harming honeybees needed to pollinate crops. But it’s actually thanks to so-called human “tampering” that honeybees pollinate our crops in the first place. And it will be thanks to human efforts that honeybees will continue their work.

Not even native to America, honeybees were originally imported from Europe for honey production and crop pollination, although some colonies now live in the wild. Like cattle, they are an agricultural commodity that is farmed and managed by helpful human hands, in this case, by beekeepers. 

Beekeepers replace a number of colonies every year, and annual losses of nearly 20 percent are considered acceptable in a survey conducted by the Bee Informed research initiative. Yet higher than usual losses of up to 30 percent in recent years are partly attributed to a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Researchers attribute hive losses to CCD when most or all adult honeybees fail to return after emerging from winter hibernation, thus leaving behind honey, a live queen, and immature bees. 

Like other threats to honeybee health, CCD is a concern because farmers rely on honeybees for the production of many fruits, nuts, and vegetables. While CCD is unlikely to completely undermine production of these foods, it could make them more expensive.

The cause of CCD is unknown, but appears that multiple stressors make hives more susceptible, such as cold winters, nutritional deficiencies, and new diseases, particularly the parasitic Varroa mite. Beekeepers control mites and other pests with pesticide applications inside hives, which, although necessary, adds another stress.

It is the beekeeper’s task to manage these factors and produce robust, healthy hives that can also manage the stress of a very challenging job. Indeed, beekeepers around the nation transport some 60 percent of all U.S. hives to pollinate California’s almond farms in spring, and then move them throughout the spring into the summer to pollinate yet more crops around the nation.

Greens single out a single potential stressor by focusing on crop protection chemicals called neonicotinoids. Applied to the seeds or plants, neonicotinoids prevent significant crop damage associated with pests, while keeping the impact on non-target species low. And despite claims to the contrary, there is little correlation between the use of these chemicals and CCD. 

For example, a survey on honeybee health conducted by Bee Informed shows that bees did much better during the winter of 2013-2014 than in prior years, despite the continued use of neonicotinoids. A recent survey in Europe shows basically the same thing. And in other places where these chemicals are used, such as in Australia, CCD is not a significant problem.

Still, others say that a Harvard University study convicts the pesticides. It compared hives fed a diet that included traces of these pesticides to exposure-free hives. The exposed hives suffered more losses, but the doses in this study were too high to compare with real life exposures. All this proves is that “high doses of ‘neonics’ kill bees — which is not surprising,” explained Bee Informed Director Dennis vanEngelsdorp in the New York Times.

Moreover, the Harvard Study ignores the recent improvements in hive survival this past year that show changes to hive management are making a difference. In particular, beekeepers appear to be doing a better job controlling Varroa mites by treating the hives with pesticides.

Changes in commercial bee keeping warrant such modifications to hive management practices. New challenges have emerged as this industry has become more concentrated with fewer beekeepers managing larger operations than ever before. On top of that, increased globalization has transported hive diseases more widely around the world.

If agricultural use of pesticides plays a role in CCD, it does not appear large or causal.

The federal “National Pollinator Health Strategy” and other honeybee protection efforts should focus on managing hive risks, rather than random bans. After all, the ultimate goal here is to produce food affordably—a process that involves both protecting the bees and our crops.