A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.
A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.
The pesticide industry disputes that. But its representatives also say they are open to further studies to clarify what, if anything, is happening.
“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”
In a show of concern, the Environmental Protection Agency recently sent its acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and two top chemical experts here, to the San Joaquin Valley of California, for discussions.
In the valley, where 1.6 million hives of bees just finished pollinating an endless expanse of almond groves, commercial beekeepers who only recently were losing a third of their bees to the disorder say the past year has brought far greater losses.
The federal Agriculture Department is to issue its own assessment in May. But in an interview, the research leader at its Beltsville, Md., bee research laboratory, Jeff Pettis, said he was confident that the death rate would be “much higher than it’s ever been.”
Following a now-familiar pattern, bee deaths rose swiftly last autumn and dwindled as operators moved colonies to faraway farms for the pollination season. Beekeepers say the latest string of deaths has dealt them a heavy blow.
Bret Adee, who is an owner, with his father and brother, of Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota, the nation’s largest beekeeper, described mounting losses.
“We lost 42 percent over the winter. But by the time we came around to pollinate almonds, it was a 55 percent loss,” he said in an interview here this week.
“They looked beautiful in October,” Mr. Adee said, “and in December, they started falling apart, when it got cold.”
Mr. Dahle said he had planned to bring 13,000 beehives from Montana — 31 tractor-trailers full — to work the California almond groves. But by the start of pollination last month, only 3,000 healthy hives remained. …
… Monsanto introduced three different strains of patented, GE corn between 1997 and 2003 (RoundUp Ready, and two Bt-expressing variants aimed at controlling the European Corn Borer and corn root worm). Clothianidin entered the U.S. market under conditional registration in 2003, and in 2004 corn seed companies began marketing seeds treated with a 5X level of neonicotinoids (1.25 mg/seed vs. .25).
… and in the space of a decade, U.S. corn acreage undergoes a ten-fold increase in average insecticide use. By 2007, the average acre of corn has more than three systemic insecticides — both Bt traits and a neonicotinoid. Compare this to the early 1990s, when only an estimated 30-35 percent of all corn acreage were treated with insecticides at all….
Neonicotinoids are known to synergize with certain fungicides to increase the toxicity of the former to honey bees up to 1,000-fold, and fungicides may be key culprits in undermining beneficial bee microbiota that do things like make beebread nutritious and support immune response against gut pathogens like Nosema. Fungicide use in corn is likewise destroying beneficial fungi in many cropping systems, and driving the emergence of resistant strains.
As with insecticides and herbicides, so too with fungicide use on corn: Corn farmers are stuck on a pesticide treadmill on high gear, with a pre-emptively pressed turbo charge button (as “insurance”). Among the many casualties are our honey bees who rely on corn’s abundant pollen supply.
Keeping us all tethered to the pesticide treadmill is expected behavior from the likes of Monsanto. But what boggles the mind is that all of this is being aided and abetted by a USDA that ties cheap crop insurance to planting patented Bt corn, and a Congress that refuses to tie subsidized crop insurance in the Farm Bill to common-sense conservation practices like bio-intensive IPM. …
No farmer in their right mind wants to poison pollinators. When I spoke with one Iowa corn farmer in January and told him about the upcoming release of a Purdue study confirming corn as a major neonicotinoid exposure route for bees, his face dropped with worn exasperation. He looked down for a moment, sighed and said, “You know, I held out for years on buying them GE seeds, but now I can’t get conventional seeds anymore. They just don’t carry ’em.”This leaves us with two questions: 1) What do GE seeds have to do with neonicotinoids and bees? and 2) How can an Iowa corn farmer find himself feeling unable to farm without poisoning pollinators? In other words, where did U.S. corn cultivation go wrong?
The short answer to both questions starts with a slow motion train wreck that began in the mid-1990s: corn integrated pest management (IPM) fell apart at the seams. Rather, it was intentionally unraveled by Bayer and Monsanto.
Honey bees caught in the cross-fire
Corn is far from the only crop treated by neonicotinoids, but it is the largest use of arable land in North America, and honey bees rely on corn as a major protein source. At least 94% of the 92 million acres of corn pl
anted across the U.S. this year will have been treated with either clothianidin or thiamethoxam (another neonicotinoid).
As we head into peak corn planting season throughout the U.S. Midwest, bees will once again “get it from all sides” as they:
- fly through clothianidin-contaminated planter dust;
- gather clothianidin-laced corn pollen, which will then be fed to emerging larva;
- gather water from acutely toxic, pesticide-laced guttation droplets; and/or
- gather pollen and nectar from nearby fields where forage sources such as dandelions have taken up these persistent chemicals from soil that’s been contaminated year on year since clothianidin’s widespread introduction into corn cultivation in 2003.
Over the last 15 years, U.S. corn cultivation has gone from a crop requiring little-to-no insecticides and negligible amounts of fungicides, to a crop where the average acre is grown from seeds treated or genetically engineered to express three different insecticides (as well as a fungicide or two) before being sprayed prophylactically with RoundUp (an herbicide) and a new class of fungicides that farmers didn’t know they “needed” before the mid-2000s.
A series of marketing ploys by the pesticide industry undergird this story. …
Odd theory: the US is now under a massive bio-attack from a foreign government.