The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

What is Happening to Our Bees?

What is Happening to Our Bees?

The Food Journal

January 22, 2015

You have read the story. Beekeepers are having a harder and harder time maintaining healthy hives. Between parasites, viruses, other diseases, poor nutrition and pesticide exposures, it’s getting difficult for beekeepers to stay in business.

Why it Matters

Pulitzer Prize winning author and insect biologist E. O. Wilson called bees “nature’s workhorses”. Up to 1/3rd of the global food supply relies on pollinators. Eighty percent of the flowering plants are pollinated by honey bees and other insects. USDA estimates that $18B of agricultural productivity in the U.S. is supported by honey bees. 

USDA Secretary Vilsack said: “The future security of America’s food supply depends on healthy honey bees.” Globally, bees pollinate 80% of the worldwide food supply. One bee colony is estimated to be able to pollinate 300 million flowers a day. Our fruit, nut and vegetable supply depends on bees for pollination. They are nature’s workhorses.

What Do We Know About the Stresses That Harm Bees?

Honey bees live short lives. Their lives are often measured in weeks. Bee numbers increase in the hot weather and decline over the cold months of the winter. In the past, keepers expected 10-15% of the bees to die during the cold months. That number has almost doubled. Losses during the rest of the year are also believed to be on the rise.

According to the California State Beekeepers Association, colony losses for (mostly) commercial beekeepers in the 2013-2014 winter were back up to the mid-30% range, which is about what they were at when “Colony Collapse Disorder” or “CCD" was at its worst. Bottom line: it's still a big problem.

The number one cause of poor bee health named by bee experts is the Varroa mite. This is a pest that attaches itself to bees somewhat like a tick and drains the bee of its resources. Varroa mites also spread a variety of viruses that can kill bees. Varroa mites came to the U.S. in 1987 and managing them is a difficult challenge. Beekeepers often need to use pesticides to keep Varroa mite populations under control.  

The California State Beekeepers Association puts the Varroa mite pretty close to the top of their public enemies list. While scientists have been looking into various control measures, much of these potential solutions are years away from approval, and few legal chemical interventions still work.

Poor nutrition is another major stress. Bees need flowers to obtain nectar and pollen. When there aren’t enough flowers, beekeepers have to feed their bees sugar syrup and the costs of that syrup add up quickly when you’re managing hundreds or thousands of hives.  

Recent colder winters have impacted hive health as has drought. The lack of forage for the bees also impacts their nutrition, making the bees and their colonies weaker. Because of the way bees are bred their genetics also play a role. Many insects have a greater genetic capacity to tolerate stresses than bees and bees are stressed. In the U.S. beekeepers move their hives from region to region depending on what crops need pollination. Many beekeepers make their money through pollination services and sell no honey. In fact 2/3rds of the hives (about 1.7 million hives) in the U.S. move to California each February for almond season to pollinate the trees.  

It’s also true that insecticides kill bees if sufficient exposures occur. You’ve probably heard a lot in the news about applications of Neonicotinoid (called neonics for short) to the seed before it is planted, as a lot of controversy currently surrounds its use. Interestingly, these seed treatments actually replaced spray applications of organophosphates and pyrethroids because they result in a reduced risk to humans and wildlife. 

Neonics are less toxic to mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles than many of the chemistries they replaced but, as insecticides, they are targeted to affect insects. When applied as a seed treatment, the plant takes up the neonic and is protected for several weeks against insect damage. It is a systemic insecticide. As the plant grows, the protective effect lessens, and concentrations of the pesticide plateau over time. In many cases this is sufficient to allow a good crop. Most of the corn, soybeans and cotton planted in the U.S. use these chemicals on the seeds when they are planted to prevent bugs from harming the seed and young plants. Some estimate that 200M acres of cropland are planted each year using seed treatments.  

“It is possible for farmers to raise a crop without the use of neonicotinoids, however, it would require them to revert back to alternative insecticides such as organophosphates and synthetic pyrethroids. Alternative pesticides would have to be applied in far greater quantities than neonics, meaning more passes through the field with a sprayer, higher likelihood of spray drift, and it would be a step backward in terms of environmental impact. Through the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments, farmers have substantially reduced the amount of insecticide applied, resulting not only in substantial cost savings for the farmer, but also reduced impact on non-target beneficial insects,” says Ethan Mathews, Director of Public Policy, National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), Washington, DC. 

Some recent studies show that pollen from the treated crops has very little pesticide in it and it is not enough to kill bees. It is also known that Australia, where neonics are commonly used but Varroa mites do not exist, is not experiencing the same honey bee health problems as the U.S. and Europe. Nevertheless, when seeds are treated it is critically important to ensure that the treated seeds are planted properly. Neonic-containing dust from treated crops needs to be controlled and seed packaging needs to be disposed of properly. Proper management of pesticides used in agriculture is the responsibility of manufacturers, retailers and applicators.  

Banning these insecticide applications outright would likely encourage growers to use older chemistries that may actually harm bees just as much or more. Some contend that this is exactly what is happening now in Europe following the suspension of neonic uses on bee-attractive crops.

“Pollinator health is a very complex issue and involves multiple factors including parasites and pathogens, nutrition, habitat, and pesticides. There is no silver bullet solution. Banning of neonics will only further exacerbate the problem,” adds Mathews. 

The USDA and EPA are also reviewing the science and practices needed to help maintain pollinator health. This stems from the President’s declaration. In addition, the Government of Canada is considering action

Jeff Leal, Spokesperson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ontario, says that they are working with farmers, beekeepers and all others impacted to implement a plan sensitive to their needs, and that they will continue working collaboratively with their partners as they move towards a balanced, practical approach that improves the health of Ontario’s pollinators, protects the environment and supports the growth of the agri-food sector. A discussion paper is now available online for public comment until January 25, 2015. In addition, consultation sessions based on the discussion paper are currently being held.

“We know, and farmers recognize, there are risks associated with the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. We also know that, in certain circumstances, they are an important tool for farmers and help to increase production and maintain a reliable food supply for our province. In order to support a healthy pollinator population, we have proposed balanced, aspirational goals. These include a reduction in the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by 80 percent by 2017 and an over-winter honeybee mortality rate of 15 per cent by 2020,” says Leal.

What is the Honey Bee Health Coalition?

Launched in June 2014, the Honey Bee Health Coalition is an important player in helping save our bees. They are a broad, diverse stakeholder alliance that is working to promote solutions for honey bee health. The Coalition brings together more than 30 organizations and agencies from across food, agriculture, government and conservation. They work across the food and agriculture value chain and across the North American landscape. The Coalition includes beekeepers, crop producers, agribusinesses, environmentalists, regulators, scientists, and academics – and continues to grow. The Coalition is working to achieve a vision of Healthy Honey Bees, Healthy People, Healthy Planet. 

“Our mission is to collaboratively implement solutions to achieve a healthy population of honey bees, healthy populations of native and managed pollinators, productive agriculture systems, and thriving ecosystems. Honey bees support billions of dollars annually in North American and global agriculture. Unacceptable declines in honey bee health put food supplies and healthy diets at risk. Improvements for honey bee health also benefit the health of other pollinators and ecosystems,” says Julie Shapiro, Senior Associate, The Keystone Center and Facilitator for the Honey Bee Health Coalition.

The Honey Bee Health Coalition is building shared solutions to address the multiple factors impacting honey bee health (**see below for their Bee Healthy Roadmap). Since honey bee health is a multi-factor problem with no single "silver bullet" solution, the Coalition is working to address the various factors influencing honey bee health, including hive management for pests and pathogens, access to high quality forage and nutrition, crop pest control and management, and outreach, education coordination. Through its unique network of private and public partners, Coalition members have come together to roll up their sleeves, find and scale up solutions that work, and invest in new initiatives. 

So What Do We Do?

We need to continue the research but we know that several factors are hurting the bees. Because of that we need to:

**What is the Honey Bee Health Coalition’s Bee Healthy Roadmap?

The Honey Bee Health Coalition’s Bee Healthy Roadmap outlines critical priorities for collective action and steps for working together to improve honey bee health. The Roadmap identifies 4 top priorities for improving honey bee health that need collective, science-based action. It places an emphasis on collaboration that will accomplish more than any one group can achieve on its own. The 4 priority areas are:

The Coalition aims to support on-the ground efforts underway to provide beekeepers with monitoring and expert advice and analyses to best manage hive health, as well as to promote development of new products and use of best practices for Varroa mite control.

The Coalition is working on how to prioritize where forage is needed, what plants are needed, and at what times – and on public-private strategies to meet nutritional needs.

The Coalition is promoting best practices to safeguard honey bee health and exploring opportunities to promote and improve reporting of honey bee health incidents related to crop pest control.

The Coalition is promoting public-private collaboration across diverse stakeholders, including State and local governments, farmers, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations.