Bees are More Important than You Think

Paul Driessen, who is a regular contributor on enviro issues and climate, provides an in depth discussion of the bees.

Paul is a serious man, this essay provides serious research on the question of pesticides and bees and what the bees do, and how to protect bees and the crops that they pollinate, critical to agriculture.

I learned a lot, you will to.

Perils of commercial beekeeping
Honeybees pollinate crops but endure stress, parasites and disease. Solutions are coming.
Paul Driessen
One of America’s earliest food crops – almonds – is also one of the most important for commercial beekeepers. Almonds depend on bees for pollination, but the explosive growth of this bumper crop taxes the very honeybees the industry needs to thrive.
California’s Central Valley produces over 80% of the world’s almonds, valued at over $4 billion in 2012. The boom is poised to continue, with new food products and expanding overseas markets increasing demand to the point that no young almond trees are available for purchase until 2016.
Demand for almonds translates into demand for pollination. So every year commercial beekeepers transport some 60% of all US honeybees to California’s almond groves in February and March, when it’s still winter in most other states. It’s one of their biggest challenges.
For one thing, bee colonies, especially those from northern states, lack sufficient time to emerge from their heat-conserving winter clusters. Some beekeepers thus maintain 20,000 to 30,000 hives. Each one requires careful inspection for diseases and parasites – a meticulous, Herculean task on such a scale.
Complicating the situation, beekeepers are trying to work within a large-scale agricultural system, using an insect whose husbandry practices have changed little since the nineteenth century. The larger the commercial beekeeper’s stock, the harder it can be to tend them and recover from financial setbacks in the form of lost bees.
Almond growers will need 1.5 million hives this year, estimates Colorado beekeeper Lyle Johnston. “It takes almost all the commercial bees in the United States,” to pollinate the almond crop, he says. The payoff can amount to half an individual keeper’s yearly profit.
However, bees can come back from California “loaded with mites and every other disease you can think of,” beekeeper Ed Colby explains. That can often mean bee colony deaths. Last year, US beekeepers experienced an average 30% overwinter bee loss; some lost 10% to 15% of their hives, while others lost much more. It’s a normal cost of doing business, but it can be painful.
Last year’s rate was higher than normal, and higher than any keeper would want. But it was not the “bee-pocalypse” that some news stories claimed. The real story is that efforts to identify a single unifying cause for higher-than-usual losses have failed. Scientists are discovering that multiple issues affect bee health.
Urban, suburban and agricultural “development has reduced natural habitats, clearing out thousands of acres of clover and natural flowers,” a 60 Minutes investigative report observed. “Instead, bees are spending week after week on the road, feeding on a single crop, undernourished and overworked.”
The migration itself is stressful, notes Glenwood Springs, Colorado Post-Independent reporter Marilyn Gleason. “First, there’s the road trip, which isn’t exactly natural for bees, and may include freezing cold or scorching heat. Bees ship out of Colorado before the coldest weather, and drivers may drench hot, thirsty bees with water at the truck wash.”
The convergence in almond groves of so many commercial bees from all over the country creates a hotbed of viruses and pathogens that can spread to many hives. The varroa destructor mite carries at least 19 different bee viruses and diseases, causing major impacts on bee colonies. Parasitic phorid flies are another problem, and highly contagious infections also pose significant threats. The intestinal fungus nosema ceranae, for example, prevents bees from absorbing nutrition, resulting in starvation.
The tobacco ringspot virus was likewise linked recently to the highly publicized problem known as “colony collapse disorder.” CCD occurs when bees in a colony disappear, leaving behind only a queen and a few workers. The term originally lumped together a variety of such “disappearing” disorders recorded in different locales across hundreds of years, as far back as 950 AD in Ireland. Thankfully, as during past episodes, these unexplained incidents have declined in recent years and, despite all these challenges, overall US honeybee populations and the number of managed colonies have held steady for nearly 20 years.
These days, perhaps the biggest existential threat to bees is campaigns purporting to save them. Extreme-green groups like the Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network of North America are blaming an innovative new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids for both over-winter bee losses and CCD.
Allied with several outspoken beekeepers, the activists are pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency and government regulatory agencies to follow Europe’s lead – and ban neonics. Instead of protecting bees and beekeepers, however, their campaigns will likely cause greater harm – because they ignore the multiple threats that scientists have identified, and because a neonic ban will result in farmers using pesticides that are more toxic to bees.
The European Union’s political decision to suspend neonic use came because France’s new agriculture minister banned their use. That meant French farmers would be at a distinct disadvantage with the rest of Europe, if they were the only ones unable to use the pesticide, noted British environmental commentator Richard North. They could lose $278 million per season in lost yields and extra pesticide spraying.
So the French agricultural ministry sought an EU-wide ban on all neonicotinoids. After several votes and a misleading report on the science, the European Commission imposed a ban, over the objections of many other EU members, who note that the evidence clearly demonstrates the new pesticides are safe for bees.
Years-long field tests have found that real-world exposures have no observable effects on bee colonies. Other studies have highlighted other significant insect, fungal, human and other issues that, singly or collectively, could explain CCD. Having analyzed scores of 2007-2012 bee death incidents, Canadian bee experts concluded that “…very few of the serious bee kills involve neonicotinoid pesticides. Five times as many ‘major’ or ‘moderate’ pesticide-related bee kills were sourced to non-neonic chemicals.”
In Canada’s western provinces, almost 20 million acres of 100% neonic-treated canola is pollinated annually by honeybees and tiny alfalfa leaf-cutter bees. Both species thrive on the crop, demonstrating that neonics are not a problem. Large-scale field studies of honeybees at Canadian universities and a bumblebee field study by a UK government agency found no adverse effects on bees.
Last October, a team of industry scientists published a four-year study of the effects of repeated honeybee exposure to neonic-treated corn and rapeseed (canola) pollen and nectar under field conditions in several French provinces. The study found similar mortality, foraging behavior, colony strength and weight, brood development and food storage in colonies exposed to seed-treated crops and in unexposed control colonies. This also indicates low risk to bees.
At least two more major, recently completed university-run field research projects conducted under complex, costly scientific laboratory guidelines (“good lab practices”) are awaiting publication. All indications to date suggest that they too will find no observable adverse effects on bees at field-realistic exposures to neonicotinoids.
Meanwhile Project ApisM., a partnership of agro-businesses and beekeepers, has invested $2.5 million in research to enhance the health of honeybee colonies. Switzerland-based Syngenta has spent millions expanding bee habitats in Europe and North America, through Project Pollinator. Bayer has built bee health centers in Europe and the United States, and Monsanto’s Beeologics subsidiary is developing technology to fight varroa mites.
None of that matters to the anti-pesticide activists. They are using pressure tactics to make Canada and the United States copy the EU. That would be a huge mistake. Science, not politics, should prevail.
Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow ( and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power – Black death.

6 responses to “Bees are More Important than You Think

  1. Good article. Thank you………

  2. The issue I’m not understanding is that … if there’s some chemical or organic (bacterial/viral/etc.) cause that’s killing off (for argument’s sake) 30 percent of the bees (above baseline deaths) this year, then just about all the remaining ones in the colony should be resistant (ok, let’s use that “E” word – “evolved”) to that stressor. Ok, it’s not a one for one equivalence, but after the first year’s 30 percent die off the next year should only be (again, for sake of argument), perhaps five percent above baseline, and then one percent. In a couple of years things should be back to normal, right?

    • That’s a little bit like saying “Everyone who caught food poisoning this year and didn’t die from it should be immune in following years,” or even “Everyone who survived food poisoning to produce viable offspring later should find those children to be immune.” It works that way for some few diseases under certain circumstances, but mostly it just depends on how bad a case you had and how stressed your immune system was at the time.

      Consider: “AIDS/HIV” has never actually killed anyone at any time; it was whatever follow-on opportunistic illness took advantage of the compromised immune system. Often the fatal illness is something like the flu or pneumonia, and often of what would typically be considered a “low-risk” or “mild” strain. In this case, stressing the colonies as badly as they currently do results in multiple threats — which might normally be considered minor or avoidable — reaping a ~30% toll annually.

      My question would be, why aren’t people simply growing the colonies there in California in the first place? It certainly seems like the market is there for it, and having bees in place would remove the incentive for other keepers around the country to expose their hives to that kind of risk. It would also coincidentally lower the chance that these illnesses could hitch cross-country rides to infect bees which would otherwise remain unexposed. Is there something that prevents an expansion of the local/native population beyond current levels, such that “migrant hives” are the only/best solution?

  3. I’m not for bees dying. I hope they sell a lot of almonds.

    Okay, now that I’ve got that out of the way, I marvel at the irony of our modern world, that we are having trouble with an introduced species, honey bees, that we need to pollinate another introduced species, almonds.

  4. Hank de Carbonel

    I agree, why not develop colonies in California? Another option would be to build suitable transport for bees. We have refer trucks, insulated vans etc. Building the proper vehicle should be simple, knowledge must be readily available.

  5. I like the phrase “Scientists are discovering that multiple issues affect bee health.” This truth has been known to beekeepers for thousands of years. No one familiar with basic biology should suspect otherwise. It’s only the alarmist, ratings-seeking media and faux scientific reporting that allege there might be some unifying mystery disease the world has never seen before, but we’ve already covered all of that.

    All the talk of “natural habitat” and “unnatural stresses of travel” is inconsequential because these are farm raised bees. There hasn’t been a natural day in their life. There would be fewer bees if humans weren’t raising them. Every farmed asset takes annual losses that change from year to year. Sometimes you have a bad year; sometimes you have a good year. Bees that are bred for transport dying during transport is similar to produce going bad before it’s purchased at the grocery store. Competent farmers deliberately over-produce to account for expected losses. Reducing those losses is a great way to improve efficiency, but the cost of implementing loss prevention must be lower than the cost incurred through the losses. It’s up to the business owners to make those decisions.

    If the annual loss of bees being transported was really so high as to endanger the profitability of the industry, they would be investing more money into the obvious solutions already mentioned here. As it stands, search “California beekeeping” and you’ll find there are are loads of apiaries in the state and their number is growing in no small part due to the almond industry’s demand.

    Another quick tidbit, “On average during the year, about one percent of a colony’s worker bees die naturally per day”. Is it really that unusual to lose 15-20% of the bees being transported considering how short their life-span is?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s