People generally know that substances that are harmless when taken separately in small doses can lead to disorientation, and perhaps uncharacteristic behavior, when mixed. Honey bees, apparently, do not. After all, dabbling is what honey bees do, and it's what we love them for. These little workers are responsible for billions of annual agricultural industry dollars, thanks to their pollination services. But bees haven't been staying on task. They've been acting a little weird lately--leaving their hives and not coming back--and attracting a lot of attention for it. Haagen-Dazs even created a flavor of ice cream in an effort to raise awareness about the phenomenon -- called Colony Collapse Disorder -- and funds for research on its causes at Penn State and UC Davis. The disorder is generally attributed to a variety of causes, including (depending on who you ask) parasites, viruses, mites, chemical exposure, and even radiation from cell phone towers.
While pesticides have consistently been acknowledged as a contributing factor within this problematic milieu, recent research at Penn State has revealed that pesticide levels in hives are much higher than researchers predicted. Beekeepers use some pesticides as an inexpensive way to combat varroa mites in their colonies. While the researchers were able to reduce the pesticide levels in beeswax foundation -- the wax that beekeepers use to create hive structures -- through irradiation, this only addresses part of the problem. The extraordinarily high levels of pesticides discovered in the bees, their honey, and their pollen, showed that pesticide exposure outside of the hives is contributing to the problem.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates agricultural pesticide use, but this regulation does not account for the interaction of these chemicals that inevitably takes place through the bees' pollination processes. Some of these combinations of pesticides have been found to have a synergistic effect hundreds of times more toxic than any of the pesticides individually, says James L. Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State. Bees' exposure to these toxic chemical combinations both outside of, and within, the home -- er, hive -- may cause behavioral changes. These changes include immune system blocks and disorientation, which may help to explain the CCD crisis of late.
Last year, the American Beekeepers' Federation, in a letter to the Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, encouraged Congress to pass the 2007 Farm Bill. The letter highlighted environmental regulation and enforcement as one of the beekeeping industry's priority issues, stating "the central role of bees in the environment and farm economy should be emphasized in environmental regulation and enforcement, including in the review and approval of new farm chemicals and treatments.... In the Farm Bill or otherwise, Congress should, among other things, mandate that sub-lethal effects on honey bees be considered in the regulatory process for new agricultural treatments."
Whether Congress follows through or not, organic farming and agricultural practices provide an approach to addressing the problem of pesticide toxicity in bees. The Institute of Science in Society stated in a recent press release that "organic farming practices that retain more natural habitats and avoid the use of chemical pesticides should provide environments that serve as honeybee sanctuaries from the ravages of CCD. There are scientific studies showing that agricultural landscapes with organic crops are far superior environments for both honey- and bumblebees. It would be prudent to create organic bee sanctuaries as widely and as soon as possible... There is every reason to eliminate the use of all pesticides that act synergistically with parasitic fungi, and all Bt crops should be banned for the same reason. Obviously, these problems will disappear with the widespread adoption of organic, non-GM farming."
Of course, organic agricultural practices are not the industry norm, and bees pollinate both organic and non-organic crops. This is why a "widespread adoption" of organic agricultural practices will indeed be necessary in addressing the pesticide problem.
In the meantime, Haagen-Dazs recommends that individuals plant flowers that attract and sustain local honeybee populations. Supporting organic agricultural practices, too, will help to keep the honeybees chemical-free, going to work for our agricultural economy, and returning to their rightful homes when the work is done.
There has been a lot of speculation as to the mysterious causes of CCD. This is a great article that focuses on pesticide use which seems like a very plausible and scary explanation to me. Are the bees another climate canary? It makes me wonder... what are these synergistic chemical reactions doing to us directly? A friend's Dad was recently diagnosed with a debilitating neurological disorder... he owned and operated a blueberry farm and doctors have said that the pesticides contributed to his disorder! An extreme case, but scary nonetheless.
Yes it's like the canary effect. And worse, with CCD becoming more of a problem, the whole agricultural industry will suffer. The industry bees support is then going and poisoning them! There are so many special interest groups and corporate sources keeping pestisides and GMO's in full circulation. The information is out there, about our backwards ways of food production AND the effects it's causing to the environment. This is a new example. The whole food industry needs to be organic, and this needs to be legally enforced. People can plant flowers and buy organic foods, but they should also write to congress and say that the American food production system needs to change.
We never think in terms of systems and how our behavior impacts broader environment. And in solving one isolated problem, we create several others--known and unknown. Pesticides actually keep the cost of food cheaper since there is less wastage/shrinkage--but as this artcile points out it also creates wholesale poisoning for other players in the system. I am just not sure how we break this cycle--especially as it becomes increasingly an internaitonal problem. we cannot even get agreement in America much less to Chinese, Indians and Europeans to agree--yet viruses, birds, bees, fish--know no national borders and so whatever takes place in one area will eventually show up in another.
I've been hearing about the mysterious disappearance of the bees for awhile but this article really helped to put it all in a larger context. Thanks! And so well written too...
I spoke with an entomologist at UW Madison this morning about CCD (colony collapse disorder) and she suggested that the major theory behind its presence is a widespread virus. This virus probably originated in Australian bees, which are shipped, as complete hives, to California to promote pollination during the spring. The reason that CA and other highly agricultural states need to do this with bee hives is that the spread of agricultural industry has destroyed native plant life so extensively that there is no food for "local" hives when the crops are not in bloom. As such, there is a large industry of shipping hives. Entomologists have found a virus in many of the bees from hives affected by CCD. Potential pathogens that may be to blame include the virus Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), and the pathogen Crithidia bombi (Otterstatter MC, Thomson JD., 2008). Models for spread of epizootic spread of infection predict much of what has been seen.
Great article, keep it up.
I know it's an older article, but I'm noticing MANY more honeybees this year than last, at least in the Eastern US.