Production Blog

Honey, Protect the Kids

Bees love butterfly weed, but a new study shows honeybees collect most of their pollen from sources other than corn and soybeans; still, pesticides remain an issue. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- I want to tell my bee children to be careful. Don't take pollen from just any flower, no matter how sweet it might seem. In other words, there is no safe zone for a bee.

This motherly reaction to keeping my bees safe comes after spending the better part of a week mulling over the meaning of a pollen study released by Purdue University entomologist Christian Krupke. He and another researcher set beehives in various locations in an attempt to see what kind of exposure bees were getting to pesticides.

What they found was bees forage on an amazing number of plants, don't particularly like to dine on corn and soybean, but gather in similar pesticides regardless of where they eat.

I wasn't too surprised about the diversity of plants. We know bees forage in a two to three miles radius of their colony looking for high quality nectar and pollen. Generally that is not corn and beans unless some beekeeper has placed his or her colonies in 10,000 acres of production agriculture and they have no choice.

What was surprising to me was Krupke's study found little difference in the number and the type of pesticides in pollen. It didn't matter if the hives were place in a meadow, near a non-treated field or next to a field loaded with inputs -- they all brought home a potent cocktail of pesticides.

Fungicides and herbicides led the list of pesticides detected in Krupke's study. Pyrethroids were the most common insecticide found and presence of that pesticide spiked in the waning summer months. Krupke blamed late season mosquito, hornet and wasp sprays.

Agriculture groups heralded the study as good news because the study definitely pointed to the fact that homeowners and other nonagricultural uses shoulder at least some of the responsibility for pollinator health. In other words, planting a few flowers to honor bees doesn't do much to help when you keep the lawn looking like the 18th hole at Augusta.

"The sheer numbers of pesticides we found in pollen samples were astonishing," he said. "Agricultural chemicals are only part of the problem. Homeowners and urban landscapes are big contributors, even when hives are directly adjacent to crop fields."

Krupke said the study suggests that overall levels of pesticide exposure for honeybees in the Corn Belt could be considerably higher than previously thought. Obviously number of pesticide detections doesn't indicate the concentration of those detections. Krupke was quick to note that this was one year and in Indiana.

Providing additional places for honeybees to forage is noble and looks nice, but even that has risk. Krupke told me he worries that plantings such as "pollinator plots" might (notice I said might) serve as a trap crop for pollinators.

"It does seem that a wide range of plants will pick up pesticides, either by the pesticides landing on them or by picking up water-soluble pesticides through the soil," he said.

I ruminated on that statement a lot last night as the dog and I took our nightly walk. Our favorite path wends past a large pollinator plot bordered on both sides by acres of soybeans. We get a touch of nature and our fix of farmland in one big dose. What dose do my honeybees get when they dine there and how do we strike a practical balance between human needs and nature?

The Krupke study was published in Nature Communications is available at…

Pamela Smith can be reached at

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN



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6/14/2016 | 5:27 PM CDT
If only the Katie's and the N.Y. Times types of the Nation would print this. But then, we don't have to worry about that, do we? The Enviro's would be boycotting, protesting and coming undone.