Production Blog

May Bee Mystery

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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A worker bee hits the crimson clover patch for a tasty snack last spring. By fall, this colony had vanished. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- My bees are gone. A more accurate statement is they disappeared. I'm embarrassed to say I'm not exactly sure what happened. Onecolony took off last summer soon after we started the hive. My guess is the queen was weak or perished and her worker bees swarmed before I noticed.

The other colony was strong and active and we harvested honey last fall. A few days later, the bees vanished along with the last drop of my beekeeping confidence.

I am not alone. My Decatur, Ill., community has a strong beekeeper club and members are estimating 75% of the bees kept locally succumbed this past year. It was a tough, cold winter, but those are astounding losses.

Today USDA released a national bee health report that showed losses actually declined last year. Total winter losses of managed honeybee colonies from all causes were 23.2% nationwide. USDA has been tracking loss numbers for the past eight years, and the total loss of colonies during that time has been averaging about 30%.

Two-thirds of the beekeepers this year reported losses above the 18.9% level the industry considers necessary for commercial viability.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland assistant professor who is the leader of the survey and director of the Bee Informed Partnership, told me via email today that preliminary results for the 2013-14 survey indicated that 20.0% of all colonies managed in the spring and summer months between April 1, 2013 and Oct. 1, 2013, died. Beekeepers who managed bees over the entire year from April 2013 to April 2014 reported losing 34.2% of their colonies. Those higher figures aren't reported because USDA has only kept them a couple of years and want more history before making comparisons.

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Farmers who grow corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat and other mainstream commodities should be concerned about this report. No, your crops are not dependent upon pollinators. However, your crops are increasingly dependent upon the seed treatments and other pesticides in the crosshairs of this colony loss calamity.

New research released by the Harvard School of Public Health is getting a lot of attention in the mainstream media this week. The study replicated a 2012 finding from the same research group that found a link between low doses of imidacloprid and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which bees abandon their hives over the winter and eventually die. The new study also found that low doses of a second neonicotinoid, clothianidin, had the same negative effect.

If you read the report, these sublethal doses of the insecticides were fed to the bees. Makes sense to me they would get more than a bellyache. You can read the release here: http://bit.ly/…. Funding for that study came from the Wells Fargo Foundation and the Breck Fund at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

Pennsylvania State University's Center for Pollinator Research has a USDA grant that looks at how adjuvants affect bees. "Modern pesticide formulations, particularly when multiple active ingredients are blended, require proprietary adjuvants and 'inerts' to achieve high efficacy for targeted pests," Christopher Mullin, professor of entomology, said in a press release. "Recently, we have shown that honey bees are unusually sensitive to organosilicone spray adjuvants and other coformulants used in agrochemicals."

Those are just two small examples of how scientists are pouring over bees, and the more I read, the more conflicted I become. What is often glossed over is beekeepers began experiencing problems with CCD before neonicotinoids became mainstream. However, that doesn't mean we don't need to take a hard look at how we are applying these products. It's positive that the industry has to make strides in addressing dust-off issues in talc by coming up with new fluency agents to be used in planters.

I don't think pesticides or lack of nutrition caused the demise of my hives. I suppose it is possible that my bees went on a bender and winged their way somewhere to gather pesticide-laden pollen. I like to think they were smarter than that. While honeybees can forage up to five miles away, my bees were surrounded by plantings of clover, sunflowers, flowering fruit trees and wildflower plots. I could usually tell where the girls were hanging out by the color of the pollen in their baskets. It's less than a mile to a corn or soybean field, but I made sure they had plenty to eat and tried to keep them tucked in at home, especially during planting season.

A recent study by university entomologists in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee did find slight amounts of neonicotinoid residue in corn pollen, but it was thought to be contamination from nearby cotton fields sprayed to control tarnished plant bugs. This survey did find some neonicotinoid dust upon wildflowers along field edges during planting time.

I suspect varroa mite was the cause of my second colony decline. We found evidence of them at honey harvest. I was late to treat and feel bad about that, especially since a bee specialist at a recent conference gave me a haunting description of varroa. This tick-like creature is the equivalent of a blood-sucking rabbit latched onto the back of a human -- one that kills babies too.

Ack... I confess that I've read more beekeeping manuals than I ever did parenting manuals (as my children will probably hold over my head one day). I'm surprised by the kinship and responsibility I feel toward these small creatures. They work so darn hard.

I get defensive when an occasional farmer will say to me: "They are just bees." Please... we need to kill that attitude. The pesticide industry has shown it understands the seriousness by investing in bee centers and educational efforts. Yes, they have a vested interest and that's a little sticky, but I'll take the investment if it comes with solid answers.

Beekeepers have a responsibility to embrace best management practices too. Read USDA's Colony Collapse Action Plan here: http://www.ars.usda.gov/…

I'm repopulating my hives this spring. I hope I can be a better bee steward. Meanwhile, it would be so sweet if we could all just work together and figure this all out.

Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.smith@dtn.com

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