Photo: Bob Gutowski via Flickr
It was the buzz heard round the world. On Thursday, the front-page New York Times article titled, “Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery” was supposed to close the book on a four-year long case involving the unexplained death of millions of honey bees nationwide. Instead, it has only brought more confusion, unanswered questions, and anger in the science and beekeeping communities.In 2006, once thriving bee colonies across America suddenly vanished, leaving behind empty beehives. The bodies of the bees were never found. Scientists soon gave a name to the mysterious phenomenon: colony collapse disorder (CCD).
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From 2006 to 2009, over one-third of beekeepers reported colonies collapsing accompanied by a “lack of dead bees,” according to a survey conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA).
In March 2007, James Doan, formerly the largest commercial beekeeper in New York, delivered an emotional testimony to the House Committee on Agriculture concerning the large-scale and mysterious loss of honey bee colonies, which he attributed to CCD.
“The economic impact on my operation is that it will cost me $200,000 to replace the honey bees that I have currently lost,” Doan wrote in a letter. “If we cannot survive as a beekeeping industry here in this country, there will not be an agriculture community here in the U.S., period.”
See, it’s not just the beekeeping business that has something to worry about — the loss of honey bees affects all people. That is because honey bees pollinate food crops of all kinds.
They provide more than $15 billion in value to about 130 crops, including berries, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). And without honeybees to pollinate crops, our food supply is in danger.
Over the years, scientists have linked honey bee “die-outs” to a host of suspects, including viruses, fungi, pathogens, parasites, and pesticides. Researchers think that when these factors are combined with the unnatural stresses put on bees by commercial beekeepers — like seasonal trucking back and forth across the country — it makes the bees more susceptible to CCD.
Last week, however, the science world celebrated a (short-lived) breakthrough. A paper by Army scientists in Maryland and entomologists in Montana published in the online science journal PLos One and later written about in The New York Times, seemed to narrow the cause of CCD down to one: “a fungus tag-teaming with a virus.”
Although researchers emphasised that their conclusions were “not the final word,” a giant sigh of relief should have spread across the honey bee community, especially to farmers like Jim Doan who once lost 90 per cent of his colonies to CCD. Not so fast. Doan, whom I spoke with extensively in April about the effect of CCD on his business, told me, “many of us [beekeepers] are very upset with the shoddy research that was done with the Times story.”
A day after The New York Times article ran, Fortune published an article revealing an omission in the in initial story: the link between the lead bee researcher in Montana, Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer CropScience:
“In recent years, Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination. Indeed, before receiving the bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.”
The convenient lack of detail points to another noticeable oversight in Bromenshenk’s study and the Times article — the impact of pesticides on dying bees. And what chemical conglomerate is responsible for manufacturing the pesticides that lace all our fields and flowers in the toxins that honey bees then feast on?
That’s right, Bayer.
Chemical pesticides, which first gained widespread use after World War II with the introduction of DDT (banned in 1972), have long been suspected as a potential cause of honey bee declines. Today’s arsenal of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides is staggering in number and chemical complexity.
David Hackenberg, former president of the American Beekeeping Federation, is part of a leading team of beekeepers and experts who claim that newer types of pesticides known as neonicotinoids — nerve poisons that mimic the effects of nicotine — are the cause of CCD. Imidacloprid, the most widely-used neonicotinoid, is different than other insecticides because it enters the pollen and nectar of the plant, not just the leaves (this is also what makes the chemical so good at its job). Hackenberg describes bees under the influence of neonicotinoids as “drunk” and “disoriented.” And, if neonicotinoids affect the honey bees’ ability to remember how to get back to their hive, then it makes sense why the dead bodies are never found.
Dr. Bromenshenk also recognises this strange behaviour of bees in his study. But he never mentions neonincotinioned, widely known to cause nervous system disorders, as a cause. Instead, he claims that the “viral-fungal combination” is probably what “disrupts memory or navigating skills and the bees simply get lost.” According to Doan, a researcher in Canada has already debunked Bromenshenk’s theory, showing that the virus and fungus under suspicion are not new, but have in fact been around for more than 20 years. “If bees weren’t disappearing 20 years ago, why are they now?” asks Doan. There is something else that is making the bees sick. He uses AIDS as a metaphor to describe what’s going with CCD. “It’s not AIDS that kills you,” he said, “It’s the pneumonia you catch afterward that kills you because of a weakened immune system due to AIDS.” In the case of CCD, “pneumonia” could be the virus-fungus combination that immediately kills bees. But the bigger aggressor, “AIDS” is still a mystery — or at least Bayer is trying very hard to keep it that way.
This isn’t the first time Bayer has mobilized an effort to pin CCD on a non-man made cause, such as a virus, fungus, or parasite. In 1999, the French government implemented a nationwide ban on Gaucho, an imidacloprid-based pesticide used to dress sunflowers (a honey bee favourite), after millions of honey bees exhibiting the same symptoms described by Hackenberg mysteriously began to disappear. Bayer has long denied the connection between Gaucho and massive honey bee losses and continues to assert that only sublethal doses of Imidacloprid make it into the nectar and pollen that bees consume and carry back their hives.
But even if imidacloprid isn’t directly killing our bees, could it be responsible for their odd behaviour? And more importantly, could it become lethal when mixed with other chemicals? Well, Bayer doesn’t test for that. And where’s the EPA — the federal agency responsible for regulating pesticide-use — in all of this? They rely on the safety testing provided by the chemical companies.
Dr. Diana Cox-Foster, professor of entomology and insect biochemistry researcher at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is part of a research team that has done extensive toxicology sampling of bees, wax, and pollen taken from hives that experienced dead-outs associated with symptoms of CCD. On average, the team found anywhere from six to 35 different chemicals compounds in a single hive. “The pesticides bees are bringing in from pollinating represent all different chemicals that we use in agriculture, yards, even inside our homes,” said Cox-Foster. In combination, some of these mixtures of chemicals may cause increased toxicity to bees that are not apparent when found individually.
Hackenberg, who lost more than half of his 3,000 hives to the mysterious phenomenon in the fall of 2006, blames both large chemical corporations and the EPA for continuing to put corporate interests before the health and safety of the public as well as ignoring the pleas of beekeepers, farmers, and environmentalists to develop safer, natural alternatives. “We got the EPA on the run,” said Hackenberg. “We’ve caught them with their pants down doing things they’re not supposed to be doing…putting lots stuff out there without questions being asked and giving chemical companies a free hand.”
Still, while many lawsuits over the years have demonstrated that chemicals are killing our bees, scientists are not yet able to implicate any single chemical — or combination of chemicals — as the sole cause of CCD. Instead, there is a general consensus that bees are likely to be suffering from an assault of many different factors that put together, weaken the bee’s immune system and make it susceptible to viruses.
So while Bromenshenk’s study is interesting and provides new insight, we are mostly back to square one.
What is clear, however, is that more research on the impacts of pesticides as well as federal funding to compensate bee keepers for their losses are still needed. If we lose the beekeeper, then we will certainly lose the bee, and in turn, the foundation of agriculture.
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