The buzz on bees: they are not going away!

Green hatred of pesticides ignores natural bee enemies - the Varroa destructor mite, American foulbrood bacteria, the parasitic phorid fly, and more!

  • bees

Activist groups continue to promote scary stories that honeybees are rapidly disappearing, dying off at “mysteriously high rates,” potentially affecting one-third of our food crops and causing global food shortages. Time magazine says readers need to contemplate “a world without bees,” while other “mainstream media” articles have sported similar headlines.

The Pesticide Action Network and NRDC are leading campaigns that claim insecticides, especially neonicotinoids, are at least “one of the key factors,” if not the principle or sole reason for bee die-offs.

Thankfully, the facts tell a different story – two stories, actually. First, most bee populations and most managed hives are doing fine, despite periodic mass mortalities that date back over a thousand years. Second, where significant depopulations have occurred, many suspects have been identified, but none has yet been proven guilty, although researchers are closing in on several of them.

Major bee die-offs have been reported as far back as 950, 992 and 1443 AD in Ireland. The year 1869 brought the first recorded case of what we now call “colony collapse disorder,” in which hives full of honey are suddenly abandoned by their bees. More cases of CCD or “disappearing disease” have been reported in recent decades, and a study by bee researchers Robyn Underwood and Dennis vanEngelsdorp chronicles more than 25 significant bee die-offs between 1868 and 2003. However, contrary to activist campaigns and various news stories, both wild and managed bee populations are stable or growing worldwide.

Beekeeper-managed honeybees, of course, merit the most attention, since they pollinate many important food crops, including almonds, fruits and vegetables. (Wheat, rice and corn, on the other hand, do not depend at all on animal pollination.) The number of managed honeybee hives has increased some 45% globally since 1961, Marcelo Aizen and Lawrence Harder reported in Current Biology – even though pesticide overuse has decimated China’s bee populations.

Even in Western Europe, bee populations are gradually but steadily increasing. The trends are similar in other regions around the world, and much of the decline in overall European bee populations is due to a massive drop in managed honeybee hives in Eastern Europe, after subsidies ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, since neonicotinoid pesticides began enjoying widespread use in the 1990s, overall bee declines appear to be leveling off or have even diminished.

Nevertheless, in response to pressure campaigns, the EU banned neonics – an action that could well make matters worse, as farmers will be forced to use older, less effective, more bee-lethal insecticides like pyrethroids. Now environmentalists want a similar ban imposed by the EPA in the United States.

That’s a terrible idea. The fact is, bee populations tend to fluctuate, especially by region, and “it’s normal for a beekeeper to lose part of his hive over the winter months,” notes University of Montana bee scientist Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk. Of course, beekeepers want to minimize such losses, to avoid having to replace too many bees or hives before the next pollination season begins. It’s also true that the United States did experience a 31% loss in managed bee colonies during the 2012-2013 winter season, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Major losses in beehives year after year make it hard for beekeepers to turn a profit, and many have left the industry. “We can replace the bees, but we can’t replace beekeepers with 40 years of experience,” says Tim Tucker, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation. But all these are different issues from whether bees are dying off in unprecedented numbers, and what is causing the losses.

Moreover, even 30% losses do not mean bees are on the verge of extinction. In fact, “the number of managed honeybee colonies in the United States has remained stable over the past 15 years, at about 1.5 million” – with 20,000 to 30,000 bees per hive – says Bryan Walsh, author of the Time article.

That’s far fewer than the 5.8 million managed U.S. hives in 1946. But this largely reflects competition from cheap imported honey from China and South HatrAmerica and “the general rural depopulation of the U.S.over the past half-century,” Walsh notes. Extensive truck transport of managed hives, across many states and regions, to increasingly larger orchards and farms, also played a role in reducing managed hive numbers over these decades.

CCD cases began spiking in the USA in 2006, and beekeepers reported losing 30% to 90% of the bees in many hives. Thankfully, incidents of CCD are declining, and the mysterious phenomenon was apparently not a major factor over the past winter. But researchers are anxious to figure out what has been going on.

Both Australia and Canada rely heavily on neonicotinoid pesticides. However, Australia’s honeybees are doing so well that farmers are exporting queen bees to start new colonies around the world; Canadian hives are also thriving. Those facts suggest that these chemicals are not a likely cause. Bees are also booming in Africa, Asia and South America.

However, there definitely are areas where mass mortalities have been or remain a problem. Scientists and beekeepers are trying hard to figure out why that happens, and how future die-offs can be prevented.

Walsh’s article suggests several probable culprits. Topping his list is the parasitic Varroa destructor mite that has ravaged U.S. bee colonies for three decades. Another is American foulbrood bacteria that kill developing bees. Other suspects include small hive beetles, viral diseases, fungal infections, overuse of miticides, failure of beekeepers to stay on top of colony health, or even the stress of colonies constantly being moved from state to state. Yet another might be the fact that millions of acres are planted in monocultures – like corn, with 40% of the crop used for ethanol, and soybeans, with 12% used for biodiesel – creating what Walsh calls “deserts” that are devoid of pollen and nectar for bees.

A final suspect is the parasitic phorid fly, which lays eggs in bee abdomens. As larvae grow inside the bees, literally eating them alive, they affect the bees’ ability to function and cause them to walk around in circles, disoriented and with no apparent sense of direction. Biology professor John Hafernik’s San Francisco University research team said the “zombie-like” bees leave their hives at night, fly blindly toward light sources, and eventually die. The fly larvae then emerge from the dead bees.

The team found evidence of the parasitic fly in 77% of the hives they sampled in the San Francisco Bay area, and in some South Dakota and Central Valley, California, hives. In addition, many of the bees, phorid flies and larvae contained genetic traces from another parasite, as well as a virus that causes deformed wings. All these observations have been linked to colony collapse disorder.

But because this evidence doesn’t fit their anti-insecticide fund-raising appeals, radical environmentalists have largely ignored it. They have likewise ignored strong evidence that innovative neonicotinoid pest control products do not harm bees when they are used properly. Sadly, activist noise has deflected public and regulator attention away from Varroa mites, phorid flies and other serious global threats to bees.

The good news is that the decline in CCD occurrence has some researchers thinking it’s a cyclical malady that is entering a downswing – or that colonies are developing resistance. The bottom line is that worldwide trends show bees are flourishing. “A world without bees” is not likely.

So now, as I said in a previous article on this topic, we need to let science do its job, and not jump to conclusions or short-circuit the process. We need answers, not scapegoats – or the recurring bee mortality problem is likely to spread, go untreated or even get worse.

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From http://www.daff.gov.au/animal-plant-health/pests-diseases-weeds/bee/honeybees-FAQs — What effect has Varroa had on the number of managed bee hives in other countries?

Figure 1. The number of managed honey bee hives in the world from 1961-2008 (FAO Stat, 2011).pkdfig1

Varroa had no perceptible effect on the number of hives reported in Europe. The number of honey bee hives in Europe declined sharply in the early 1990s, coinciding with the end of communism, and the end of state support for beekeepers, in the previously communist bloc countries of Eastern Europe. The number of hives reported Western European countries remained unchanged over the same period of time.

Figure 2. The number of managed hives in the whole of Europe, former Warsaw Pact countries and former EU 15 member countries from 1961-2008 (Food and Agricultural Organization Stat, 2011).

pkdfig2

In the United States the number of managed hives declined steadily since the late 1940s, around 40 years before Varroa became established there. This decline reflects declining terms of trade for United States beekeepers as the result of competition with lower-cost honey producing countries in South America. In contrast, due to their competitive advantage, the number of hives in South America has grown steadily since the mid-1970s, despite Varroa already being established there. However, the J strain of V. destructor in South America is less damaging than the K strain of V. destructor in the United States.

Figure 3. The number of managed honey bee hives in the Unites States and South American countries from 1961-2008 (FAO Stat, 2011).pkdfig3

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About the Author: Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is senior policy adviser for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), which is sponsoring the All Pain No Gain petition against global-warming hype. He also is a senior policy adviser to the Congress of Racial Equality and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death.

  • Bee Bay

    Thank you Mr. Driessen for the interesting but not altogether true essay. I have looked at all the data and talked to hundreds of beekeepers from one side of the world to the other in the writing of my book, http://www.amazon.com/Bless-Bees-Extinction-Pollinators-ebook/dp/B00EYOG02A, and I know that you are a well known lobbyist, so, despite your impressive credentials (they are far better than mine) I suggest that people digest your comments as the paid for extreme views of the giant biotech companies. The fact is that, while nobody really knows the causes of colony collapse disorder, things are not “fine” and there is “cause for alarm” according to most biologists, who see the honey bee as an indicator species. Pesticide use worldwide is at an all time high, Roundup Ready crops are actually encouraging more pesticide use, and neonicotinoids, as you know, are systemic, and designed to kill insects. How could they not affect the bees? Studies that you are also aware of point to weakened immune systems as a result of a combination of pesticides. I challenge you to read my book and poke as many holes in it as neonicotinoids poke in the stomachs of insects. But let’s not say that the problem does not exist.

    • Tomboy123

      As Mr. Driessen writes, “we need to let science do its job, and not jump to conclusions or short-circuit the process.” Contrast this with the unscientific approach you have taken:

      Personal attacks and smears such as “paid for extreme views” are logical fallacies and nothing more than an attempt to avoid dealing with the actual science and arguments.

      Also, misrepresenting Mr. Driessen’s view does nothing to advance our understanding of the issue. Mr. Driessen never said everything was “fine” and that there is no “cause for alarm.” He is saying that mass die-offs have a long historical record with bees and that we are not on the verge of bees disappearing as is routinely reported. This claim must be judged on the facts, not on whether “most biologists” (fallacy of appeal to authority) claim otherwise.

      Finally, it is a non-sequitur to claim that pesticide use, by its very nature, must effect the bees in a significant way. Showing that neonicotinoids are able to poke holes in the stomachs of insects does not establish the effects of neonicotinoids in real-world cases. There are many, many factors involved.

      It’s this kind of a-priori bias against pesticides (“how could they not be the problem?”) that we need to fight against.

      • Bee Bay

        Mr. Driessen is a known lobbyist. He gets paid for his views. The facts are the facts and they are all outlined in my book. They cannot be expressed in one comment to one industry-paid lobbyist’s article.

        • JoeTexan

          Writing a book and getting paid for it is also “getting paid for” your views.

          • Bee Bay

            Cheap shot, but I’m sure, as the former head of the Dept. of the Interior, he gets more from the big chemical companies, and 50% of my book goes to charity.

            • Mike Jackson

              And the other 50%, which only gets larger the more copies you sell, goes into your own pocket. So the difference between your ‘charity work’ and Mr. Driessen’s ‘corporatist shill work’ is purely a matter of quantity, not quality. If you’re going to cast doubt on someone else’s POV based on personal interest, you’d better be able to show that your own isn’t similarly motivated.

              • Bee Bay

                Right, I’m the bad guy, just as bad as the lobbyist who sells out the environment, there’s no global warming, pesticides don’t harm anyone, and everything is just hunky dory.

                • Mike Jackson

                  If you’re out to prove a point, you’ll be better served to provide objective data backed by reliable references rather than emotional arguments and ad hominem attacks. I’ve yet to see anything but the latter two. I, OTOH, am not out to ‘prove’ anything; I’ll be more than happy to consider your side of the argument if you provide anything to support it.

                • Tom Moran

                  How did the bees make a comeback before the pesticides were outlawed? Isn’t this a lot like Rachel Carson’s ‘Slient Spring’ were DDT was outlawed at the malarial expense of 100 million human lives only to find out ex post facto that DDT doesn’t thin bird eggs? http://www.cnycentral.com/news/story.aspx?id=1048040#.VAIKi1ZOccY

        • Tomboy123

          Repeating the same fallacy does not change that fact that it is a fallacy. You’re just digging yourself a bigger hole.

          Mr. Driessen’s argument must be evaluated on its merits, not on Ad hominems. What makes you a “bad guy” is your unwillingness to deal with the facts and arguments presented, instead resorting to character assassination.

          • Bee Bay

            As you so well pointed out, I am not going to make these arguments without a profit. Buy the book and they are all made there. Supported with scientific facts. Chapter 2 discusses colony collapse disorder, including foulbrood and parasites such as the varroa mite, and how overuse of pesticides has made bees’ immune systems weaker to fighting such parasites and disease. Chapter 6 discusses pesticides, made by your boy’s benefactors, among which the combined effect of pesticides has proven bees to be disoriented and unable to find their way back to the hive, which is a main symptom of CCD. Chapters 3 an 4 discuss native bees, and how they are also affected by the use of pesticides. Chapter 7 discusses GMOs. I won’t go there because I’m sure you guys are all for mixing bacteria or human DNA with plants and contaminating the entire ecosphere. Chapter 8 discusses the powerful chemical lobby, which your boy and his buddies are all card carrying members of, including a legal argument on the unconstitutionality of the Monsanto Protection Act. Chapter 10 discusses how Big Ag has bought out Big Conservation. Chapter 11 tells how you can bring about a change to the situation, which I suppose you don’t care about either because you probably only eat burgers and fries and you don’t care if there will be no more fruit because you can always buy skittles. Chapter 12 discusses how little people like me can use the Internet to act politically against big people like your boy.

  • J.P. Katigbak

    I wonder why are the activist ideologues are really up to? Sadly, they never awake to the reality behind the whole situation right now. It is still depressing.

    Why can they justify the ideological and philosophical doctrine of environmentalism that prevails? They are still doing it at the expense of people like me. What a whole sad episode.

    And I don’t get myself started about the touted benefits of organic food products without testing them first, OK? Just a thought for now. – J.P.K.

  • Jacdan59

    You’d think environmentalist in the US would be delighted at the prospect of an introduced, non-native insect being eradicated along with the introduced, non-native plants it is used to pollinate. They won’t be happy until humans are eradicated!

    • Bee Bay

      Do you realize that this non-native insect is currently responsible for pollinating $15 billion in US agriculture? I guess you won’t miss fruit, nuts or vegetables, you won’t miss coffee, or you won’t mind spending 300% or more for imports when this non-native insect is eradicated (along with all the native insects I may add, who are also endangered).

      • Jacdan59

        My point proven! You see, environmentalists can even come up with economic arguments to save stuff when it suits them. So what if at other times they will stop a multi billion dollar ventures, wreck people’s jobs and livelihoods, to save a few trees, or to stop a dam or whatever the cause may be.

        With regards to eradicating the native insects: of course, why shouldn’t I have know that ALL America’s native insects are busy being contaminated by GM crops; which of course wont be planted once the European bees, which are required to pollinate them, die off!

        • Bee Bay

          You are correct about the deadly effects of GM crops on America’s native (and non-native) insects, along with the additional employment of pesticides that these crops encourage. These GM crops are made by the chemical companies who control the food supply in the United States. They are the same companies that manufacture pesticides, which is the main reason behind them-to sell pesticides. Unfortunately though, you are wrong. GM corn, soy and soon to be wheat, will be the only survivors if what you advocate occurs, and the native bees, who are already endangered, will also fall to the same dangers. By the way, these European bees came to America about 300 years ago, before there was a United States and probably before your own ancestors immigrated to the States, unless of course you are a native American.

          • Jacdan59

            Then you should publish your peer reviewed research paper proving that GM crops are the cause of CCS and enlighten the rest of the scientific world who are still bumbling around looking for scientific proof. Science is not a court of law where you can sway a gullible jury with emotional arguments and ride roughshod over inconvenient facts which don’t suit your side of the story. Without that yours is just another conspiracy theory. You know many people are convinced that George Bush was behind 9/11.

            • Bee Bay

              I did publish, with all the studies and backup. CCD is a term that was given around 2006 to the sudden disappearance of adult bees from the hive, leaving the brood unattended. Neither I nor any of the scientists can conclusively say what the cause is, except that it is probably a combination of pesticide use, weakening of the immune system (partially from pesticide use and from non-organic apiculture practices, such as feeding high fructose corn syrup (a GM product that you are also consuming in almost anything you eat out a box or can) and stressing bees with traveling great distances to pollinate crops, parasites, such as the varroa mite (although they attack larvae and have been excluded in some studies), lack of biodiversity, and habitat destruction. The monocultured crops of big agriculture contribute by depleting the soil and this is where GM crops come in, because there soon will be no others. Most GM products are “Roundup Ready,” which means that they resist glyphosate, and instead of just spraying weeds, farmers can spray the entire fields. Glyphosate gets into the plant, and scientific studies say that it gets into the bloodstream. Most GMO corn in the US is also treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, deadly systemic pesticides that get into the body of the plant, and express themselves in the pollen. Because most studies on GM crops are allowed to be done by the manufacturers, who have patent protection (you have to ask their permission to do an independent study) there is not much independent data available. However, the animal studies that have been done have shown infertility, immune dysregultation of genes associated with choloesterol synthesist, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and changes in the liver, kindeys, spleen and gastrointestinal system. The glyphosate present in the Roundup Ready foods you are probably eating causes the destruction of microfloral bacteria (good bacteria necessary for digestion-and that comes from the manufacturer, who originally submitted them it as an antibiotic), which has been shown to result in such conditions as gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimers. My arguments are published, and they do seem to be scientific. Your arguments seem, on the other hand, to be emotional.

              • Jacdan59

                Either you are playing word games here Bee Bay and deliberately being deceptive, or your peer reviewed paper you say has been published has been published in an obscure journal, I have failed to find it. To help us all out. Can you give us the reference for the PEER REVIEWED paper you seem to be claiming to have published?

                Also, what do you speculate as the causes of CCD BEFORE the use of pesticides?

                E.G. “Major bee die-offs have been reported as far back as 950, 992 and 1443 AD in Ireland. The year 1869 brought the first recorded case of what we now call “colony collapse disorder,” in which hives full of honey are suddenly abandoned by their bees. More cases of CCD or “disappearing disease” have been reported in recent decades, and a study by bee researchers Robyn Underwood and Dennis vanEngelsdorp chronicles more than 25 significant bee die-offs between 1868 and 2003.”

                • Bee Bay

                  That’s it, I’m playing games. You got me. Look at my first post. I published a BOOK. It contains references to the Underwood and vanEngelsdorp studies. This is my last word on the subject. If you want more, read my book, but I kind of hope you don’t, since you are so steadfast in your beliefs. Maybe you should read Schermer’s “The Believing Brain” instead.

                  • Jacdan59

                    You know very well that I was referring to a ‘peer reviewed’ paper. You are a lawyer, you wouldn’t have missed that distinction. You would also know very well that in academia, when someone says they have ‘published’ it means in a peer reviewed journal.

                    We are all capable of selectively referencing studies and writing articles and even books if we have the time and the inclination. But you are the one who wants to convince the world that GM crops are killing bees, you would think that you would be prepared to put your research under the scrutiny of scientists in the field.

                    The book stores are full of books on psychic ability or alternative medicine such as iridology and homeopathy which reference various studies which conveniently support the author’s views. Those books still haven’t made those areas of alternative medicine plausible.

                    • Bee Bay

                      Whatever. I never said I published a research paper. I used them to publish a book. Get the Believing Brain.

                    • Jacdan59

                      What, and join the religious fundamentalists who believe in creationism, or Muhammad’s infallibility? Sorry, I got the analytical brain.

                    • Bee Bay

                      I’ve got

                    • Tom Moran

                      …no one buying my book?

  • J.P. Katigbak

    People did not understand why did the activist ideologues claim about the benefits of having organic food products without understanding the real consequences have on people’s health?

    Only time (and taste) will tell ordinary people the truth about how the activist ideologues are claiming. I am afraid they are turning a blind eye into the ideological and philosophical doctrine of environmentalism, unless it must be challenged vigorously and stridently. – J.P.K.

    • J.P. Katigbak

      I would like to add that I suspect that organic food products are not yet being tested, especially for food safety and hygiene. What else people in the organic food sector should add besides quality?

      I hope they would understand very well about it, besides having a healthy lifestyle among people as of now. – J.P.K.