Part I: Professional pollinators proceed to California, to service almond crops
Record-breaking snow and low temperatures this winter have Americans dreaming of spring. Farmers and beekeepers share those reveries and note that warmer weather hearkens the arrival of their busy season.
One of the earliest crops, almonds, is simultaneously the most important one for commercial beekeepers. Almonds depend on bees for pollination, and yet explosive growth of this bumper crop is taxing the very creatures the industry needs to thrive.
California’s Central Valley produces over 80% of the world’s almonds. Every year, this profitable crop consistently ranks among the top three most valuable commodities in the Golden State’s considerable agriculture industry.
Almonds were worth over $4 billion in 2012; this boom is poised to continue, despite the drought and other problems. New food products and the expansion of overseas markets have increased demand to the point that no young almond trees are available for purchase until 2016.
Of course, demand for almonds translates into demand for pollination. Enter the commercial beekeeper. Every spring, 60% of all honeybees in the United States are transported to the almond groves to pollinate the crop.
For beekeepers providing pollination services, almonds are the year’s biggest and first customer of every growing season. Pollinating California almonds in February and March, which are still wintertime in most other states, is among beekeeping’s biggest challenges.
A major challenge is that bee colonies, especially those from northern states, lack sufficient time to emerge from their heat-conserving winter cluster. To meet this challenge, some beekeepers maintain 20,000 to 30,000 hives. Each one requires careful inspection for devastating diseases and parasites – a meticulous task impractical at such a scale.
Making their task more difficult is the fact that beekeepers are trying to impose large-scale agricultural methods on an animal whose husbandry practices have been virtually unchanged since the 19th century. The larger the commercial beekeeper’s stock, the harder it is not only to tend, but to recover from financial setback in the form of lost bees.
Almond growers will need 1.5 million hives this year, estimates Colorado beekeeper Lyle Johnston. He brokers bees for California growers, while also tending hives himself.
“It takes almost all the commercial bees in the United States” to pollinate the almond crop, Johnston told the Post-Independent, a Glenwood Springs, Colorado, newspaper.
Unfortunately, almond demand for bees has led many commercial beekeepers to put their stocks at risk, because the payoff can amount to half an individual keeper’s yearly profit.
As a result, “bees come back from California loaded with mites and every other disease you can think of,” beekeeper Ed Colby explained to the Post-Independent. “But the upside is they pay you money, and it’s good money.”
Risk, mites, and disease often mean bee colony deaths. For the general public, when bees do die, it sounds like a big deal – even if it’s not.
Last year, many headlines decried a 30% rate of over-winter bee loss in the United States. Most of those stories missed or glossed over the fact that beekeepers expect a loss of 10% to 15% of their hives every year, as a normal cost of doing business.
Last year’s rate was higher than normal, and higher than almost any keeper would want. But it’s certainly not the “bee-pocalypse” the news stories claimed.
Moreover, efforts to identify a single unifying cause for a higher-than-usual rate of loss have failed. Scientists have discovered that multiple issues affect bee health.
Urban, suburban and agricultural “development has reduced natural habitat, clearing out thousands of acres of clover and natural flowers,” a 2007 Sixty Minutes investigative report observed. “Instead, bees are spending week after week on the road, feeding on a single crop, undernourished and overworked.”
Little has changed in the intervening years. Beekeepers still send their hives to California, where they face mounting challenges.
“One such stressor is the migration itself,” Post-Independent reporter Marilyn Gleason noted. “First, there’s the road trip, which isn’t exactly natural for bees, and may include freezing cold or scorching heat. Bees ship out of Colorado before the coldest weather, and drivers may drench hot, thirsty bees with water at the truck wash.”
Next, the convergence in almond groves of so many commercial bees from all over the country creates a hotbed of viruses and pathogens. Since the late 1980s, the varroa destructor mite has had major impacts on bee colonies. It spreads at least 19 different bee viruses and diseases.
Parasitic phorid flies are another problem, and highly contagious infections also pose significant threats. The intestinal fungus nosema ceranae, for example, prevents bees from absorbing nutrition, resulting in starvation.
The tobacco ringspot virus was likewise linked recently to the highly publicized problem known as “colony collapse disorder.” CCD occurs when bees in a colony disappear, leaving behind only a queen and a few workers.
The term originally lumped together a variety of such “disappearing” disorders recorded in different locales across hundreds of years. As during past episodes, these unexplained incidents have declined in recent years.
Despite these challenges, translated by media headlines into a “bee-pocalypse,” overall U.S. honeybee populations and the number of managed colonies have held steady for nearly 20 years.
These days, the biggest existential threat to bees is campaigns purporting to save them.
Part II: Pressure group politics remain the real threat to bee preservation
Having found that the global warming cri de coeur no longer loosens progressive purse strings, or stirs public anxieties, leftist groups like the Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network North America have found a new cause.
As previous articles have noted, they are blaming an innovative new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids for both over-winter bee losses and “colony collapse disorder” or CCD.
Allied with several outspoken beekeepers, the activists are pressuring government regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) to follow Europe’s lead – and ban neonics. Instead of protecting beekeepers’ livelihoods, their campaigns will likely expose bees to even greater harm.
The European Union’s decision to suspend use of a pesticide was a serious matter, but not because of the product. It was based on politics, rather than science. A shift in the party in power in France in May 2012 resulted in a new agriculture minister with an ax to grind. He banned the use of neonicotinoids in France.
“While the ban was popular politically,” British environmental commentator Richard North observed, “French farmers would be at a distinct disadvantage with the rest of Europe, if they were the only ones unable to use the pesticide. Syngenta estimated that they would lose €200 million [$278 million] per season, through lost yield and crop protection.”
So French agricultural minister Stephane Le Foll instructed his ministry to push for an EU-wide ban on all neonicotinoids. They lobbied the European Commission and European Food Safety Authority. After several votes and a misleading report on what the science shows, the European Commission delivered the French agricultural minister the ban he wanted.
The prohibition on using neonics was imposed over the strenuous objections of the UK, Germany and other EU members, who maintained that scientific evidence clearly demonstrated that the new pesticides were safe for bees, and farmers would be significantly harmed by any ban.
Now North American activists want Canada and the United States to repeat the EU mistake. They are counting on pressure group politics to work in their favor once again, because the science is increasingly against them.
A growing battery of years-long field tests have found that real-world, field-relevant exposures have no observable effects on bee colonies. Other studies have highlighted other significant insect, fungal, human and other issues that, singly or collectively, could explain CCD. Focusing on neonicotinoids, while ignoring these other serious problems, could easily perpetuate the colony collapse problem, while also creating many other difficulties for farmers.
Canadian bee experts have analyzed all bee death incidents reported to PMRA from 2007, when record keeping began, until 2012. They concluded that “…very few of the serious bee kills involve neonicotinoid pesticides. Five times as many ‘major’ or ‘moderate’ pesticide-related bee kills were sourced to non-neonic chemicals.”
In Canada’s western provinces, almost 20 million acres of 100 percent neonic-treated canola is pollinated annually by honeybees and tiny alfalfa leaf-cutter bees. Both species thrive on the crop.
Even before Europe’s decision to ban neonicotinoids, at least two large-scale field studies of honeybees at Canadian universities and a bumblebee field study by a UK government agency had been completed. The studies found no adverse effects on bees.
Last October, a team of industry scientists published a four-year study of the effects of repeated honeybee exposure to neonic-treated corn and rapeseed (canola) pollen and nectar under field conditions in several French provinces. The study found similar mortality, foraging behavior, colony strength and weight, brood development and food storage in colonies exposed to seed-treated crops and in unexposed control colonies. This indicates low risk to bees.
At least two more major, recently completed university-run field research projects conducted under complex, costly, scientific laboratory guidelines (known as “good lab practices”) are awaiting publication. All indications to date suggest that they will find no observable adverse effects on bees at field-realistic exposures to neonicotinoids.
Beekeepers and farmers tempted to listen to the inaccurate charges that neonicotinoids are to blame for any issues they encounter need to pay attention to the fact that field studies do not show harm to bees from these pesticides. They must also consider the alternatives.
Farmers forced to operate without this class of pesticides would be forced to revert to older classes of pesticides known as organophosphates and pyrethroids. Those insecticides are much more toxic to bees. In fact, before neonicotinoids were invented, bee casualties from widespread use of these products were so severe that the United States and Canada governments offered subsidies and reimbursements to beekeepers whose hives were impacted.
Honeybees play a vital role in pollinating key crops like almonds. This further ensures that beekeepers have allies in the effort to help bees thrive and find out what is actually impacting hives.
Project ApisM., a partnership of agro-businesses and beekeepers, has invested $2.5 million in research to enhance the health of honeybee colonies. Switzerland-based Syngenta has spent millions expanding bee habitats in Europe and North America, through Project Pollinator.
Bayer has built bee health centers in Europe and the United States, and Monsanto’s Beeologics subsidiary is developing technology to fight varroa mites.
Bee populations have fluctuated for thousands of years. Amidst the uncertainty surrounding which pest is hitting them hardest at what time, one certainty is that these resilient creatures will ultimately prevail.