Honeybee Crisis Update

Honey, that sweet, pure and unique nectar of the honeybee, has experienced a perfect storm of negativity over the last decade—from product contaminated with lead, antibiotics and other heavy metals, to any number of colored syrups masquerading as honey, to mysterious mass honeybee deaths now known as colony collapse disease (CCD). Winter deaths are still hovering around 30%—three times more than what beekeepers consider an “acceptable” level of losses—and it would seem researchers are no closer to identifying a definite cause, much less a solution. But movements both internationally and nationally are making some headway on stemming the flood in different ways.

A new threat to honeybees has been discovered in California—a parasitic fly that causes the honeybees to abandon their hives in the night and die. The phorid fly (Apocephalus borealis) has long been recognized as a parasite of native bumblebees and paper wasps, but this is the first time it has been seen to jump species and attack the non-native honeybee.

Researchers are careful not to make a direct link between the fly and CCD, instead stating simply that how the parasite changes honeybee behavior could “shed light on similar hive abandonment behaviors seen in CCD.” Although links have been made between CCD and any number of virus-bacteria-fungi-mite-nutritional-chemical interactions, the researchers suggest the parasitic fly could be a vector for other diseases, further weakening the honeybees.

On the other hand, beekeepers and research teams working specifically on CCD have repeatedly fingered chemical pesticides. A Colony Collapse Working Team, led by the US Department of Agriculture, was formed in 2007 to rapidly respond with research to the potential CCD suspects arising one right after the other. When the CCD Working Team began testing hives for pesticides, they found an overwhelming chemical cocktail, concluding that “the 98 pesticides and metabolites detected….in bee pollen alone represented a remarkably high level for toxicants in the food of brood and adults.”

Use of neonicotinoids, a particular class of agricultural chemicals, has exploded in recent years, not only as a sprayed pesticide but also as coatings on GMO seed. The chemicals have been directly linked to massive honeybee deaths in Europe. And sub-lethal and chronic doses of these pesticides, while not killing the bees outright, cause systemic symptoms eerily similar to those affected by CCD: memory loss, navigation disruption, paralysis and death.

More evidence against neonicotinoids is the rebounding of Italian honeybee colonies following the country’s 2008 ban on the popular systemic pesticide. And just as damning is that beekeepers working citrus groves exclusively did not experience CCD die-offs until neonicotinoids were approved to prevent citrus greening, a devastating bacterial disease.

While it may be easy for commercial beekeepers to point to causes outside of the hive, research indicates they should be looking more carefully at their own practices. Beekeepers use a group of miticides called fluvalinates to prevent mite outbreaks in their hives. But increased resistance to the chemicals have led to “unprecedented amounts of fluvalinate at high frequencies...detected in brood nest wax and pollen,” according to Penn State researchers. And changes to the formula to make the chemical more effective have resulted in the EPA classifying fluvinates as highly toxic to honeybees. This may come as a surprise to beekeepers who believe using the miticides will keep their bees “healthy.”

Despite all the issues, Americans still consume about 400 million pounds of honey a year. So it is not surprising that as our honeybees struggle, we begin running into issues of “counterfeit” and contaminated honey as demand outpaces supply. How to stop this run-away train is a question with which beekeepers, researchers and consumers alike struggle.

Many believe the fact that hives working diversified organic farms have not experienced CCD on any sort of scale serves as proof that pesticides must be a key problem. Such logic, although seductive, may be misleading as other variables may also be at work. But there is no doubt that reducing any one of the stressors can only help the honeybee rebound. And chemicals are the one stressor over which we have the most control.

The European Court of Justice recently ruled that honey containing traces of genetically modified pollen needs special authorization to be sold on the European market. This move suggests a tightening of the reins on genetically modified crops—yet another possible contributor to CCD both as a carrier of neonicotinoids and because many types express pesticides within the plant. But no such movement has been detected in America.

"That poor plastic honeybear is probably the most abused icon out there," says Meme Thomas, director of Baltimore Honey. Thomas sees small-scale, non-toxic hive management and community beekeeping as the key to bringing health back to the honeybees. “We know industrial agriculture just doesn’t work,” says Thomas. “Stop monocropping, get the wheels off the hive and bring hives back into communities.”

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