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Pollinator Puzzle Continues to Grow

08:48AM Jan 24, 2015

Honeybee demise defies simple explanations

Pollinator demise tangles agriculture, ecology and science into a massive Gordian knot that grows in complication and scope with every new bit of honeybee data. Who’s to blame? 

The temptation to draw straight causal lines is tempered by multifaceted research pointing to numerous culprits. In an age of point-and-shoot remedies against the backdrop of increased global food demand, the likelihood of continued honeybee decline doesn’t play well. However, with commercial beekeepers averaging 30% losses coming out of winter every year, the numbers are difficult to shake.

Pollinator issues are extensive—and not just honeybees but also many other animals that intersect with plants and provide what they need to reproduce. “It’s about every third bite of food we eat and the food for a tremendous amount of wildlife,” says Laurie Adams, executive director, Pollinator Partnership, at the American Seed Trade Association 2014 Corn and Sorghum Seed Research Conference, Soybean Seed Research Conference and Seed Expo in Chicago. “The problems are numerous and complex. Anybody who tries to portray this issue as simply a pesticide problem is not telling the full story. Pesticides are on the list, but they are one part of a larger story.”

In 15 years, agriculture will have 1 billion more people on the planet to feed. When advocacy groups charge after a single class of chemicals—neonicotinoids—and claim elimination will solve pollinator collapse, they ignore the fact 134 different chemicals have been identified in a single honeybee colony. The European Union restricted neonicotinoid use for two years beginning in December 2013, and some environmental organizations want the U.S. to follow suit. 

The value of neonicotinoids in the U.S. is about $4 billion to $4.3 billion, says Paul Mitchell, University of 
Wisconsin associate professor. Most of that value is in corn production that impacts lower food prices for livestock and dairy.  

“Without neonicotinoids, we’d see corn prices about 25¢ per bushel higher,” he adds. “Also, a lot of land would move from non-crop use into crop production. Higher prices and lower yields equates to more land brought into production. It would be a gain of 350,000 to 400,000 acres—a big chunk of it coming from CRP.”

Corn, the king crop for many U.S.  farmers, doesn’t depend on pollinator visits, but honeybees do gather corn pollen. A recent groundbreaking study by Christian Krupke, Purdue University, shows the corn plant isn’t the problem for honeybees—it’s the planting. Further investigation into the dust from planter lubricants showed an upgraded pesticide, combined with talc and graphite, caused the issue.

“I think we should look at corn planting as a holistic problem and look at ways to keep bees healthy while keeping corn planting productive,” Adams says. “We wanted to find out what is happening during corn planting—a particularly busy time for honeybee activity. Could an alternative lubricant keep the problem within the field? For the past two years, we’ve conducted research at multiple institutions in two countries in order to develop recommendations. Research from 2013 showed a very specific period of exposure, and that’s when we found most of the dead bees—coinciding with planting. That was mainly from May 5 to May 20. Bee deaths spiked during planting despite relatively low levels of neonicotinoids.”

Adams advises using drift-reducing lubricants at planting to cut down on dust, minimizing excessive use of seed treatment insecticides, following integrated pest management rules and communicating with beekeepers so they’re aware of planting timing. 

The biggest health nemesis to the beekeeping industry is the parasitic varroa mite. The pest is associated with 30 different viruses, says Gerald Hayes, Monsanto Company honeybee lead for the newly formed BioDirect business unit. “The apiary industry is under attack from all sorts of pests and diseases. If you’re a small business person and you lose 30% of your business each year, the impact is tremendous. How do you reduce losses?”

As varroa mites feed, they spit into the bee, vectoring viruses and pathogens. How do you control a bug on a bug? Pesticides. Applied at different dosages and exposure, collateral damage to bee colonies still occurs, explains Hayes, a beekeeper with 35 years of experience. 

Beeswax, the combed structure bees use to store food and raise young, is a fatty acid—and fatty acids attract chemicals. “If you look at the chemicals found in bees and beeswax, about 45% of the content is from chemicals introduced by beekeepers to fight varroa mite,” Hayes says. The chemicals are sequestered in the beeswax matrix, festering toxicity and causing problems.

If the apiary industry could control varroa mite safely—with non-GM, non-chemical tools—Hayes believes it might improve honeybee health 70% to 80% without additional measures.

California trucks in 1.8 million colonies of bees each year to meet the needs of almond pollination. Those same honeybees are subsequently moved on to other states to pollinate fruits and vegetables and make their way back across the U.S. 

“Picking up an insect’s nest, loading it onto a truck and driving through diesel fumes for days is stressful,” Hayes explains. “Combine that with varroa mite and nutritional issues and there’s just not enough nutritionally complete forage cover crops to help honeybees maintain their health to fight off parasites.”

Hayes says the vulnerability of pollinators is related to globalization and pest homogenization. Essentially, the global economy constantly shifts pest predators and diseases. 

He also points to pesticide misuse by farmers and beekeepers and the shortcomings of production agriculture. “It’s absolutely an efficient way to produce food, but when you have 1,000 acres of corn or watermelon, honeybees don’t get the diverse food source they need,” Hayes adds.

Sustainable food production is only going to grow in importance and honeybees have a vital role to play, not only for commodity foods, but for foods that bolster nutrition and diversity in diets. “If we could provide honeybees with a nutritionally complete supplemental diet, maybe they wouldn’t have to go out in the environment,” Hayes says. “We know how to feed every animal in the zoo; we don’t know how to feed honeybees.”