Posted by Linda Bonvie
January 18, 2013
A sunny day this February in California’s Central Valley will predict the future for the state’s almond crop – and, in turn, perhaps the future of American agriculture. That’s the day when almond growers will know if the honeybees will be returning to their hives.
The bees don’t end up buzzing among the California almond blossoms by chance; they are trucked there from all around the country. Starting in the next few weeks, over 49 billion honeybees in their 1.7 million-plus hives will be transported by beekeepers to California so the bees can “make” the nuts that make up this $3-billion-a-year industry.
Honeybee pollination is responsible for over one-third of the food crops grown in the United States, including citrus, blueberries, cherries, broccoli, and is totally indispensable to California almond growers.
If the bees that provide nature’s necessary touch in producing this year’s almond crop don’t fare well, it could be the “breaking point” for both almond growers and beekeepers, who since 2006 have had to deal with super-declining numbers of honeybees due to what’s known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), which causes bees to leave their queen and fly off from the hive, never to return.
In short, we’re talking about a possible agricultural apocalypse – a catastrophe to which high fructose corn syrup could well be a contributing factor, according to the latest research.
Pennsylvanian beekeeper David Hackenberg, co-chairman of the National Honey Bee Advisory Board and the go-to person for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and scientists and universities trying to crack the mystery of CCD, says that starting last fall, indications have been on the rise that this is “probably going to be the worst year ever” for the ongoing decline in honeybee populations. “Bees are basically collapsing, whether it’s (from) CCD or a different kind of collapse or both,” Hackenberg said.
Hackenberg describes colony collapse disorder, which he has the dubious distinction of being the first to have discovered, as “when you have a good hive of bees and in a matter of days or weeks you have a sudden loss; you still have a queen, but only a handful of bees. And pretty soon you don’t have those.”
Experts trying to solve the mystery of CCD have come up with numerous and varied theories. But Hackenberg has been following the trail of a new class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, containing synthetic nicotine, that’s widely used to treat crop seeds, especially corn.
“The old organophosphate pesticides, (they) killed bees dead. It knocked the colony out in the summertime,” Hackenberg said. “The scientists are more and more pointing to the fact that if a beehive picks up a systemic pesticide, it doesn’t kill the hive (immediately)…(the bees) bring it back to the hive and it starts the clock. That colony of bees is doomed.”
Systemic pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, move up through a plant, producing contaminated pollen and nectar. And after the first frost, when outside food is no longer available, the bee colony is affected by any contaminates in the food they stored from the summer, he explained. Honeybees are also fed by beekeepers, some of whom use sugar. These days, however, many large operations routinely feed bees with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
The birds and the bees – and high fructose corn syrup
A recent study, published last June in the Bulletin of Insectology by Chensheng Lu, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health, gives further support to Hackenberg’s suspicions of the neonicotinoids. And Lu’s study brings up another way for bees to consume the pesticides — through the HFCS fed to them by beekeepers.
In Lu’s study, colonies were fed HFCS treated with one of the nicotine pesticides, imidacloprid, which resulted in the collapse of almost every test hive, all showing the same pattern consistent with the CCD seen by beekeepers. Corn seed, which is still widely treated with the neonictinoids, received extra high doses of the chemical several years ago, just around the time CCD was first being recognized.
The Corn Refiners Association, comprised of all the big manufacturers of HFCS, posted several rebuttals to Dr. Lu’s study, claiming that HFCS “has NOT been shown to be causing Colony Collapse Disorder,” and that the chemical was not found in the HFCS that was not treated.
But research professor Dr. Charles Benbrook at Washington State University told me in an e-mail that “it is difficult to detect pesticides in HFCS because of the nature of the matrix. HFCS tends to gum up the machines designed to detect pesticides in food.” He added that “…research points to the need to detect nicotinyls in HFCS well below 1 part per billion — lower than most limits of detection in routine pesticide-food testing.”
“Questions persist regarding the impact of very-low levels of pesticides in HFCS because HFCS often becomes the primary feed source for honeybees at the end of the season,” said Dr. Benbrook, who noted that this is “a period when both bee health and hive health is strained.”
Dr. Benbrook also has concern over other possible pesticides in HFCS, “…it is likely that there are Bt toxins, and/or their breakdown products, in HFCS. These are technically classified as pesticides by the EPA, but have never been tested for in HFCS to my knowledge.”
And, of course, one can’t help but wonder if all this HFCS the honeybees are consuming is contributing to other colony health issues. “HFCS is nutritionally inferior to honey as a source of nutrients for bees,” said Dr. Benbrook, adding, “…concerns persist over the adverse impacts of HFCS on bee health from a nutritional perspective.”
Hackenberg also has issues with using HFCS as a food for bees. “HFCS will put weight on bees,” just as it does on people, “whereas sugar won’t,” he pointed out.
All those honeybees brought in from around the country to the Central Valley almond groves will have a lot riding on them, and a lot of folks watching what unfolds. “We put them on trucks, send them to California and unload them,” Hackenberg said. “And the first day the sun comes out and they fly, that day is going to tell the tale. If they fly out and don’t come back, we’ve got a problem.
“We know the birds are in trouble, but the honeybees are the barometer of the environment. If the honeybees are going down, so are the rest of us.”