Newly approved pesticide poses yet another peril to threatened honeybees

Posted by
May 9, 2013

Along with exposure to particularly pernicious pesticides and being fed a diet of high fructose corn syrup, which a new study shows lowers their ability to detoxify, our beleaguered bees may soon be facing yet another threat to their survival. On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted “unconditional registrations” for another pesticide that the agency itself calls “very highly toxic” to honeybees.

The green light given to Dow AgroSciences’ application for sulfoxaflor, which may now be used on almost every conceivable agricultural commodity, came as a new blow to beekeepers, as well as bad news to environmental and consumer watchdog groups around the country.

Sulfoxaflor is considered to be the next generation of neonicotinoids, those systemic pesticides widely used to treat crop seeds, and especially corn, that have just been banned in Europe for two years because of their suspected role in the bee blight known as “colony collapse disorder,” or CCD. And this newest chemical is being introduced with “many unanswered questions,” and great potential for “unreasonable adverse effects,” as far as bees are concerned, the Center for Food Safety said in its comments to the EPA docket earlier this year.

The EPA, for its part, has chosen to downplay the role of pesticides in CCD, putting them at the bottom of the list of probable causes in a recent report done in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that cites such factors as mites, viruses, bacteria and poor nutrition as the likeliest explanations. But many authorities who have studied the problem are more apt to concur with those European experts who point the finger at pesticides as the chief culprit.

“We don’t know how bad this stuff (sulfoxaflor) is…the chemical companies get a free ride in this country,” Pennsylvania beekeeper David Hackenberg, co-chairman of the National Honey Bee Advisory Board told me.

I first spoke to Hackenberg this past January, right before the great honeybee transport began, bringing bees from around the country to California’s Central Valley to provide the necessary pollination to produce the state’s almond crop. At that time Hackenberg, the guy who was first to discover colony collapse disorder– the mysterious disappearance of bees from their hive – told me he predicted this year would be the worst (bee) loss that we’ve ever seen in the U.S., and he, and many others still believe that to be the case.

In spite of the fact the almond growers “probably got a fairly decent crop,” Hackenberg said “what we’re looking at are a lot of small, weak beehives. You’ve got bees that probably started out good, and as soon as they started to fly a lot of those older bees ‘forgot’ to come home,” he added.

Estimate of bee losses called understated

Despite an estimate of bee losses of 31 percent in the U.S. for the past winter season just released by  the Bee Informed Partnership, “an extension project” comprised of agri-academics and other experts, Hackenberg believes the “real” number is much higher, in the range of 45 or even 50 percent. “I don’t know how they pull these numbers out of a hat,” he said, adding that one of the largest beekeepers in the country told him if they would survey the guys “who are really making a living (from beekeeping)…you would find those bee losses are probably hitting the 50 percent mark.”

Neonicotinoids can affect bees by moving up through a plant and producing contaminated pollen and nectar. In addition, the HFCS fed to them by many large-scale beekeeping operations has been shown in two recent studies to pose a further threat to the health of honeybees.

One study, just published by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana, found that bees consuming HFCS are more susceptible to pesticides, possibly because they are not receiving the protective compounds found in pollen that trigger the bee to ‘detox’. Lead study author May Berenbaum told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re feeding them high-fructose corn syrup, then pathogens may be more dangerous and pesticides can be more toxic.”

And last June, as I previously reported, a study by Chensheng Lu, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health, found that bee colonies fed HFCS treated with one of the nicotine pesticides, imidacloprid, resulted in the collapse of almost every test hive, showing the same pattern consistent with the CCD observed by beekeepers.

“We’re starting out this year probably 300,000 hives short going into the summer,” Hackenberg said. For right now, at least, that means higher prices for consumers and a lack of bees for the hobbyist, as whatever bees there were for sale are “long gone.”

Hackenberg, along with several dozen other beekeepers are currently headed up to Maine to “start putting the bees in the blueberries.”

“It doesn’t matter what those bees are going to cost, (the farmer) is going to rent them,” he said, but added, “there is this thought that by the year 2018 we’re not going to have to worry about growing fruits and vegetables in this country because it’s going to cost too much to produce them.”

If that’s the prospect now facing beekeepers and growers alike, it may be time to consider whether our “crop protection” efforts are actually going to end up destroying everything they’re supposedly designed to protect.