guest post by Amy Shepherd
The drastic decline of the honey bee population is a crisis that is being felt worldwide. Our greatest pollinators are in trouble. Since the introduction of neonicotinoid-containing pesticides, honey bee loss has reached a record high. This is concerning because, without the pollination of the honey bee, humankind will cease to exist. Before we can begin to comprehend the damage that neonicotinoid pesticides are causing, we must first understand the internal structure of the honey bee’s complex caste system.
The honey bee is a vital insect to civilization for its amazing pollination capabilities and honey production. In ancient times, wild honeybees pollinated the land and nourished our ancestors with sweet tasting honey. Early beekeepers kept bees in cone shaped, woven straw structures called skeps. Although this method worked to contain them, it was not effective for the beekeeper to inspect the hive efficiently. In 1852, American, Lorenzo L. Langstroth, introduced the wooden bodied bee box these rectangular hives contain 8 to 10 removable frames with top and bottom lids, allowing the beekeeper to quickly evaluate hive conditions. Inside the 19”x 16” wooden box, lives a complex infrastructure of 50,000 to 60,000 honey bees. The Langstroth hive currently remains the modern standard for most beekeepers today. According to The Beekeeper’s Bible, “Today 75 percent of all hives sold throughout the world are based on Langstroth’s hive design” (Stewart, Tabori, Chang 61).
Inside the honey bee’s society, there are different bees performing certain jobs to maintain a strong colony. The hive consists of a queen, worker bees, nurse bees and male drones. The queen is the single most important member of the hive. Without her, all of the bees within the hive structure will die within weeks. When she is born, she emerges from a special queen cell that is designated specifically for her inside the hive. She flies only once in her lifetime and that is for the sole purpose of mating. When she is old enough, she will leave the hive for this special mating flight. Several male bees, referred to as drones, will mate with her midflight. They will die as soon as they leave her, fulfilling their single life’s purpose. The queen returns to the hive and will promptly begin laying up to 1,500 eggs per day for up to two to three years. Her fertility is compromised as she gets older and her egg production significantly decreases by year two. A handful of bees is always surrounding her, tending to her every need so that all her energy can be used for laying new eggs. The worker bees monitor her production closely. They reserve two to three potential queen cells at all times to ensure they are well prepared for her death. An untimely death of a queen can potentially wreck havoc on an unprepared hive. All precautions are taken to ensure that the queen is producing quality offspring.
The second classes of citizens in the hive are the worker bees. They are all females, and their specific job functions are determined by their age. The most abundant population of the hive is primarily forager bees that leave the hive and forage a two to three-mile radius for pollen and nectar. When they return to the hive, they shake their abdomens and turn around in a circular motion. This tells the other foragers in the hive the exact location of where the pollen or nectar was found. This bee dance is their way of providing a complex GPS system for their fellow workers. This ensures a constant flow of nectar and pollen coming to the hive. Pollen and nectar are then deposited in predetermined cells within the honeycomb. The worker bees will process incoming nectar into honey for winter food storage.
Next in line are the nursery worker bees. The nursery bee’s occupational task consists of feeding and tending to the larvae. These workers are essential to the future of the hive. Weak larvae will lack the strength and endurance to become an effective worker bee. They require an abundant amount of protein as they are forming. The nursery bees work tirelessly tending and feeding these young larvae.
Hive cleanliness is essential for bee survival. They need a hygienic, disease free environment. This is the job of the housekeeper worker bees. Their daily tasks consist of hive maintenance and corpse disposal. They drag rubbish and dead bees outside and dispose of them in order to maintain a spotless hive. This type of work is plentiful due to the honey bee’s short 5 to 7-week life span. Beekeepers will often install a removable, screened bottom hive board to assist the bees with hive cleanliness. This allows the beekeeper to pull out and dispose of debris, bodies, and fallen wax that accumulates near the entrance of the hive.
The Langstroth hive system has allowed the beekeeper to open up, visually inspect the hive, and monitor daily operations. Domestic beekeeping is effective and efficient; however, the hive can easily collapse with disease introduction. The environment within the hive is congested. Disease and foreign pesticide particles transported to the hive from foraging bees are infecting the colony, causing colonies to collapse around the world.
Now that we have an understanding of the bee’s society, we will explore the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides and how it is associated with Colony Collapse Disorder. Neonicotinoids are derived from the habit-forming substance, nicotine. Bees are drawn to this substance, just as humans are drawn to cigarettes or other nicotine products. Once a bee forages near a space sprayed with neonicotinoids, it will become addicted and dependent upon this pesticide. Several studies prove that bee behavior drastically changes upon neonicotinoid exposure. According to Soil Association:
Neonicotinoids work as an insecticide by blocking specific neural pathways in insects’ central nervous systems. The chemicals impair bees’ communication, homing and foraging ability, flight activity, ability to discriminate by smell, learning and immune systems, all of which have an impact on bees’ ability to survive (Soil Association).
Bees become confused and disoriented as the chemicals begin to take over their nervous systems. Their once strong internal GPS system becomes scrambled, sending mixed signals to the brain. This confusion will result in disorder and certain death to the bee that cannot find its way back to the hive. If the forager manages to make it back to the hive, she not only infects the other workers, she alerts them via her GPS signal of her last foraging location. Shortly thereafter, the majority of foraging bees will visit the contaminated location, bringing back further pesticide contaminants. The once thriving colony will soon collapse.
Forager bees are the avenue by which the rest of the hive receives pesticide exposure. Honey bees forage an average of 2 mile radius for nectar, water, and pollen. The beekeeper may prohibit the use of neonicotinoid-containing pesticides within the boundaries of his apiary, but this does little to control the exposure that the foragers receive from nearby backyards, industrial and agricultural land. The contamination is passed onto the forager during the pollination process. The forager then takes the contaminant back to the hive, infecting new larvae, other foragers, and most importantly, the queen. The website community, Soil Association, states:
Honey bees live and work as a colony, not as individuals, what seems to be happening is that the cumulative impact of small doses of neonicotinoids on thousands of bees over time is affecting individual bee’s ability to work and communicate effectively as part of a colony. Because lots of bees in each colony are behaving sub-optimally this can lead to the sudden, and devastating, outcomes that we’ve been witnessing in recent years. (Soil Association)
Unlike livestock, bees cannot be contained within the walls of a barn or fence. These vast foraging practices are one of the many reasons that scientists are finding it difficult to pinpoint how and where disease is spread.
The most damage from exposure happens to colonies that are transported from state to state for commercial pollination. The United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service states:
The total number of managed honeybee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940’s to only 2.5 million today. At the same time, the call for hives to promote pollination services has continued to increase. This means honey bee colonies are being transported over longer distances than ever before. (USDA)
Pollinators are in high demand all across the United States. Without the honey bee’s pollination, crops of blueberries, raspberries, apples, and especially almonds would not thrive. California is the largest almond producing capital in the world and commercial almond producers pay large sums of money to beekeepers willing to transport their colonies long distances. According to The Pacific Northwest Extension Publication, “Honeybees are accurately described as the indispensable pollinators. In the United States alone, the worth of the honey bee pollination is estimated at $15 billion” (Sagili and Burgett 1). Almond pollination is the most lucrative, but it is not a risk-free business. The beekeeper must sign a contract with the orchard manager releasing the orchard of any disease or pesticide exposure that the bees may contract during their time pollinating the orchards. Almond orchards are sprayed with neonicotinoid-containing pesticides regularly and despite contract stipulations, the beekeeper is often uninformed of the types of pesticides being used. If a beekeeper from Michigan rents 440 hives to the almond orchard in California, 26,400,000 bees will become contaminated. The beekeeper returns to retrieve his hives, unaware that he may be spreading neonicotinoid pesticide residue from California back to Michigan. Honey bees are considered livestock; however, they do not require inspections when crossing state lines.
Historical records indicate significant bee loss in the United States occurred during the 1880s, 1920s, and 1960’s. Short periods of bee loss are not uncommon due to unusually cold temperatures or a new parasitic disease. Bees historically have been able to ward off disease and parasites. However, their decline peaked in 2006 and recovery is nowhere in sight. Scientists and researchers decided to officially name this mysterious epidemic “Colony Collapse Disorder.” The United States Department of Agriculture defines CCD as “A syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present.” (USDA).
The USDA continues to claim there is currently no known single cause of CCD. They narrowed it down to four potential causes, with neonicotinoid pesticide use coming in last on their list of possibilities. Why is the USDA choosing to ignore fact-based evidence that neonicotinoids are wrecking havoc on not just the bees, but all of our pollinators? Perhaps for the same reason they are the largest supporter of Monsanto. Monsanto genetically modified soybeans are treated with neonicotinoid-containing pesticides. Soybeans are used in a variety of GMO products, thus making it a highly profitable market. According to the website GM Watch:
Why? Honeybees are the primary vehicle by which crops are pollinated, accounting for the pollination of 80% of all flowering plants and three-quarters of the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Considering the threat to birds and bees, and that there is little to no benefit to farmers, why would Monsanto, Dow, and DuPont all continue selling soybeans treated with these chemicals? Profit. (Duprey).
It is easy for the government to turn their head to these facts when large sums of money and power are at stake.
What sets neonicotinoid pesticides apart from the rest? It is a relatively new form of pesticide that was introduced in America less than 20 years ago. The seeds are treated prior to planting; therefore the entire plant carries lethal doses of pesticide throughout the duration of its life. It is the first pesticide that is used at seed level and it is highly accessible. No permit is needed and use is not regulated. It is a popular pesticide with a wide range of users. It permeates backyard farms, neighborhood gardens, and large industrial agriculture lands. Your friendly neighborhood pest control salesman peddles it for a living as does your local Home Depot.
It is interesting to note that neonicotinoid pesticides are the most widely used pesticide among marijuana growers. According to ProCon.org, there are approximately 2,434,192 registered medical marijuana users (ProCon). With the high demand for medicinal marijuana on the rise, growers are expanding and that clearly means neonicotinoid pesticide use is at an all-time high. These statistics are highly underreported due to black market crops that do not fall into the legalized 23 states. Marijuana growers are mistakenly portrayed as environmentally friendly, green living citizens. The harsh reality is they are harming the bees by treating cannabis seeds with these chemicals. According to a recent 2015 article by the Huffington Post:
The huge growth potential of the industry appears to be limited only by the possibility of states rejecting the loosening of their drug laws. The report projects marijuana industry that could be more valuable than the entire organic food industry—that is, if the legalization trend continues to the point that all 50 states legalize recreational marijuana. The total market value of all states legalizing marijuana would top $36.8 billion—more than $3 billion larger than the organ food industry” (Ferner).
The evidence against neonicotinoid use and bee disappearance is incredibly incriminating. Yet, large corporations and our federal government continue to turn a blind eye to these devastating facts.
How can we help the honey bee crisis? We must learn to stand up for our pollinators and become “bee friendly.” Think alternatively about pest control. There are plenty of healthy, natural alternatives to control garden pests. We need to separate ourselves from our parent’s and grandparent’s generation and get off the cycle of unhealthy gardening practices. Consider the days of perfectly manicured landscaping a thing of the past. Let the dandelions blossom and grow freely; they are a great source of protein to bees. There are several varieties of bee friendly plants that you can grow right in your own backyard.
Finally, commercial beekeepers need to make the best decisions for the sake of the honey bee. They must stop compromising the integrity and very existence of the bees by exposing them to neonicotinoid poisoning for financial gain.
Honey bees are beautifully fascinating. Their heritage will soon cease if we do not step in and help. It is our responsibility to protect their heritage and advocate on their behalf so that we can preserve their livelihood for future generations.
About the author: My name is Amy Shepherd and I live in Susanville, California with my husband and three children. My husband and I started with one hive of bees four years ago. We have expanded to sixteen hives and learned many beekeeping lessons along the way. Beekeeping in Northern California proves challenging with long winters and short summers. We believe our children should learn right along with us on this beekeeping journey. Last year my husband made a portable observation hive that we keep in our kitchen window. The kids love watching the bees throughout the day and enjoy the honey harvest. In addition to the bees, we have invested in lavender this year and hope to expand over the next two years.
I love spending time with my family, beekeeping, reading, and enjoying the beautiful landscape of Lassen County!
Duprey, Rich. GM Watch
Ferner, Matt. “Legal Marijuana is the Fastest-Growing Industry in the U.S”
Sagili, Ramesh, and Michael Burgett. “Evaluating Honey Bee Colonies for Pollination”
Stewart, Tabori, and Chang. The Beekeeper’s Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
Soil Association, 2013