Honey bee colonies have experienced widespread die-offs in a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Many beekeepers believe a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids are weakening their bees. Mega-corporations are making a killing off their pesticides—but are they also getting away with murder?
Update, Jul. 12, 2019:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is allowing the bee-killing pesticide sulfoxaflor
back on the market. The decision comes four years after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
ruled the pesticide could not be used in the United States, following an Earthjustice lawsuit. “At a time when honeybees and other pollinators are dying in greater numbers than ever before, Trump’s EPA decision to remove restrictions on yet another bee-killing pesticide is nothing short of reckless,” said Greg Loarie, attorney at Earthjustice.
1 In 2005, commercial beekeepers around the country started making an alarming discovery upon opening their bee boxes. A few males and a weakened queen bee were crawling around the comb, but the worker bees—the ones that forage in the flowers and supply the nectar that is the lifeblood to the colony—were gone.
While bee disappearances have occurred throughout the history of beekeeping, the mid-2000s events represented astounding losses, with researchers estimating that nearly one-third of all honey bees in America vanished.
2 In the eight years since scientists coined the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder, commercial beekeepers continue to see unprecedented die-offs leading them to speculate that something sinister has changed in the world of bees.
CCD has been attributed to a number of causes including mite infestation and pathogens, but for many beekeepers across the world, a primary suspect is a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. These chemicals came onto the market in the late-1990s and were approved in 2000 for application to corn, America’s #1 cash crop. It is now estimated that 90 percent of all corn seeds are coated with German agro-chemical manufacturer Bayer’s neonicotinoid pesticide. With the rise of the chemical’s use, there has been a steep drop off in honey production in the Corn Belt of the United States.
3 Neonicotinoids have largely replaced more toxic, but less systemic pesticides known as organophosphates. During die offs that involved organophosphates, dead bees were usually found in large numbers around the hive. But with CCD, there are hardly any bodies to be found—the majority of bees just disappear.
A growing body of studies show that neonics, even in low doses, impair bees’ ability to navigate. The foraging worker bees that come into contact with the pesticide may get disoriented, flying around until they eventually run out of gas, lost in the field. With a loss of worker bees bringing food back to the hive, the entire colony suffers.
4 Bill Rhodes is a Florida beekeeper and former pro-football player. Since the 1970s, Rhodes has been shipping bees across the country, migrating hives to Wisconsin, the Dakotas, out to California and back down to Florida. Chemical companies claim the neonics aren’t to blame for CCD and instead point to things like varroa mite infestation, starvation, and even beekeeper neglect.
5 A certain amount of colony loss per year is normal in the business. To make up for the lost colonies, a beekeeper will typically divide healthy colonies and coax them up to strength by introducing a new queen bee. Rhodes usually splits his colonies during the fall and says they’ve always bounced back to full strength continuing to produce the fall honey that keeps them going through the winter.
In 2005 when he split his colonies, he noticed his bees didn’t respond the same way. “They didn’t want to make any honey to speak of,” Rhodes says. “They didn’t want to expand. We went ahead and split them anyway and fed them supplemental feed, and the bees just never did squat. We thought, what in the world happened to these bees?”
6 Almond growers rely entirely on honey bees to pollinate their orchards. California, the state that produces nearly 82 percent of the world’s almonds, must import honey bees from other states for the bloom to sustain their $2.3 billion-a-year crop.
At the end of summer 2005, Rhodes was scheduled to ship 16 semi-truck loads of bees from South Dakota to California where they would work the almond bloom. Before shipping them, Rhodes’ foreman in South Dakota called him up and told him the bees were looking odd. Because Rhodes had contracts to fulfill, he went ahead and shipped them anyway.
7 Once in California, Rhodes went out to inspect the hives, marking them and returning within the week to check again. “The hive would look entirely different,” Rhodes said. “It was like something just had it by the throat and was just pulling the strength from it. We had no idea what it was.”
He later learned that a neonicotinoid chemical had been approved in 2004 for sunflowers. They were the last thing that bloomed in South Dakota before Rhodes moved his bees out of the state. Out of the 16 semi-truck loads of bees he sent to California in 2005, only two of them were fit for pollinating the almonds. Rhodes estimates it cost him between $800,000 and $900,000 that year in losses.
8 “Colony Collapse Disorder: Beekeepers hate that term,” says Jeff Anderson, owner of California-Minnesota Honey Farms. It’s not a disorder or disease that’s causing the abnormal bee mortality, he reckons. “It’s the systemic insecticides that we’re using on just about every crop that we grow now.”
Anderson joined a group of commercial beekeepers, the Pollinator Stewardship Council and other beekeeping organizations in a lawsuit represented by Earthjustice to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to rubber-stamp the approval of sulfoxaflor, a neonicotinoid insecticide that shows extreme toxicity to bees.
On September 10, 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the EPA’s approval of sulfoxaflor, concluding that EPA violated federal law when it approved sulfoxaflor without reliable studies regarding the impact that the insecticide would have on honeybee colonies. The Court vacated EPA’s approval, meaning that sulfoxaflor may not be used in the U.S. unless, and until, EPA obtains the necessary information regarding impacts to honeybees and re-approves the insecticide in accordance with law.
Earthjustice has also been asked to represent beekeepers in another case, taking on the neonicotinoids clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which have also shown to be highly toxic to bees.
9 Anderson spends the springtime in California when the nut and fruit trees are flowering. During the almond bloom in early spring about 1.6 million colonies, or half the nation’s honey bees, are actively pollinating the Golden State’s orchards. Anderson used to commit all his colonies to cherries after almonds, but because of the pesticide issues he’s been dealing with in Minnesota, he’s now decided to “rest” many of his bees, turning them out in natural forage areas and wildflowers to detox them.