Bee die-off a complicated issue for beekeepers and farmers
April 26, 2012
It’s been a long road back to normal for Clark Sloan in recent years – and there’s still a ways to go in that particular journey for the owner of Clark’s Honey Farm.
Massive bee die-off – or colony collapse disorder – has been a common tale in the industry, causing hive losses of 30 to 90 percent nationwide during the past six years, and the Evans business has certainly been no stranger to the phenomenon, or the economic hardships that go along with it.
“Any rancher who’s lost two-thirds of his cattle herd would certainly have a tough time making it,” said Sloan, a local beekeeper for 20 years. “It’s been no different for us here.”
But just as frustrating for Sloan and other beekeepers is that there’s no simple solution to the ongoing problem.
Two studies published last month have pointed the finger at certain pesticides commonly used by farmers, but officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with those in the agriculture industry and even some beekeepers, say the issue is more complex than just that. Last month, activists filed a petition with more than a million signatures asking the government to ban the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, while many others say the two recent studies were flawed and other studies are needed before any ban is further discussed.
The significance and complexity of the issue goes beyond sides that don’t see eye-to-eye.
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Bees are needed to pollinate fruit, vegetables and nuts. Without them, experts say our diets would be very bland. Honeybees, which aren’t native to America, are managed by professional beekeepers, carted from farm to orchard and raised to produce honey. Bumblebees, native to this country, are wild pollinators.
The economic benefit of a healthy bee population – as it is to beekeepers – is critical to farmers, increasing the yield and value of crops nationally by an estimated $15 billion annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At the same time, pesticides – while possibly damaging to the bee population – are said to increase yields in crops by as much as 40-50 percent, according to some experts, and the amount of money spent per year on pesticides, which is about $10 billion, creates an additional $40 billion in savings in crops that would be lost due to damage by insects and weeds.
With a population that’s constantly growing, farmers need yields as high as possible to feed the world.
“Pesticide use is so ingrained in crop production today that we know it’s not going to disappear overnight,” said Tom Theobald, an outspoken Boulder County beekeeper for 35 years who has helped in giving the bee industry’s colony collapse disorder national attention. “Less pesticide use would help us greatly. I’m just not sure we’re going to see that anytime soon.”
However, some producers say farmers could have the best of both worlds, by using better tillage and crop-planting practices that would require less pesticides – possibly helping prevent die-off of bees – while also maintaining high yields.
But until such practices are more widely adopted, or certain pesticides are banned in the U.S. – if needed – or another source of colony collapse disorder is identified and corrected, the problem doesn’t look to go away any time soon for beekeepers.
The number of managed beehives in the U.S. is about half what it was in the 1940s, according to the USDA.
During 2006 and 2007 – the peak of the ongoing colony collapse disorder in many parts of the country – Clark’s Honey Farm in Evans saw about two-thirds of its 1,700 bee hives wiped out, and while some recovery has taken place since then, Sloan’s hive numbers are only back up to about 1,200 today, he said.
Like many other beekeepers, Sloan makes his money – in addition to producing honey – by renting his hives to farmers to pollinate their crops. This week, Sloan’s bees are returning from California, where they were being rented to pollinate almond crops, and in the near future, they’ll be used to pollinate crops locally before they begin to produce honey in July.
Losing hundreds of hives at once can add up quickly for beekeepers, as the USDA estimates the average fee for hive rental is $89 per hive, and bee keepers willing to send hives to California can make upwards of about $150 per hive.
Making headlines recently were the two studies published in March that suggest the chemicals used in neonicotinoid pesticides – designed to attack the central nervous system of insects – reduce the weight and number of queens in bumblebee hives. These pesticides also cause honeybees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives, the researchers concluded.
But the findings don’t explain all the reasons behind a long-running bee decline, other experts say. Diseases caused by parasites and viruses, habitat loss and bee management practices are all to blame, many – including Sloan – agree.
Officials with Bayer Crop Sciences – which is the leading producer of neonicotinoids, pesticides that have been used since the 1990s – and others say neonicotinoids pesticides are used on 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. and are safe, federally approved in a country that has the most stringent regulations in the world.
They also note that one of the recent studies used unrealistically high doses of the chemicals, amounts that would not be used on crops bees normally pollinate.
Additionally, local crop experts and farmers – including Kent Davis of Johnstown, a crop consultant with Crop Quest Inc., and Mead-area farmer Artie Elmquist – are skeptical of studies that blame pesticide use for the colony collapse disorder, and want studies to explain why the same pesticides are used in Australia yet there is not colony collapse disorder taking place there, and why colony collapse disorder occurred in the 1950s, long before neonicotinoid pesticides were in use.
“As far as linking pesticide use to the colony collapse disorder, the verdict is still out on the science behind it,” Elmquist said. “But I still feel like we as farmers could be doing better.”
He added that no-till farming would leave beneficial pests in the ground – along with helping preserve moisture content in the soil and save on fuel costs by making less trips through fields – and planting cover crops, too, would help in reducing the need for farmers to use pesticides.
“It would be a win-win,” said Elmquist, noting that farmers would benefit from preserving the bee population, save money by spending less on pesticides and could still produce quality yields – referring to a research farm in South Dakota that uses such practices and is still producing corn with 200 bushels per acre. “We just need to educate more farmers on all of the benefits.”
Whatever the solution, it needs to come sooner than later, Theobald said.
“I’m not sure everyone understands how important it is that we stop colony collapse disorder,” he said. “A lot of food production is at risk.”