Goodbye to the bees? Beekeeper blames pesticides for hive problems, but are there other reasons? | TheFencePost.com

Goodbye to the bees? Beekeeper blames pesticides for hive problems, but are there other reasons?

Bill Jackson Greeley, Colo.

ERIC BELLAMY/ebellamy@greeleytribune.comTom Theobald stands in one of his bee yards in Niwot recently. Last winter, Theobald lost 60 percent of his bees.

Tom Theobald isn’t sure how much longer he can stay in the honey-producing business.

His bees, he said, are no longer reproducing and what was once a 100-colony operation is down to about 60 colonies in Boulder County. It is, he added, a national problem, and the reasons may be many, but he and several of his fellow beekeepers think pesticides on irrigated crop land could be at the heart of the problem.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Theobald said when asked why his bees are disappearing. “From what I’ve read, it’s the great mystery. But I think, as do a lot of others, that pesticides may play a very important role.”

That comes despite a drop in the amount of pesticides once applied to crops such as corn, but Theobald said changes in the type of pesticides play a major role in his mind.

In the past, he said, when a field was sprayed, several hundred dead bees showed up within the next 24 hours or so. But now, with genetically modified crops, such as Bt corn, the results aren’t immediately noticed. Bt corn is a corn that has been genetically modified to protect it from pests, and it has become widely used.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service conducted research on whether Bt corn had an effect on monarch butterflies in 2004, and found there was no significant risk.

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But USDA ARS said Bt corn might present a risk as the result of a small experiment in 1999 that indicated caterpillars suffered when given no choice but to feed on milkweed leaves heavily dusted with Bt corn pollen. The experiment focused on pollen of Bt corn because like any corn pollen, it can blow onto milkweed leaves that constitute the diet of monarch caterpillars.

Theobald said he and others believe that is the basis of the problem they are seeing with bees, although he admits there is little, if any, research to back his claims.

Mark Sponsler is CEO of the Greeley-based Colorado Corn Growers, and he disagrees with Theobald’s assessment.

“I can’t help but believe this is some misplaced speculation, the kind that myths are born. There is no validation to this whatsoever, so I would have to call it a myth,” Sponsler said.

He cited research conducted by the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs and by USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, which conducted that research at the University of Maryland’s Department of Entomology Bee Research Laboratory. The studies, which fed Bt corn pollen to honey bees over a period of time, showed that Bt corn pollen had no effect on bee weight, foraging activity or colony performance.

Those same studies said the use of Bt corn does not constitute any human health concerns.

Theobald, however, said he and others across the nation have seen reductions, some of them substantial, in bee reproduction. He said he believes that can be blamed, at least in part, on the new pesticides and herbicides being used on irrigated crops.

“There are 88 million acres of corn in this country that are all treated with pesticides. That has to be at least part of the problem. They are not the only problem, but it’s one we can deal with that immediately,” Theobald said. He said this year’s honey crop is the smallest he’s had in 35 years of beekeeping.

He estimates he saw a 60 percent loss in winter kill last year, compared with a 20 percent to 40 percent loss in previous years. And that loss can be partly blamed on pollen from genetically engineered crops, he said, which has to deal with the pollen that produces protein necessary in brood growth.

“I’ll admit it’s conjecture on my part, but the pesticides are the problem with the pollen that is brought to the queen bee and the brood,” Theobald said. Newly born bees feed on that pollen, then on pollen mixed with honey before they are old enough to become foragers. After bees hatch, they become larvae for about a week, then spend about two weeks as workers in the bee hive before leaving the hive and becoming foragers. The life span of a forager is about four weeks.

Theobald said if a solution to the problem isn’t found, he won’t last much longer.

“It’s a very fragile situation,” he said, noting agriculture, particularly along the Front Range, is changing to more organic production and local produce being sold for local consumption. Bees, he said, play an important part in that, but he may not be a part of that much longer.

“In two years, I could be done if something doesn’t happen,” he said.

Tom Theobald isn’t sure how much longer he can stay in the honey-producing business.

His bees, he said, are no longer reproducing and what was once a 100-colony operation is down to about 60 colonies in Boulder County. It is, he added, a national problem, and the reasons may be many, but he and several of his fellow beekeepers think pesticides on irrigated crop land could be at the heart of the problem.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Theobald said when asked why his bees are disappearing. “From what I’ve read, it’s the great mystery. But I think, as do a lot of others, that pesticides may play a very important role.”

That comes despite a drop in the amount of pesticides once applied to crops such as corn, but Theobald said changes in the type of pesticides play a major role in his mind.

In the past, he said, when a field was sprayed, several hundred dead bees showed up within the next 24 hours or so. But now, with genetically modified crops, such as Bt corn, the results aren’t immediately noticed. Bt corn is a corn that has been genetically modified to protect it from pests, and it has become widely used.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service conducted research on whether Bt corn had an effect on monarch butterflies in 2004, and found there was no significant risk.

But USDA ARS said Bt corn might present a risk as the result of a small experiment in 1999 that indicated caterpillars suffered when given no choice but to feed on milkweed leaves heavily dusted with Bt corn pollen. The experiment focused on pollen of Bt corn because like any corn pollen, it can blow onto milkweed leaves that constitute the diet of monarch caterpillars.

Theobald said he and others believe that is the basis of the problem they are seeing with bees, although he admits there is little, if any, research to back his claims.

Mark Sponsler is CEO of the Greeley-based Colorado Corn Growers, and he disagrees with Theobald’s assessment.

“I can’t help but believe this is some misplaced speculation, the kind that myths are born. There is no validation to this whatsoever, so I would have to call it a myth,” Sponsler said.

He cited research conducted by the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs and by USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, which conducted that research at the University of Maryland’s Department of Entomology Bee Research Laboratory. The studies, which fed Bt corn pollen to honey bees over a period of time, showed that Bt corn pollen had no effect on bee weight, foraging activity or colony performance.

Those same studies said the use of Bt corn does not constitute any human health concerns.

Theobald, however, said he and others across the nation have seen reductions, some of them substantial, in bee reproduction. He said he believes that can be blamed, at least in part, on the new pesticides and herbicides being used on irrigated crops.

“There are 88 million acres of corn in this country that are all treated with pesticides. That has to be at least part of the problem. They are not the only problem, but it’s one we can deal with that immediately,” Theobald said. He said this year’s honey crop is the smallest he’s had in 35 years of beekeeping.

He estimates he saw a 60 percent loss in winter kill last year, compared with a 20 percent to 40 percent loss in previous years. And that loss can be partly blamed on pollen from genetically engineered crops, he said, which has to deal with the pollen that produces protein necessary in brood growth.

“I’ll admit it’s conjecture on my part, but the pesticides are the problem with the pollen that is brought to the queen bee and the brood,” Theobald said. Newly born bees feed on that pollen, then on pollen mixed with honey before they are old enough to become foragers. After bees hatch, they become larvae for about a week, then spend about two weeks as workers in the bee hive before leaving the hive and becoming foragers. The life span of a forager is about four weeks.

Theobald said if a solution to the problem isn’t found, he won’t last much longer.

“It’s a very fragile situation,” he said, noting agriculture, particularly along the Front Range, is changing to more organic production and local produce being sold for local consumption. Bees, he said, play an important part in that, but he may not be a part of that much longer.

“In two years, I could be done if something doesn’t happen,” he said.