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Honeybees

By Dianne Witte

Chances are when you think of honeybees, you think honey or bee stings. But, I’ve had other experiences with bees. My husband and I owned a commercial operation in North Dakota in early 1970’s, until one of our sons became allergic and we decided it wasn’t worth the risk to his life to continue. It was a very interesting time, learning bee culture and traveling to various states to “overwinter” our bees. Recently, my husband decided to run a few hives, just as a hobby. We’ve discovered it is more challenging now. The mite problem is more prominent than years ago and overwintering in Wisconsin is more difficult than in warmer climates. However, as hobbyists, we sell the honey locally and many of our customers tell us how beneficial honey is, as a natural remedy for allergies. I don’t have allergies myself, but I do love cooking and eating the sweet stuff.

Just a little background there, but what I’m really writing about is, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This condition is killing the honeybee. In the winter of 2006/2007, more than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies died and the losses have increased to an average of 33% in recent years. In 2012–2013, CCD was blamed for the loss of 50% of the US honeybee hives. It is normal to lose 10%, but this is a serious turn of events, since our food production is being affected.

The cause has been studied extensively and a number of causes have been suggested. Suspected causes include pesticides, primarily neonicotinoids; infections with Varroa and Acarapis mites; monoculture, malnutrition; various pathogens; genetic factors; immunodeficiency’s; changing beekeeping practices; or a combination of factors. In fact, Wikipedia says, “while such disappearances have occurred throughout the history of apiculture, and were known by various names (disappearing disease, spring dwindle, May disease, autumn collapse, and fall dwindle disease), the syndrome was renamed Colony Collapse Disorder in late 2006 in conjunction with a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of Western honeybee colonies in North America.” Europe has experienced a similar situation.

Pesticides have become the primary suspect recently. According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pesticides may be contributing to CCD. In 2013 a literature by peers concluded that “neonicotinoids in the amounts that they are typically used harm bees and that safer alternatives are urgently needed.” More recently an article in the Bulletin of Insectology 67(1) March 27, 2014 reinforces the conclusion of a similar study in 2012, that “sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids is likely the main culprit for the occurrence of CCD.”

Honeybees aren’t the only organism being affected by these neonics, as they are called.  Birds eating non-target insects are also being adversely affected. The article published in Nature (v.511) July 17th of this year, Declines in insectivorous birds are associated with high neonicotinoid concentrations says “the impact of neonicotinoids on the natural environment is even more substantial than has recently been reported and is reminiscent of the effects of persistent insecticides in the past. Future legislation should take into account the potential cascading effects of neonicotinoids on ecosystems.”

I’ve found a TED talk by Marla Spivak, University of Minnesota professor of Entomology, very clear and interesting.  Here’s the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_ disappearing. One point Spivak makes is that farming practices have changed dramatically since World War II, when decline in bee colonies began. In addition, she says, the steady increase in crop monoculture has had a huge impact. Look at Wisconsin with acres and acres of corn and soybeans that provide limited forage for bees.

Another factor to consider is the use of herbicides and insecticides, which has expanded exponentially. Herbicides kill flowering weeds and insecticides kill honeybees. I would encourage you to remember that the next time you decide to bomb your backyard for mosquitos. I realized, as I researched this article, the “Yard Guard” I use occasionally kills hornets and wasps. I can only assume it kills honeybees too. I think I’ll try to find something more “bee friendly” the next time I spray. How about you?

Is CCD simply a cycle of nature or is it a combination of things exacerbated by the neonics? In April 2013, the European Union voted for a two-year restriction on neonicotinoid insecticides. The ban will restrict the use of Imidacloprid, Cothianidin, and Thiamethoxam for use on crops that are attractive to bees. Eight nations voted against the motion, including the British government which argued that the science was incomplete. Does the US need a similar restriction?

There are lots of players in this game. USDA needs to spend more time and money on research and monitoring of these threats to the honeybee and other affected organisms. Bayer et al. are also conducting research. Perhaps the pesticides they created are having some unintended consequences, but it remains to be seen whether they will hunker down and cut their losses or step up and offer their expertise to work in cooperation with other stakeholders to remedy this situation. The farmers who apply the pesticides need to realize the consequences of their actions for the sake of profit too. Beekeepers also have a stake and responsibility, since they could be seen as exploiting the honeybee for profit by robbing the hives every fall. But the biggest stakeholder is the honeybee.

What can we do? My suggestion is, watch, be informed and support honeybees by giving your policy makers input, planting flowers in your little corner of the world or in community gardens or even rooftop gardens. Eat pesticide-free, organic foods and support farmers who choose not to use pesticides. Watch your pesticide use.  Find more ideas from the Honey Bee Toolkit http://www.honeybeehavens.com/content/honey-bee-toolkit  When you know better, you do better.

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