The head-scratching mystery of massive honeybee deaths continues to perplex the country’s best and brightest scientists and researchers. After more than a decade there’s no clear cut answer as to what is causing the phenomenon referred to as ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CCD).
The latest culprit under examination for possibly causing the problem is a family of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or simply neonics. The chemistry is similar to nicotine suspected of harming honeybees by impairing the ability to forage for pollen and restricting the ability to rebuild colonies during the wintertime.
Even though a few recent studies have pointed the finger at neonics as contributing to CCD, there remains a loud chorus of scientists unconvinced about the role neonic might play. They note the problem is complicated and complex, and there’s a wide and varied range of factors that might be involved in the unexplained die-off.
One such skeptic is Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, who rejects the premise that neonics are the main cause, and cites parasitic mites and starvation as the two top culprits.
“Colony collapse disorder is a consequence of overwhelming stresses,” said Mussen, a nationally respected bee expert who was quoted recently in a Sacramento Bee editorial.
“Among other stresses, the bees are living in a pool of pollution. It’s a combination of everything beekeepers are putting in their hives and we are putting into the environment.”
California pesticide authorities have been concerned about the issue of bee health for years. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) points out that in 2012 less than 1 percent of all pesticides used in California were neonics, roughly the same used in prior years.
DPR officials also note that neonics are effectively used against pests including the Japanese beetle and vine mealybug that can destroy wine grapes, citrus, and other crops.
Of more immediate concern is the Asian citrus psyllid which has devastated citrus groves in Florida and has made its way into California fields. Neonics have had some success in keeping the bug in check, DPR reports.
Farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate more than 100 different crops in California each season. DPR, mindful of the potential consequences of the loss of valuable honeybees and their integral role in generating $30 billion from crops each year, began re-evaluating neonics in 2009 and expects to have final testing results by the end of 2016.
But the state’s ombudsmanship doesn’t stop there which is reassuring to know. For instance, the department often reaches out to communities and professionals alike in educating them about ways to improve bee health.
In June, DPR held a workshop in Parlier, Calif., targeting about 100 beekeepers, biologists, and local ag commissioners to train them how best to identify bee hive diseases and pests. They were also shown how to probe incidents of bee colony damage where pesticides are suspected.
Beyond these workshops of educating agricultural professionals how best to relieve the stresses experienced by honeybee populations, DPR also conducts outreach to beekeepers informing them that California has a voluntary bee registry program which allows them to be notified in advance if and when pesticide applications occur.
Simply put, this allows beekeepers who are placing hives in orchards to be contacted by a local county agricultural commissioner staff 48 hours before a pesticide application occurs. This gives beekeepers a chance to remove hives in time, or gives the applicator a chance to postpone applications if needed.
California also has restrictions about applying pesticides when citrus is in bloom. This means pesticide applications are banned when citrus groves are at 10 percent bloom, and remains banned until 90 percent of the petals fall. This program has been widely successful in Fresno, Kern, and Tulare counties.
In addition to the above safeguards, DPR recently collaborated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Canada to protect honeybees through product labeling. The labels were made much clearer to understand. These helpful additions clearly explain that the uses of some neonic products are prohibited where bees are present.
The new labels even contain a bee advisory box and icon with information on routes of exposure and spray drift precautions. DPR is also working as a full partner with these two federal agencies in researching the safety of neonics. The three agencies are collaborating in a comprehensive effort to make a scientifically sound assessment of the use of neonics around pollinators.
There’s no doubt that the massive honeybee die-off occurring over the last decade has taxed the wit, experience, and intellect of some of the world’s greatest minds trained in the arena of pollinator health.
And it’s true that the ongoing scientific research takes time and eventually, hopefully, there will be a solution found to fix the problem.
In the meantime, Californians should be aware that the state is doing everything possible to accurately identify and tackle the problem.