What is causing the bees to disappear?

I was more than glad to hear that the USDA will be forming a $4 million, four-year task force to study colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious, complex malady that’s led to the unexplained disappearance of billions of honeybees across the country.

I’m especially encouraged because for months now one news article after another has appeared in the mainstream media, largely blaming pesticides as the principal culprit in their demise. This study should help answer the question once and for all.

In fact, this summer WPHA had to respond to a Los Angeles Times’ article that appeared in its commentary page emphatically stating that chemical products of the neonicotinoids family were at fault. The article, cutely headlined “Buzzzzzzz Kill,” was written by environmental attorney Al Meyerhoff.

His position actually was a gross oversimplification of an ongoing problem that has left scientists baffled as to CCD’s cause. To blame pesticides as being solely responsible for CCD is not backed up by scientific proof – and my association said as much in a letter to the editor sent off in early August.

Actually, the consensus among experts within university research centers and scientific agricultural circles is that the cause of CCD remains unknown. A recent study has indicated that there may be a link to a bee disease called Israeli acute paralysis virus. Many researchers believe the problem is due to colony stress, brought on by the frequent transport of honeybee colonies within the U.S. (often coast to coast). Others believe the problem is due to a complex of factors associated with bee diseases, parasitic infestations, nutrition, potential exposure to undetermined chemicals, extreme environmental or climatic factors and poor apicultural practices.

Of course, the loss of countless honeybees has a devastating financial impact. Honeybees are responsible for about $15 billion in just extra yield to crops each year, and some of our crops are highly dependent on bees. Now there are wild species of bees, but honeybees are the most reliable source for pollination because in many places the habitat for wild bees is gone or the wild bees are just not numerous enough to do the job.

You can witness it in the pollination of California’s almond orchards. In this state, just to pollinate almonds the growers require 1.3 million beehives every year, and the price that they’re paying for these beehives has doubled or even tripled in some ways. Growers now are paying as much as $150-$200 or more per beehive. Multiply that by 1.3 million and that tells you how valuable honeybees are to California’s almond harvests alone.

These last two paragraphs of information came from attending a work group meeting this summer from Aug. 26-29 held inside the Hallmark Inn in Davis by the Native Pollinators in Agriculture, a group that claims A.G. Kawamura as a member. Kawamura, of course, is the secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and held the welcoming reception at his home along with his wife, Diane. Native Pollinators in Agriculture consists of farmers, beekeepers, entomologists, biologists, conservationists and high-ranking officials from various agricultural agencies throughout the U.S. Obviously, CCD is a key concern of theirs.

The highlight of the meeting was a bus tour around the Davis area, viewing tail water ponds, riparian restoration sites, native as well as man-made hedgerows, sunflower, tomato and wheat fields, and areas that had been turned into “bee oases” pollinator habitat by some non-traditional types of landscape management. Among the sites visited were Hedgerow Farm, the Pioneer Hybrid Sunflower Seed Breeding Facility, and the Muller Brothers Farm Restoration Site in Yolo County.

Much work is being done within the federal government and academia, primarily to determine the origins of CCD. The lead government researcher, Jeff Pettis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is point-man on the research and reported on a recent segment of “60 Minutes” that nothing definite has been determined at this time to link CCD to pesticides or any other sole culprit. “This, of course, is not to rule pesticides out,” he told me from his office in Washington, D.C. “They are among many other possible causes under review, but at this time we just don’t know.”

Along with the work of the federal government, industry is working to address this issue. A charter member of Native Pollinators in Agriculture, CropLife America, a trade association in Washington, D.C., has actively participated to bring the crop protection industry’s perspective on CCD to the forefront. CLA, largely through its stewardship efforts, provides information to growers to protect bees and other non-target organisms from accidental exposure.

The CCD task force that I mentioned in the beginning paragraph is being spearheaded by University of Georgia entomology professor Keith Delaplane. The group consists of researchers and university Extension agents from around the country.

Delaplane reportedly likened CCD to the current money crisis in the U.S.: “The writing has been on the wall for several years,” but little has been done. He added that unless we reverse pollinator decline, grocery store prices are going to soar above fuel prices. “Fortunately, we’re not in the dark,” he said. “We have some really good ideas on what’s causing CCD.”

So, unless commentary writer Al Meyerhoff and others who share his opinion have a crystal ball into the future, their unfounded accusation about pesticides as the root cause of CCD remains just that – their unsubstantiated opinion.

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