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Leaked Memo Sheds Light on Mysterious Bee Die-Offs and Who's to Blame

The culprit may be a pesticide that the EPA has allowed on the market despite the fact that the company which makes the pesticide has failed to prove it is safe.

A new leaked memo from the EPA has the beekeeping world buzzing. Bad puns aside, the failure of the EPA to protect the environment -- in this case, bees -- jeopardizes beekeepers' ability to continue in their work. Beekeeper Tom Theobald, who exposed the leaked memo, says that beekeepers now lose 30 to 40 percent or more of their hives each year, and it takes two years to recover each one. Theobald has been a beekeeper in Boulder County, Colorado for 35 years, but now he says he's not sure he can continue. "I can't afford to subsidize this as a hobby. I'll fold the tent," he says. "Commercial beekeepers will work themselves to death," he continues, noting that it's only the passion and commitment of beekeepers that has staved off a complete collapse of the entire beekeeping industry this long.

The leaked EPA memo, dated November 2, 2010, focuses on Bayer CropScience's request to register (i.e. legalize) its pesticide clothianidin for use on mustard seed and cotton. Clothianidin was first registered in May 2003, but its registration was conditional on safety testing that the EPA said should be completed by December 2004. Only, as the latest memo points out, the study, when it was done (long after 2004), was inadequate in demonstrating that clothianidin does not pose a threat to honeybees. Unfortunately, with the EPA's failure to ensure clothianidin's safety before allowing its use on corn and canola, it fell to beekeepers to discover why their bees were dying, and how the EPA allowed clothianidin on the market.

For beekeepers like Theobald, the story starts in the 1990's. During the warm months of the year when flowers are blooming, honeybees forage for nectar and pollen, eating them and storing them for the winter. When all went well, the bees could successfully survive the winter on their stored honey and pollen. Prior to 1995, Theobald and other beekeepers in his area lost about two to five percent of their colonies each winter. In an extraordinarily bad winter, 10 percent of the colonies might not make it. Beginning in 1995, 20 to 30 percent of colonies began dying each winter. At the time, Theobald assumed the cause were varroa mites, a parasitic mite that attacks bees. The mites were first found in the U.S. in 1987, but they did not reach Boulder County, CO until 1995, the same year the winter losses of bees grew.

Looking back, Theobald wonders if the losses were really caused entirely by the mites, or if the pesticide imidacloprid played a role. Both imidacloprid and clothianidin are "neonicotinoids," a class of pesticides that has risen in popularity in the last fifteen years. Imidacloprid, the first of the neonicotinoids to be commercialized, was registered in the U.S. in 1994. Neonicotinoids attack the nervous system of insects. They are frequently used by treating seeds prior to planting. Then, once the plant grows, the pesticide spreads to all parts of the plant -- including the pollen. The hope is that only pests who try to feed on the plant will be killed, and beneficial insects will not be affected. Sadly, it appears that the bees never got that memo.

A beekeeper has little control over where his or her bees forage, and whether they choose to dine on plants treated with pesticides. (Recall the recent incident in Brooklyn in which bees took a liking to the bright red syrup at a nearby Maraschino cherry factory, gorging themselves until they turned bright red and produced honey colored with Red Dye No. 40.) The bees of Boulder have their choice of alfalfa, yellow sweet clover, wildflowers, and an awful lot of corn. While corn does not require bees for pollination, it produces large amounts of pollen when it tassels -- a bee feast! Corn pollen is no doubt a major source of food for bees across the entire U.S., as more acres are devoted to corn than to any other crop. And beginning in 2004, corn seed companies began selling seeds with five times the previously used dose of neonicotinoids.

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