So far, our bees have been nothing but heartbreak. Two years ago, we got our first two hives, neither of which survived that first winter. Last year, we were on the receiving ends of two hives that had been removed from houses, but we got them late in the season. Despite heroic measures and expert assistance from our friends Claire and Paul from the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association – we combined the hives, re-queened, and added brood – the colony mysteriously disbanded before the cold weather set in.
None of this has looked like Colony Collapse Disorder, but losing bees for any reason at all is a double whammy. Not only do you have to contemplate your failure every time you look at your empty hive, you have a persistent sense that, given the plight of the honeybee, you’ve let down the side. The success of our food supply depends on our ability to keep these guys alive.
No pressure, though.
I know that the trouble Kevin and I are having isn’t all our fault. We just happened to venture into beekeeping at a time when the odds are stacked against us. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit that there’s something about this whole Colony Collapse Disorder thing that irritates me. Yes, I have a bee in my bonnet, and you’re going to hear about it.
Here it is. The investigation into what’s causing CCD seems agenda-driven, and I get the feeling that beekeepers everywhere want it to be the evil chemical companies that are killing our bees.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a whole skeleton’s worth of bones to pick with chemical companies, but it seems to me that the way CCD has presented all but rules out a chemical culprit. We’re losing bees all around the world. We losing migratory and stationary hives, from large commercial apiaries and small backyard amateurs. We’re losing them in warm climates and cold, in all different agricultural environments. The chance that every single hive is exposed to a particular chemical – like a neonicotinoid pesticide – is all but nonexistent.
I’m no virologist (and if you are, please weigh in!), but it seems to me that a pattern like that has virus, or maybe fungus, written all over it. It’s got to be something that can spread of its own accord, not something that humans must expose the bees to.
Nevertheless, when a study released a couple weeks ago purported to have recreated CCD by exposing hives to imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide used on corn, it was beamed around the world as the answer to the CCD puzzle. And not by some ranting blogger (um … not that there’s anything wrong with that), but by what is arguably our most august academic institution, Harvard University.
The Harvard press release, dated April 5, began: “The likely culprit in sharp worldwide declines in honeybee colonies since 2006 is imidacloprid, one of the most widely used pesticides, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health.” Case closed! On to the next pressing public health issue!
The study in question was of twenty hives – five hives at each of four different sites. Each site had hives fed high-fructose corn syrup spiked with varying levels of imidicloprid, ranging from none (the control hive) to a lot. At the 23-week mark, 15 of the 16 spiked hives were dead, with the most heavily spiked dying first. The researchers report that the deaths looked like CCD, with empty hives and only a few dead bee bodies.
There are a number of problems with the study, including the short duration, the questionable resemblance of the deaths to CCD, and the fact that, according to a local beekeeper who attended the meeting where the study was discussed, two of the four control hives also died. But I want to focus on its main problem: It posits, as the near-definitive answer to one of the most intractable, complicated problems of modern agriculture, the simple solution of one culprit chemical.
The researchers focused on imidacloprid because it’s used on corn, and the authors claim that traces of the pesticide are found in corn syrup, so bees that live out there lives nowhere near a cornfield are exposed to it by their keepers, who unwittingly feed it to them.
There are a couple problems with this theory. First is that there’s no hard proof that there’s any imidacloprid in corn syrup, let alone at levels the experimenters fed their bees. Corn syrup, it seems, is too viscous to be tested; it gums up the equipment. The manufacturer, Bayer, points out that their product is used on less than one percent of corn, and the levels the researchers used don’t replicate real-world conditions. (Of course, there are other pesticides in the same class, all of which act on the central nervous system of insects, and those may act in a similar way. Or they may not.)
But the second problem is the real doozy. May I have a show of hands of apiarists who have lost hives to CCD despite never having fed them a drop of corn syrup? There, I thought so. If imidacloprid were the answer, it would mean that a hive that never came near the stuff (or a close chemical relative), would simply not die of CCD. And that just can’t be true.
I do not understand how smart, well-intentioned people can put their imprimatur on a hypothesis that is so spectacularly improbable.
As for what really does cause CCD, I think we beekeepers need to turn our focus inward. While it’s certainly possible that pesticides play a role, my suspicion is that the real source of the problem is the apian monoculture. We started breeding bees in earnest – and learned how to do artificial insemination (the imagining of which boggles the mind) – only in the last half-century or so. In that time, we’ve been focused primarily on docility and honey production, and disease- and parasite- resistance have not been front and center.
But the real problem is that only a handful of breeders have been supplying bees to vast numbers of beekeepers, and we have limited the gene pool and bred out hybrid vigor. We have millions of hives that aren’t as robust as they should be, all susceptible to the same organisms. Throw varroa into the mix, add a few pesticides (no, I don’t absolve them completely) to compromise the bees in yet another way, and you’ve got a situation just right for an opportunistic virus, fungus, or bacterium – or a combination of them.
It’s not always Monsanto.
We’ve created, if not a monster, a situation in which a monster is thriving. And my theory (which is mine) is that we can slowly reverse the process by doing exactly what the beekeepers here on Cape Cod are doing, and what I understand many others are doing across the country – breeding local queens, deliberately introducing varied genes, focusing on pest- and disease-resistance.
I’d like to try some of that myself, but first we have to manage to keep a hive alive for more than a few months. To that end, we installed a new colony this past weekend. Wish us luck.