Perhaps the greatest barometer of the overall health of bees in North America is the state of annual almond pollination in California. In a warm, dry area stretching from north of Sacramento to Los Angeles over 800,000 acres and 6,000 almond farmers produce over 80% of the world supply of almonds, all dependant on bee pollination. This was the first year ever that growers simply could not find bees due to heavy winter losses. An 8 frame average of bees is the norm with a 5 frame minimum but this year growers were settling for much weaker hives. Due to a tremendous stroke of luck with unseasonably good weather poor hives provided adequate pollination. With increased acreage being planted in almonds the future for pollination supply is bleak.
This from bee expert Kim Flottum (Catch the Buzz):
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant Administrator, Jim Jones spent a day with beekeepers and almond growers to learn more about this year’s massive colony losses, and beekeepers’ concerns about the role of pesticides in the decline. The National Pollinator Defense Fund (NPDF) Board provided Jones with a view of the disaster from inside the hive. It was not a pretty picture. Dead hives littered the landscape at one bee yard, and even the hives with bees in them were not at full strength.“I started out last spring in the Midwest with 3,150 healthy bee colonies; of which 992 still survive, and most of those are very weak. More than 2,150 of my valuable bee colonies are now just gone,” said Jeff Anderson, third generation beekeeper, and owner of California-Minnesota Honey Farms where the tour began.
Escalating colony losses are making replacement difficult. In the meantime, without bees, they are unable to fulfill pollination contracts or make honey. Beekeepers are not alone—growers of almonds, cherries, apples, pears, berries, melons, and other fruits, vegetables, and field crops stand to lose as well, since their yields will be lower without good pollination. Almond growers are paying a premium price this year for bees. The supply isn’t enough to ensure good pollination and fruit set. “The industry’s ability to pollinate almonds this year is severely compromised because of colony failures. I expect that next year may be worse,” said Bret Adee, NPDF President, and owner of Adee Honey Farms. “Many beekeepers will just not be able to recover from these losses.”
In spite of OPP’s mandate, pesticides continue to kill bees. Acute kills from illegal sprays on blooming crops or weeds are part of the problem. Jeremy Anderson, fourth-generation beekeeper, noted “Many insecticide labels disallow spraying blooming crops; but if it happens, penalties for violating the rules are few and far between. Just an acute exposure is enough to kill honey bees.”
After opening many of the hives and viewing sick honey bees, Jones was able to discern the difference between healthy honey bees, and a sick hive. He also heard from beekeepers there is a serious need for better enforcement of label restrictions. “There are no consequences for applying pesticides near beehives—state lead agencies responsible for enforcement usually do not investigate honey bee kills,” Anderson said.
Beekeepers are also concerned about pesticide exposures that don’t kill the bees outright, but may affect their ability to thrive. The bee industry is concerned several classes of insecticides, including systemic neonicotinoids and pyrethroids, and some fungicides and growth regulators may impair the immune system, causing queen or brood failure, compromising homing abilities of forager bees, and/or disrupting communications within the hive, all of which contribute to colony loss. We strongly urge the EPA to re-evaluate these compounds long term using tier testing protocols that can give us the answers we need to mitigate losses.
Some pesticides are long-lived and persistent in the environment. The pyrethroid pesticides are found in the wax of most hives that have spent time in agricultural areas. Neonicotinoids are more frequently found in the nectar and pollen stores in the hive. A recent study of more than 800 hives from Pennsylvania State University found an average of six different pesticides, and as many as 39 in a single hive. In the paper, the authors noted: “We concluded that the 98 pesticides and metabolites detected in mixtures up to 214 ppm in bee pollen alone represented a remarkably high level for toxicants in the food of brood and adults. While exposure to many of these neurotoxicants elicits acute and sublethal reductions in honey bee fitness, the effects of these materials in combinations, and their direct involvement in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) remain to be determined.”
Because of the close affiliation of the EPA with the agrochemical industry (campaign funding and the constant interchange of personnel between the two) few beekeepers or farmers have any hope of protection from the EPA. The present system of "conditional release" of agrochemicals based on preliminary, minimal testing is completely inadequate.
On March 21st a coalition of beekeepers, environmental groups and consumer groups filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for approving the registration of pesticides they claim are harming bees and other pollinators. They are asking for an immediate suspension of the neonicotinoid pesticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam which have been proven highly toxic to bees and responsible for major bee kills. For more information go to Boulder County Beekeepers' Association and listen to June Stoyer and Tom Theobald talk with environmental lawyer Peter Jenkins. In Ontario, Canada after devastating losses beekeepers are asking federal and provincial governments to increase pesticide regulations, particularly those dealing with the neonicotinoid family of insecticides (More pesticide regulations needed). Similarly, in Britain MPs accuse the government of an "extraordinarily complacent approach" to protecting bees, and urge the government to ban use of neonicotinoid pesticides (Ban Pesticides to Protect Bees).
With the massive increase in GM Corn and Soy planting (much of it former grasslands) containing neonicotinoid systemic pesticides the available good, healthy forage for pollinators is diminishing quickly. The agrochemical corporations have monopolized the seed industry and therefore our food supply with the support of the government, leaving farmers with little affordable alternatives. What can we do? Demand GMO labelling in your jurisdiction. Buy locally produced, organic, non gmo food products. Let you local government representative know about your objection to the release of pesticides with substandard testing.