Fresh Ideas: Honeybees: 44 percent dying but still not endangered

The last time I wrote about bees was in March 2014. The year before, in 2013, beekeepers had reported 33 percent of their bees died every year. That was up from 2005-06 when only 5 to 10 percent died yearly. In normal times, the 5 to 10 percent figure wasn’t alarming. But since the colony collapse disorder (as the dying was named) didn’t abate, it’s sometimes referred to by reporters as “the plague.”

The New York Times ran a fairly long article on a beekeeper in California about a week ago, and I read it to see how the bees are doing generally. The beekeeper, Bret Adee, is America’s largest, with 92,000 hives, each hive numbering 40,000 bees, for a grand total of 3.5 billion. He raises bees which he “rents out” for pollination services. This year, the price is between $180 to $200 a hive. Back in 2006, the average price for a hive was $154, according to Bob Curtis, director of Almond Board, a trade group for almond growers.

Bees pollinate 71 out of 100 crops that are grown around the globe. These 71 crops account for 90 percent of the food the world eats. Consequently, the 44 percent loss of commercial bees reported in April 2016 is serious. Speaking for himself and other commercial beekeepers, Adee estimates in the last five years $1.2 billion of bees have been lost.

Raising bees is more complicated than one might think. Adee’s bees spend the winter in hives that are scattered throughout a 3,000-acre cattle ranch that’s far from cultivated land or “anything that is bad for them.” They also have easy access to water which is absolutely essential for the bees. But because growers are concerned about conserving water, and therefore don’t flood their orchards in early spring anymore, bees don’t have an opportunity to eat pollen from various grasses and weeds that grow between the trees before buds burst into bloom. Instead, most growers spray herbicides to keep the weeds down. Not wanting his bees to be exposed to those herbicides, Adee (as do other beekeepers) feeds his bees instead of letting them forage on their own. Typically, in an almond grove, two hives (80,000 bees) serve one acre of trees.

Given the high percentage of bee deaths every year, some commercial beekeepers (300 hives or more qualifies one as a commercial beekeeper) go out of business; most are compelled to buy colonies from others as well as split their own or move some bees out of one colony and fool the bees to build colonies around new queens. These aren’t easy tasks.

Although not all beekeepers believe pesticides are largely to blame for the bees’ deaths, more and more of them see a link between the two. Scientists at pesticide/chemical companies still hold that the Varroa mite is the main culprit, but others suggest pesticides weaken the bees’ immune systems, make them vulnerable to viral diseases and parasites. Studies by chemical companies like Monsanto, Bayer, and Sygenta are generally suspect (like placing the fox in the henhouse), and the Environment Protection Agency is also pretty useless here since it can only review studies, not conduct them.

Unfortunately, the EPA mandates that the product up for approval is submitted by the manufacturer of the product — the idea being the consumer/taxpayer doesn’t have to pay for the research. How do we ever know if manufacturers have our interests at heart?

Congressmen of Nevada, are you listening?

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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