Bees have been dying at alarming rates for a decade. That makes it more expensive to produce the many crops that depend on them for pollination. Dismay over their demise transcends economics: People have warmed to bees since antiquity, celebrating them in poetry, song and religious texts. Among the factors implicated in bee woes are parasites, disease and poor nutrition — all of which defy easy solution. The role of a fourth factor, chemicals, is uncertain and contested. That hasn’t stopped bee lovers from fixing blame, with some countries banning pesticides called neonicotinoids.
U.S. beekeepers have reported losing an average of 30 percent of their bees in the winters beginning in 2006-2007. The figure for the most recent winter was in that range, but losses in the summer of 2015 were unusually high, producing an annual figure of 44 percent. Surveys didn't exist until a decade ago, but beekeepers estimate that the previous rate was 15 percent. Losses increase what farmers pay to rent bees, causing about half of the increase over 15 years in the fee California almond growers pay per hive, from $50 to $150. Environmental groups blame bee deaths on neonicotinoids, chemicals often applied to seeds to fend off insects as plants grow. Companies including Bayer AG, the biggest neonic manufacturer, say the insecticides are unfairly targeted. Studies have drawn conflicting conclusions. The European Union in 2013 issued a moratorium on the use of three neonicotinoids on flowering crops. The effects of the restrictions are being studied. In Canada, the Ontario government has adopted regulations aimed at cutting use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds by 80 percent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing neonicotinoid use in 2016. In January, it found that one variety, imidacloprid, may pose risk to hives when it comes into contact with some crops that attract pollinators. Meanwhile, the agency has proposed bans on spraying several dozen pesticides, including most neonicotinoids, in fields where bees have been brought in to pollinate a crop. A White House-appointed task force called for more research on pesticide effects and meanwhile focused on improving pollinator habitats.
A beehive is an image of community in Shakespearean texts. The Book of Mormon cites honeybees as a symbol of hard work. The Koran extols them for making honey. Farmers raising crops from apples to zucchini have long relied on wild pollinators — including various bee species, birds and bats — to fertilize plants and increase yields. Modern growers tending larger and larger farms have come to lean heavily on domesticated honeybees. In the U.S., an industry of itinerant beekeepers criss-cross the country to follow growing seasons. Researchers estimate that honeybee pollination adds $15 billion in value to U.S. crops each year. After beekeepers in the U.S. began reporting high losses in 2006, the term colony collapse disorder arose to describe a hive’s abandonment by its adult bees. Today the phenomenon accounts for a minority of bee losses. A scientific consensus has emerged that various woes have combined to make bee life more stressful. These include parasitic Varroa mites, which have developed resistance to the chemicals used to kill them; bee viruses; and poor nutrition. The use of weedkillers on farms, forests and along highways has reduced forage available for bees. Monocropping, growing just one plant over a large area year after year, may deprive them of a diverse diet.
The debate about the bees is a proxy battle over the future of agriculture. Supporters of contemporary farming practices see bee deaths as an added cost of food production. They note that while losses have increased costs to beekeepers and the farmers who hire them, they haven’t significantly affected harvests or food prices. This group supports efforts to improve bee health but opposes pesticide restrictions. They argue that bans will reduce crop yields, which reports from Europe show, and that benefits to bees will be marginal at best. What’s more, farmers might return to using older, more toxic chemicals, leaving bees worse off. Critics of industrial models of agriculture see bee deaths as a sign of fundamental flaws in the food system. They support crop rotation, reduced chemical use and land-management practices such as letting marginal lands lie fallow and thus grow weeds for bees to feed on. They argue that these measures are necessary to return ecosystems, including bee colonies, to health and are often advocates of organic farming.
The Reference Shelf
- A White House-appointed inter-agency task force released its strategy to improve pollinator health in May 2015.
- The U.S. National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health issued a 2012 report.
- Entomologist and beekeeper Randy Oliver explores the issues on his blog, Scientific Beekeeping.
- The website for the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has useful information.
First published May 21, 2015
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