[permaculture] Bees Are Facing Yet Another Existential Threat – Mother Jones

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Sat Jan 26 14:33:30 EST 2019


Bees Are Facing Yet Another Existential Threat“We can’t breed bees fast
enough to keep up with the losses and maintain healthy colonies.” Liza Gross
<https://www.motherjones.com/author/liza-gross/>January 26, 2019 6:00 AM


Honeybees pollinate more than $15 billion worth of fruits, nuts and
vegetables a year, largely in California, according to the US Department of
Agriculture.Frank May/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

*This story was originally published by *Reveal
 *and produced in collaboration with the *Food & Environment Reporting
Network <https://thefern.org/>*, an independent nonprofit news organization*
. *I**t appears here as part of the *Climate Desk
<https://www.climatedesk.org/>* collaboration.*

While soybean farmers watched the drift-prone weed killer dicamba ravage
millions of acres of crops over the last two years, Arkansas beekeeper
Richard Coy noticed a parallel disaster unfolding among the weeds near
those fields.

When Coy spotted the withering weeds, he realized why hives that produced
100 pounds of honey three summers ago now were managing barely half that:
Dicamba probably had destroyed his bees’ food.

In October, the US Environmental Protection Agency extended its approval
the weed killer for use on genetically modified soybeans and cotton, mostly
in the South and Midwest, for two more years. At the time, the EPA said:
“We expect there will be no adverse impacts to bees or other pollinators.”

But scientists warned
EPA years ago that dicamba would drift off fields and kill weeds that are
vital to honeybees. The consequences of the EPA’s decisions now are
rippling through the food system.

Dicamba already has destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of non-genetically
modified soybeans and specialty crops, such as tomatoes and wine grapes.
And now it appears to be a major factor in large financial losses for
beekeepers. Hive losses don’t affect just the nation’s honey supply:
Honeybees pollinate more than $15 billion
of fruits, nuts and vegetables a year, largely in California, according to
the US Department of Agriculture.

“It seems like everybody’s been affected,” said Bret Adee, whose family
runs the nation’s largest beekeeping outfit, in South Dakota. He thinks
2018 might be “the smallest crop in the history of the United States for
honey production.”

A beekeeper in Olympia, Wash. helps transfer approximately 25,000 honeybees
to two hives.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

>From 2016 to 2017, US honey production dropped 9 percent
Official statistics for 2018 have not been released.

Beekeepers long have struggled to protect their hives from parasites,
viruses, insecticides and other colony-destroying threats. All these
factors, as well as climate change, have been linked to colony collapse
disorder, which emerged more than a decade ago and destroyed
<https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/colony-collapse-disorder> 30 to
90 percent of some beekeepers’ hives. Now with dicamba, beekeepers must
contend with a scourge that can wipe out the food and habitat bees need to

Nine years ago, agricultural ecologist David Mortensen had told
EPA officials that allowing dicamba use on genetically modified crops would
pose serious risks to wild plants and the pollinators they sustain. In
2011, the EPA’s own scientists
Mortensen’s work to conclude that increased use of dicamba could affect

But the agency registered dicamba in 2016 despite the warnings, Reveal from
The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Food & Environment Reporting
Network reported
November. Last fall, the agency extended approval through 2020.

EPA officials declined to comment, citing the government shutdown.
*“Pretty damning” evidence*

No one factor can explain what’s driving hive losses. But the evidence is
“pretty damning” that dicamba affects both pollinator forage and the bees
themselves, said Mortensen, chairman of University of New Hampshire’s
Department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems.

Dicamba damaged nearly 5 million acres of soybeans in the Midwest over the
past two years, and “you know that all the field edges anywhere near the
damaged crops were hammered by the herbicide,” Mortensen said, “which would
mean the broadleaf plants the bees go to were hammered.” Dicamba has little
effect on grasses, including corn and wheat, but even tiny doses can injure
soybeans, wildflowers and other broadleaf plants.

Dicamba was a hot topic at the annual American Honey Producers Association
meeting earlier this month, said Darren Cox, a Utah beekeeper who stepped
down as head of the association last year.
“We’re very concerned about dicamba and the impacts it’s having on the
honey industry and the health of bees.”

“We’re very concerned about dicamba and the impacts it’s having on the
honey industry and the health of bees,” Cox said.

This year’s honey crop was “very poor” in several regions, he said. Drought
in several top honey-producing states not only depleted bees’ forage, but
also led to more herbicide use because stressed plants don’t easily absorb
the chemicals. As a result, Cox said, “you tend to have weaker hive
strength because of lack of forage and nutrition.”

South Dakota, where Adee Honey Farms is based, reported about 250,000 acres
of dicamba-injured soybeans since 2017. The Adees typically manage 80,000
to 90,000 hives, “but our numbers have been so destroyed the last couple of
years, we’ve started using other people’s bees,” Adee said.

More than 70 percent
<https://academic.oup.com/ajae/article/101/1/230/5088925> of the nation’s
commercial honeybees are shipped to pollinate California’s million acres of
almond orchards every winter. But this season, beekeepers have been
struggling to fill their trucks with hives and are facing massive cuts to
what is typically their biggest paycheck of the year.

Lyle Johnston, president of the Colorado Professional Beekeeping
Association, typically sends almond farmers 75,000 hives, including about
7,000 of his own. Johnston hasn’t had trouble with his bees, which he
raises far from agricultural fields. (Colorado is among 34 states
it’s legal to spray dicamba on genetically modified crops, though few acres
are planted with soybeans.) But in three decades of running bees to
California, he says he’s never had so many beekeepers tell him they’ve come
up short. Coy and several other beekeepers who typically send him as many
as 10 truckloads of bees are sending half that this season.

“It’s going to be a train wreck come the 5th of February, when the bloom
starts,” Johnston said.

Many beekeepers near soybean fields said they are losing half their hives –
losses similar to those attributed to colony collapse disorder.

“We can’t breed bees fast enough to keep up with the losses and maintain
healthy colonies,” Adee said.

Gary Mackrill of North Dakota’s Mackrill Honey Farms thinks dicamba sprayed
near his hives might be making bees more vulnerable to pathogens, cold and
other stressors. Mackrill lost nearly 40 percent of his hives last fall.
The year before was even worse, he said.

“Our bee outfit has been devastated,” he said.

Over the last two years, when hundreds of thousands of acres of North
Dakota soybeans were damaged by dicamba, Mackrill lost some 3,000 hives and
more than a quarter-million dollars in pollination contracts. Last year,
North Dakota banned dicamba applications
June 30, but it was too late.

A soybean crop grows on a farm in Renfrew, Pa. The weed killer has damaged
nearly 5 million acres of soybeans in the Midwest over the past two years.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

By early July, “the honey flow just turned off like you turned off a
faucet,” Mackrill said. “And it never resumed.”

Then after a cold snap hit North Dakota in the fall, Mackrill’s bees
started freezing to death. Even when the mercury dips below zero, you might
see a couple of dead bees, he said, “but handfuls of dead bees? That’s

Whether dicamba is affecting bees’ ability to stay warm is unclear.
Mackrill hopes to find out by sending samples of dead bees to Strong
Microbials, run by microbiologist Slava Strogolov in Milwaukee. Strogolov
will test for dicamba and other pesticides in the bees’ guts.

Strogolov thinks dicamba might be harming gut microbes critical for bee

“Whenever honeybees land on the flower that’s been sprayed, they will
ingest that pollen and the gut microbes will be the first ones exposed to
these chemicals,” he said.

Honeybees rely on gut bacteria to digest pollen. If they don’t get enough
pollen, they can’t make the fat they need to handle the cold.
*Losing wild pollen sources*

Coy became convinced that plummeting honey production at Coy’s Honey Farm,
which is Arkansas’ largest beekeeping operation, was due to dicamba after
reading one of Mortensen’s studies
<https://setac.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/etc.3169>. The
research showed that doses of dicamba that mimicked the drift associated
with spraying the weed killer delayed flowering and reduced by half the
number of flowers that plants produced and the number of pollinator visits.

Coy first saw dicamba symptoms on a major bee food called redvine, a
flowering plant that snakes through tree canopies along fence rows. In
2017, the vine’s shiny teardrop leaves looked warped and wilted. By last
summer, he said, the vines were dead.

Bees depend on redvine for nectar and pollen, the protein source that helps
hives survive freezing temperatures, parasites and other stressors. If
queens lack pollen, they won’t lay eggs and the population stagnates or

When Coy inspected hives closer to Mississippi, at sites where farmers
didn’t use dicamba, he found redvine bursting with seed pods and flowers.
Nearby hives hummed with bees that produced a hundred pounds of honey and
five to six frames of stored pollen.

But the majority of hives in Arkansas, where the Coys kept most of their
13,000 hives, were too anemic to ship to California almond growers. Last
year, Coy said, “turned out to be a disaster for us.”

In years past, some commercial beekeepers tried moving their hives into
Arkansas’ hill country to get away from pesticides, said Jon Zawislak, a
University of Arkansas extension entomologist and apiary expert. But
seasonal drought in July and August leaves wildflowers in the hills without
much nectar and beehives without much honey. Historically, hives did better
around agriculture, he said, because irrigated fields kept flowers
blooming, and beekeepers would shift the bees around to avoid pesticides.

But moving hives doesn’t work with a weed killer like dicamba that can
evaporate for days after spraying.

“The situation with dicamba is brand new,” Zawislak said. Beekeepers are
trying to adapt, he added, “but they can’t maintain hundreds or thousands
of colonies in areas that simply don’t produce anything.”

And although agricultural fields help bees weather drought, Zawislak’s
recent research shows
that bees get the lion’s share of their pollen from wild vegetation.

On New Year’s Day, after losing more than a million dollars’ worth of honey
and pollination contracts over the past two years, the Coys closed Crooked
Creek Bee Co., their retail honey business, and made plans to relocate to

“We can only produce about 50 percent of the honey that we’ve produced
prior to in-crop use of dicamba,” Coy said. “We have no choice but to leave

*This story was edited by Marla Cone and copy edited by Nikki Frick.*

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