For more than a decade, beekeepers around the country have experienced devastating honeybee losses, with some reporting losses as high as 80 percent. Not many industries can survive that magnitude of loss and still be in business to talk about it.
Although beekeepers often describe their profession as a labor of love, many beekeepers around the country are being driven out of business, creating a shortage of the labor and bees needed to work the almost 100 commonly consumed crops that honeybees pollinate every year.
“This could be my last year keeping bees,” says Tom Theobald, owner of Niwot Honey Farm, who has been keeping bees for 37 years. “You can’t continue to lose half or more of your base and maintain a business — no matter how hard you work.”
The losses that beekeepers are experiencing has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. Although beekeepers have historically lost large numbers of bees to pests and environmental factors like mites, pathogens, immune deficiencies and weather, the cause of CCD is claimed to be a mystery. The disappearing bees are not only plaguing beekeepers, but also scientists and the agricultural industry that relies on these small pollinators to produce crops like almonds, apples and berries.
For years, many scientists claimed that CCD was being caused by a “perfect storm” of stressors, which weaken the hives, eventually breaking them down enough to be susceptible to variety of pathogens.
However, new studies suggest that neonicotinoid pesticides are causing honeybee decline and death, supporting what many beekeepers have been claiming since CCD’s onset.
And, for some of these beekeepers, CCD is not mysterious.
“There is no disorder and there is no mystery,” Theobald says. “Colony collapse is not a disorder, it is a symptom, and the root cause is pesticides.”
Earlier this year, three studies were released that suggest that neonicotinoid pesticides are damaging to a bee’s growth, fertility, ability to forage and general health.
The first study, published in the online journal Science, showed that bees fed imidacloprid (IMD), a commonly used neonicotinoid pesticide, suffered reduced growth rates and produced fewer queens.
The second study, also published in Science, demonstrated that bees, equipped with radio-frequency tags and fed thiamethoxan, were significantly less likely to return to their hives after being let out to forage compared to bees that were not given the neonicotinoid chemical.
A third study published in the Bulletin of Insectology focused on seemingly healthy colonies that were fed IMD. Within six months, 15 out of 16 of the exposed hives were dead.
“These studies confirm what we’ve been saying all along,” says Theobald. “The effects of these chemicals are pervasive.”
These chemicals are being applied to our farmland and our urban environments. Theobald suggests reading labels and not applying any chemical fertilizer to lawns or gardens. He also suggests writing representatives, telling them to work with Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to get neonicotinoid pesticides banned.
“We can do everything possible to create healthy colonies for these bees,” Theobald says. “But if we send them out into an environment that’s hostile to their existence, we’re all going to lose.”