Albion Monitor /Features

Honey, We've Lost the Bees

by Debra Gwartney

As much as 95 percent of the "feral" honeybee population in this country is gone
The last time beekeeper Philip Smith set up shop at his local growers' market to sell his bee products, he was swarmed by the public. The nearly 150 who people made their way to his booth were feeling similar concern about a change in their yards and gardens. Where, they wanted to know, have the honeybees gone?

Many gardeners in the U.S. waiting for signs of the natural fertilization of their plants and trees didn't hear the usual hum of honeybees last season. The mainstay, the most depended upon pollinator -- the honeybee -- showed up in yards and gardens only in tiny numbers. And although other species -- bumble and miner bees, as well as different insects -- move pollen from stamen to pistil, gardeners were accustomed to the plentiful and consistent presence of the honeybee. Many people began to wonder if their old pollinator friend had disappeared.

Essentially, it has. Scientific reports from all over the country confirm that perhaps as much as 95 percent of the "feral" honeybee population in this country is gone, and that the managed-by-human hive population has also taken a serious hit. The culprits are two tiny mites that invade the honeybees' bodies and eventually kill them.

Two tiny mites had been transported to the U.S. from Southeast Asia and had invaded millions of hives around 1985
Many researchers are worried about the fate of the bees, as well as the implications of the potential demise of the insect. Eric Mussen, a professor of entomology at the University of California, for instance, is quoted in a recent bee trade magazine as saying the mite infestation "now represents the single greatest threat to ever confront the food chain and America's agricultural industries."

Using the only mite-killer on the market, U.S. commercial beekeepers have prevented a complete wipe-out of their precious bees. Nationally, the losses have been kept at between a quarter and a third of commercial hives. But wild bees, which often forage in urban gardens for pollen, have died in droves. So far, the population shows no signs of recovery.

Colonies of nature's hardest workers that used to be found nested in the corners of sheds, in the cracks of trees and in the curves of huge rocks are now still and silent. And home gardeners are left to wonder if their pansies, sunflowers, tomatoes, zucchini, plums, blueberries, strawberries and dozens of other crops will ever again be kissed by the determined buzz of the honeybee.

Philip DeVries, an entomologist at the University of Oregon, calls honeybees "the largest group of domesticated animals in the country." Many people are surprised to find out, he says, that these common pollinators are not indigenous to the Americas. Hundreds of years ago, Europeans brought the honeybee to the New World, and immediately began using them to manage fruit and seed development.

These days, the mostly corporate-controlled U.S. agricultural industry relies on the honeybee more than ever. Because colonies need so many workers-pollen gatherers-to support the queen and her brood, and because the workers almost always return to the hive, they are nearly ideal to manage for crop pollination. This combination of abundance and density is especially useful, points out DeVries, for "mono-culture" crops-thousands of acres of a single plant or vegetable that need to be covered with a carpet of pollinators all at once, when the plants are flowering.

Nearly every large farming venture in the country rents honeybees when their crops are in bloom. Migratory beekeepers travel from state to state setting up white-boxed honeybees in the middle of fields, releasing thousands of the insects to go out and do the work they do so well and so quickly. Within just a couple of days, vast numbers of any given blossom -- orange, cherry, cabbage, watermelon, apricot and many others -- are visited by honeybees. Plants are fertilized, pollen is gathered, honey is produced. Then, the beekeeper packs up his hives and moves on.

DeVries explains the country's "wild," or feral, honeybee colonies developed each time one of these managed hives reached its maximum potential and produced another queen. She mated, her chosen male died, and she flew off to establish a hive of her own. Thousands of such spin-offs tucked away in woods and farmlands have served for many decades as chief pollinators for home gardens and small farms.

By the end of World War II, according to reports from Cornell University's bee research, 5.9 million hives of honeybees, both managed and wild, helped vines and branches become laden with fruit. And the bees have kept the country supplied with sweet, golden, honey. Any other native pollinator that existed in nature alongside the honeybee -- all of those from leaf-cutter bees to certain kinds of beetles -- simply could not compete with the abundance or the density of the European import, and ended up pollinating only the honeybee leftovers.

Farmers, ranchers and home gardeners have come to depend on that fervent honeybee spirit. The Cornell University report notes that at least 30 U.S. crops -- from apples to plums to sunflowers and onions -- valued at about $10 billion annually, need the density of this particular pollinator. Directly or indirectly, about a quarter of the food eaten in this country exists because of the honeybee.

So, no wonder beekeepers, farmers and entomologists started to fret when honeybee populations began to plunge around 1985. At that time, it was found that two tiny mites had been transported to the U.S. from Southeast Asia and had invaded millions of hives. The first, the tracheal mite, makes its home in the bees' breathing tubes and kills the whole colony at once. The other, the varroa mite, sucks the bees' blood and causes a slower, but early, death.

Besides the growing resistance to the pesticide, mites are also spreading a virus in hives that affects only queens
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 25 percent of the managed honeybee hives in this country were lost in four year's time, from 1990 to 1994. By 1995, just 2.7 million hives had survived the influx of the mite. Most states now have no more than 50,000 hives. And nearly all those that remain have survived because of human intervention -- beekeepers who have used miticides and preventive practices to help bees stave off attacks. But feral tribes out in the wild had no help, and one after another, were wiped out.

In his state, says Oregon State University entomologist and bee expert Michael Burgett, at least 90 percent of the feral honeybees are gone, and that's an absence that will certainly be noticed. "They are an important background pollinator," he says, "particularly to strawberry and blueberry crops."

Burgett believes that eventually -- it may take 10, 20 or even 50 years -- the bees will learn how to pick the mites off each other and throw them out of the hive. But until then, home gardeners and the nation's thousands of honeybee hobbyists -- "In it for the honey," as Burgett says -- are out of luck.

However, Burgett does not join other researchers in seeing doom on the horizon for the honeybee industry. In fact, he's confident that Oregon's 50 commercial pollinators, who together own about 60,000 hives, are going to not only weather the rain of mites, but thrive in the midst of it. "You learn real fast what to do about it," he says. "These beekeepers have, and now they're doing well."

The tool commercial beekeepers have found essential is a white 8-inch strip of plastic material impregnated with an insecticide called fluvalinate, and commercially named Apistan. Hung in the middle of the bees' white-boxes, it has been found to be effective against the varroa mite. "I hate to tell anyone to put chemicals in their beehives," says Burgett, "but without it, the hives will die."

One of Western Oregon's largest commercial/migratory beekeepers, Don Ames, uses the Apistan strips, and although he still loses 13-18 percent of his bees, he's relieved. And he shares Burgett's confidence that the honeybee will eventually make a come-back. Yet, his we're-going-to-beat this attitude weakens when he considers that only one chemical is available, and that it kills only one of the mites. In addition, even though the miticide has only been in use for the past five years, varroa mites are showing signs they're growing resistant to Apistan.

"Bees are a living animal -- you can't increase the dosage, or they'll die," Ames says. But, he says, the current level of treatment isn't working as well as it did even last year. Furthermore, both the beekeeper and Burgett say chemical companies don't see an economic advantage in developing other ways to deal with the mites, so when the Apistan's effectiveness wears off, beekeepers could face a new rash of bee deaths.

And the problems don't stop there, Ames says. Besides the growing resistance to the pesticide, mites are also spreading a virus in hives that affects only queens. "We can hardly keep a queen alive for more than six months anymore," he says, "and that's expensive."

Added trouble for the honeybee, say others involved in the bee industry, is human activity that's damaging to pollinators in general. According to Gary Nabhan, director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson and co-author of Forgotten Pollinators, more than 180 species of vertebrate pollinators-including geckos, hummingbirds, warblers, parrots, bats, weasels and lemurs-are threatened with extinction. Insect pollinators, as well, are suffering staggering losses.

The snuffing-out of the planet's pollinators, writes Nabhan, is linked to two human activities: inadvertent poisoning with pesticides and habitat destruction.

Beekeepers throughout the country are reporting that crop sprays often poison what's left of their mite-invaded bees. The January 20 issue of High Country News reveals one such double-hit: while struggling to preserve what they can of their mite-ravaged hives, beekeepers are finding evidence of a new influx of an old bee killer, an insecticide called Penncap-M, which has an active ingredient of methyl parathion.

Directions say the chemical should be applied in pre-dawn hours before the bees are active, and is supposed to dissipate before daybreak. But beekeepers are finding that the encapsulated Penncap-M, which strongly resembles the small round pellets of pollen, is being picked up by honeybees and taken back to the hive.

According to Ames, most uses of Penncap-M are outlawed in Oregon, and OSU's Burgett says that though chemical poisoning of bees and other pollinators was a problem 20 years ago, it is now under control in the state.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture, sure enough, reports that not a single incident of bee poisonings from pesticides was reported last year. But some beekeepers say that just because the events aren't turned in, doesn't mean they're not happening. Anecdotal evidence suggest that certain kinds of pesticides may be drifting through the air and continuing to damage Oregon honeybees. For example, Ames points out that even though a farmer who is paying to rent bees for pollination is not going to run the risk of killing those pollinators, that farmer's neighbors may not be so caring. "It's that old attitude that the law's for someone else, not me," he says.

If the technology fails -- as it's showing signs of doing -- there is no backup, because the population of native pollinators has been so reduced
Ames travels the west, renting out his bees for pollination. Kim VanderSys, owner of Bear Mountain Honey in Creswell, does the same, and says every time he takes his bees out on a pollination job, a certain number are poisoned by spray from a neighboring farm.

"I take my bees to farmers, but I never take them all to one place," he says. The risk from inadvertent spraying, he says, is just too great. For instance, he won't take any of his bees to the Madras, Oregon, area. "I was pollinating carrots there, but the sprays were just too bad. And I can never get the truth out of anyone."

And it's not just the commercial farms the beekeeper worries about. VanderSys also says home gardeners' use of chemicals is poisoning the few honeybees that remain, as well as many of the other bees and insects that will now have to pollinate in place of the honeybees. "Just walk down the pesticide section of these big stores," s ays VanderSys. "There's just a cloud of fumes. "Everybody thinks they've got to put poisons on their garden," he continues. "But that makes it a toxic area for bees."

Phil DeVries, the UO entomologist says he's not surprised at the country's growing pollination problem. Take, he says, the fact that the powerful honeybee has had centuries to overcome the country's native pollinators, and in the process has become less resistant to illness and parasites. Add to that the overwhelming trend in U.S. agriculture towards monoculture -- a practice that decimates the natural habitat of plants and the creatures that pollinate them. Then, consider the spraying of toxic chemicals that further damages both plants and animals.

"If you destroy the habitat and then spray it," says DeVries, "you simply destroy biodiversity."

It's only when a parcel of land is rich in both plant and pollinating species that a healthy balance can be achieved, says DeVries. When a system gets down to one link, it breaks down. And that's what DeVries finds alarming about the disappearance of the honeybee: U.S. agriculture has become so dependent on this one pollinator, and has wiped out so much of the natural habitat of other pollinators, that if the honeybee goes, its absence will severely damage food production in this country.

DeVries calls the use of Apistan, "the old 'technology will save us' approach." But if the technology fails -- as it's showing signs of doing -- there is no backup, because the population of native pollinators has been so reduced. And besides, native bees simply do not have the density or characteristics that work well with mono-specific nature of U.S. agriculture.

Gardeners are likely to see some pollinators this growing season-bumble bees, in fact, are reportedly flying around in higher-than-ever numbers-but bumblebees and others will only be effective to a point. The wise plant tender will need to begin to take steps that will ensure that his or her crops will be fertilized for many years to come. Encourage native plants. Create a diverse landscape. Make every effort not to use toxins or chemicals. Buy organic fruits and vegetables.

Still, the honeybee will be missed. Don Ames believes gardeners are going to have to learn to go out to tomatoes, zucchini, cherries, and the many others that rely on honeybee pollination with cotton swabs to pass the pollen by hand. Perhaps that's when the realization of the honeybee's worth will settle on humans: we've contributed, in part, to the near-end of this creature, and now we're left to do their work.

This article first appeared in Eugene Weekly

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Albion Monitor May 11, 1997 (

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