Sunday, March 15th, 2009 | Author:
So interesting to see how the conversation about CCD has evolved in the press. This article is a keeper, full of instructive detail, copied here for posterity.- DNR

Mysterious Bee Deaths Strike Central Valley

By Steve Pastis

February 21, 2007 – San Joaquin Valley – A mysterious ailment is killing off bees in Tulare County and across the country. Given the name “Colony Collapse Disorder,” the new disease has wiped out bee colonies in 21 states so far.

The loss of bees in the Central Valley is expected to have a negative impact on crops such as avocados, cherries, plums, alfalfa seeds, pomegranates and kiwi. The bee shortage may hit almonds the hardest during the time of year when half of the country’s commercial bees are brought into the state to help launch what should become a $1.4 billion dollar harvest. Even more bees will be needed over the next few years as California almond production is expected to expand to more than 750,000 acres by the year 2010.

“I’ve lost over 2,000 bees over the last two months,” said David Bradshaw, owner of Bradshaw Honey Farms in Visalia. He had about 4,200 bees but is now down to less than 2,000.

Recently, he was visited by research teams from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Montana. The teams took samples to study and dissect them to see if there is any common denominator. Bradshaw isn’t looking for a quick answer from the researchers though.

“When you work with a university, they tell you, ‘We’ll look into it and let you know in a couple of years,” he said.

In the meantime, Bradshaw has his own theory. “I think a certain type of pesticide disrupts the nerves that send signals,” he said. “Bees are bugs and I think that bees lose their memories. They get confused and can’t find their way back home.”

The recent freeze may have played a factor also, according to Bradshaw. “The bees have been weakened to where the bees couldn’t keep themselves warm and they died from the cold weather,” he said.

“They go out looking for food, run out of energy, chill and die of exposure,” he said. “They don’t have the colony to keep them warm.”

The problem started on the East Coast late last year, according to Bradshaw.

“Beekeepers are always hauling bees from other states. Unfortunately, we bring in all the ailments with them and they spread to our bees,” he said, adding that he recently brought in bees from North Dakota and Arkansas.

Eric Lane, of Eric Lane Apiaries in Terra Bella, reports losing 80 percent of his bees. Not all of them are dead though. About 20 percent of those are still buzzing, but incapable of doing any work.

Lane was also visited by researchers from the two universities who have taken his bees to study and dissect.

“The University of Montana looks for bacteria, and Penn State looks for viruses,” he said. “They have no idea what they’ve got. I do my own microscopic work even though I don’t have fancy letters after my name. I’ve been touting the problem since 2001. I described exactly what was going to happen to bees in California.”

Lane places the blame for the problem squarely on the shoulders of Bayer, the manufacturer of imidacloprid, a nicotine-based product that was approved for use in California in 2003.

“On the surface, it looks like it would do the job well,” he said, “but the first year they used it in France, the entire French bee industry collapsed. Bayer gave the beekeepers a total of $70 million, even though the company said they weren’t responsible. As a result, the French decided not to sue and the possibility of its use was left open, even though 16 countries have banned it. One research article after another around the world has come up with imidacloprid as the culprit.”

Lane has spent a great deal of time studying bees and documenting the problem.

“When an adult bee goes out to forage for pollen, by the fourth day the bee loses the ability to smell,” he said. “Even in the middle of a (fragrant) flow, they are guarding the front door (of the hive) as if they don’t know it’s there.

“Young bees do their normal duties around the hive for five days. Then they go and fill up with nectar and realize they don’t know where home is. Old bees hang around hive but eventually wander off and die. Young bees fly off and never come home.

“Bees dance to tell other bees where the food is. They walk and wiggle, and we have worked to decipher it. They’ll say, ‘Fly out at 35 degrees, turn left 70 degrees, go over a fence and that tree is good for food.’ Now, their dance is a quarter too fast and jittery. Bees don’t go where they are supposed to go. The dance has been corrupted.

“Bayer is right. It doesn’t kill the bees, but is so wounds them that they can’t continue,” he said.

Lane said that termites are very similar to bees and that a Bayer product that kills them with imidacloprid explains on the package that not all the termites will be killed directly by their product. Those that survive will be killed when the product “confuses and distresses the colony to cause them to be killed through other diseases.”

“They have the guts to say that about termites, but not about bees,” Lane said.

Bayer makes $1 billion in the U.S. and $500 million in Europe by selling imidacloprid under 20 different names, such as Admire, Provado, Merit, Marathon and Gaucho, according to Lane. “At Home Depot or Wal-Mart, 90% of insecticides are by Bayer and imidacloprid is the active ingredient,” he said.

“There has been independent research on the effects of Gaucho by many different countries and most of their observations tend to agree,” Lane said. “What they have concluded is that imidacloprid is basically harmless through the plants life cycle, right up until it begins to flower. At that time, it absorbs high levels of imidacloprid and stores it in the pollen and nectar. These high levels tend to have an adverse effect on the honeybee. In the adult, it destroys the olfactory system, leaving the adult bee unable to differentiate between the smells of plants. This severely curtails the bee’s ability to forage and honey production goes way down. Brood, fed on Gaucho tainted nectar and pollen, reaching the field bee stage, goes out to forage and cannot find its way back to the hive. It appears to have lost its homing instincts. This, of course, causes the hive strength to go down rapidly.”

Lane also commented on the local use of imidacloprid.

“Tulare County actually pumped imidacloprid into lots to fight the glassy winged sharpshooter which has the ability to destroy grapevines and other plants,” Lane said. “I believe the chemical is the root of the cause and if we don’t turn it around, it’s the end of bees in California.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Eric Mussen, of the Department of Entomology at the University of California Davis, is skeptical about placing the blame on imidacloprid.

“I suppose that it may be possible in certain places, in certain conditions, but the loss is across the country, some places where bees wouldn’t encounter any pesticides at all, much less this specific one,” he said.

“The company got a severe black eye in France because when seeds of sunflowers with imidacloprid came into bloom, they were toxic to bees,” he explained. “But the question is when they would encounter enough of the material in the field. Not too many tests were done, but in those that were, for all intents and purposes, the material was below the level of detection or miniscule. From the point of view of the company that sells it, they thought that gives them a clean slate.

“They also proved that a tiny bit made the bees’ memories a little bit better, but that much more intoxicates them and they can’t get home,” he added.

Part of Mussen’s skepticism about placing the blame on imidacloprid is based on his awareness of recent bee history.

“This problem isn’t brand new. It’s something we had before,” he said. “We had the phenomenon in the mid-60s and then again in 1975. These new chemicals weren’t on the market then.”

For the current problem, Mussen instead suggests the possibility of malnutrition. “The honey crop in 2006 was real real low,” he said. “There was not enough honey so perhaps there was not enough pollen, not enough food for the bees.”

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