I spent Saturday in Yakima at the “Vanishing Conference” presented by the Central Washington Beekeepers Association. Sponsored by fruit growers, Glory Bee Foods and Bee Culture Magazine, and Hagen Das (yay Hagen Das!), the conference brought together beekeepers who were featured in the film “The Vanishing of the Bees”. David Hackenburg, David Mendes, and Tom Theobald are all long-time beekeepers, and Marilyn Frazier is the Penn State researcher who they called when Colony Collapse Disorder first emerged.
The speakers noted that the idea this is a disorder implies there is a single cause. The situation they unfolded is significantly more complicated. Pesticides have been in use in this country for many decades. It may go without saying, but when you think about it, bees are bugs, so of course they will be affected by chemicals designed to kill bugs!
Pests and pathogens like varroa impacted the health of bees in the mid-1980s. Beekeepers thought many effects they were seeing were due to the mites. In retrospect, the symptoms now described as CCD began to be seen in the mid 1990s with the introduction of neonicitinoids, especially Imidacloprid, a systemic pesticide used to treat corn. Corn isn’t a pollinated crop, but that doesn’t mean there are bees on it. There are more bees collecting corn pollen than ever – corn pollen is very attractive to bees, and corn has replaced other forms of forage as more acreage is brought into corn to support the ethanol industry.
Beekeepers are seeing more than vanishing colonies. Queens are ceasing to lay at the end of summer, which means they will fail to produce winter bees. Colonies with adequate forage are simply failing to thrive.
The beekeepers who presented at the conference are desperately worried, not just about the bees, but about people. They say that bees are simply reflecting what is going on in the environment. They are describing not just the collapse of commercial beekeeping but the collapse of commercial agriculture under the weight of increasingly toxic chemicals. They feel that they are sending their bees out into an environment that is hostile to life. They worry that agriculture that kills bees must also be harming people.
Backyard beekeepers are not exempt from these effects. Do you have a cat or dog? Do you treat for fleas? Check the label – you might be using Imidacloprid yourself. This product is in use by home orchardists also. It’s tremendously toxic to bees, and persists in the environment for years after application. Pesticides are used extensively to spray for mosquitos to control West Nile virus and to control noxious weeds.
Backyard beekeepers and commercial beekeepers are all part of the same industry. We get our bees from commercial breeders. Researchers in the land grant universities like WSU and Penn State are focusing efforts on breeding a strain of bees hardy enough to manage some of these health impacts. This is where the small breeder, like Star Valley Apiary, can be helpful to the industry as a whole.
Now that I have attended this conference I can’t wait for the Pacific Northwest Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference. Ted and I are going – this is going to be a very exciting event, encourage you to go too!