Some of the honeybees were lying on their backs, trembling and twitching. Others were crawling slowly on the ground, unable to fly. Many were motionless, lying dead in piles. Many more had simply disappeared, apparently unable to find their way back to their hives. This was the gruesome scene commercial beekeeper Steve Ellis came upon on the morning of May 7, 2013.
The sight stunned Ellis, who has owned and operated Old Mill Honey Company in Barrett, Minnesota for 35 years. "Normally in the spring, we typically expect bees to build up and get stronger," he recalled. "For a beekeeper to watch his bees be devastated in the springtime — it's like watching a little child get extremely sick and debilitated. It takes a real mental toll on you."
But almost immediately, Ellis discovered the culprit: That morning, a farmer had planted corn in a field directly adjacent to his bee yard, which housed roughly 1,300 hives at the time. He was well aware that most corn seeds are treated with a pesticide called neonicotinoids. And that day, the wind was blowing from the cornfield toward Ellis' bees, the beekeeper wrote in an incident report he sent to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The bees' only sources of food were nearby willow trees, which, Ellis surmised, had become coated with pesticide-contaminated dust. "We took a close look to see how the bees were behaving when they were trying to forage them. It was shocking what we found," Ellis said in a video he took that day documenting the massacre. "Bees literally incapacitated when they come in contact with the flowers."
Ellis said he has no doubt that the farmer's pesticides had poisoned his bees. Neonicotinoids, called neonics for short, are the most widely used pesticides in the world; they coat the majority of maize seeds planted in this country. They are considered systemic pesticides, meaning they get into a plant's root and leaf system and are distributed throughout the organism — including to the pollen and nectar. While they're very effective at killing harmful pests such as beetles and aphids, neonics are also highly toxic to bees. High doses of exposure to the pesticides cause bees' nervous systems to shut down, killing them. And research has increasingly shown that even low doses of exposure to neonics can produce chronic, sub-lethal impacts in bees — meaning they can weaken or sicken honeybees and their colonies.
Pesticides are just one piece of a very complex puzzle of factors that is contributing to declining bee health and massive colony losses that are being reported by commercial beekeepers across the country. A few weeks ago, the US Department of Agriculture released data showing that US beekeepers lost more than one in five honeybee colonies in the 2013-14 winter season. Beekeepers have been experiencing abnormally high losses since 2006, when honeybees began mysteriously disappearing from their hives in large quantities, part of a phenomenon experts called colony collapse disorder (CCD). But since then, attention has shifted toward broader declines in honeybee health due to a wide range of threats, such as pathogens, parasites, poor nutrition, migratory stresses, and environmental stresses — including exposure to pesticides.
While experts agree that declining bee health is a multifaceted problem, in recent years, a growing body of research has suggested that pesticides are a major threat to our nation's honeybees, weakening colonies and making them vulnerable to diseases and parasites. "We know that the dust from [pesticide-laden] seed planting is outright toxic to bees and responsible for ... bee kills on an annual basis during corn-planting time," said James Frazier, a professor of entomology at Penn State who has co-authored studies exploring links between pesticides and honeybee health. "We know that pesticides of multiple classes are having sub-lethal consequences at many levels. ... There's no doubt that they are having a negative impact on colony survival and health."
Beekeepers, researchers, and environmental advocacy groups accuse the EPA of failing to properly regulate pesticides and protect pollinators (most notably honeybees, but other insects and animals, too), while Europe has temporarily banned the use of three neonic compounds due to concerns about their impacts on bees. Critics say the federal agency has relied heavily on biased data from the corporate giants that profit tremendously from pesticides, including Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, which manufacture neonics, and Monsanto, which produces the crop seeds that are coated with the pesticides. Furthermore, critics say manufacturers often bring pesticide products to market before their potential hazards are fully understood, and in some cases, their negative impacts on bee health have already been proven.
Several Bay Area beekeepers, researchers, and advocacy organizations hope to change this scenario. And four commercial beekeepers, including Ellis, have sued the EPA for continuing to allow the use of certain pesticides that are toxic to bees.
It's not just the beekeepers' businesses that are at stake. If honeybees continue to die at rapid rates, our food supply will suffer. Honeybees are believed to be responsible for one-third of all the food we eat — almonds, apples, blueberries, alfalfa that dairy cows depend on, and much more. According to the USDA, bee pollination sustains more than $15 billion in crop value every year, allowing for the commercial production of many foods that "give our diet diversity, flavor, and nutrition."
"This is not one of those species we can ignore," said Terry Oxford, a San Francisco-based beekeeper and activist. "Pollinators and bees are tied into our existence. They are essentially our food."