Bee die-off a threat to U.S. food supply |

Bee die-off a threat to U.S. food supply

Beekeepers say a mysterious years-long die-off of honeybees reached crisis levels this winter, and scientists warn the phenomenon could begin to cut the nation’s food supply.

“This is not just a problem for us beekeepers. It eventually could be a problem for anyone who eats,” said beekeeper Dale Bauer of Fertile, Minn., who estimates that half of his 15,000 bee colonies died during the winter.

It’s an increasing concern for them and those who grow dozens of agricultural products that bees pollinate: asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash, citrus fruits, peaches, blueberries, strawberries and melons.

“Beekeepers across the country are saying this is the worst winter since colony collapse disorder (or CCD) was first identified,” said Nichelle Harriott, a staff scientist with Beyond Pesticides, a Washington advocacy group.

Since 2006, the year scientists identified the syndrome, commercial beekeepers have lost bees at a rate of at least 30 percent each winter. Many beekeepers reported losing 50 percent to 70 percent of their bees this winter.

Why worker bees abruptly disappear from colonies has stumped researchers, who say CCD is caused by a mix of factors, from environmental to natural. What’s under increased scrutiny is the use of a type of pesticide that was put into the market two years before the spike in bee die-offs.

Last week, four commercial beekeepers and several environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency, which they want to suspend the registrations of insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The lawsuit claims the EPA never should have given conditional approval to the pesticides.

“The losses across the nation will be more than 40 percent. There is just way too much of these products being used,” said beekeeper Jim Doan of Hamlin, N.Y., a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The EPA does not comment on pending litigation, said spokesman Dale Kemery.

“Honeybees and other pollinators facilitate the production of many of the valuable crops grown in the U.S.,” said Ray McAllister, senior director of regulatory affairs for CropLife America, which represents 90 pesticide manufacturers. “The crop-protection industry recognizes their importance and remains actively involved in efforts to study and improve pollinator health.”

Doan, New York’s biggest beekeeper, lost all but 700 of his 2,300 bee colonies during the winter. This summer, instead of renting his bees to growers, he plans to stay in the Adirondacks with his bees.

“There are no farms there. It’s the only way to make bees healthy again,” he said.

Matters are no better for Dave Hackenberg of Lewisburg in Union County, Pennsylvania’s largest beekeeper, who lost 70 percent of his 3,000 bee colonies.

“If you lose 40 percent of your bees, you can replace them. It is progressively getting worse, and we can’t take these losses much longer,” Hackenberg said.

Pollination from honeybees adds $15 billion to the value of agricultural production in America, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Adam Voll, whose family owns Soergel Orchards in Franklin Park, said he expects bee rental prices to be a bit less in Western Pennsylvania than the $180 paid last month in California during almond pollination. Soergel’s rents bees to pollinate apples, peaches, pumpkins and melons.

“Demand in California is always big. Apples and peaches are not all pollinated at the same time in the eastern part of the United States,” he said.

The controversial category of pesticides called neonicatinoids were developed by BayerCropScience, based in North Carolina. The company, a division of Bayer Corp. of Robinson, maintains the pesticides are safe for pollinators.

Scientists such as Harriott, of Beyond Pesticides, say neonicatinoids are less toxic to mammals than chemicals used in the past. But, she said, “They have chronic and toxic effects on other non-target insects like honeybees.”

Neonicatinoids are used to treat corn and soybean seeds.

May Berenbaum, professor and entomology department head at the University of Illinois at Urbana, has serious doubts about the way neonicatinoids are used.

“It is not possible to attribute all of colony collapse disorder to pesticides. But the prophylactic treatment of seeds is totally contrary to 60 years of integrated pest management. You should treat crops when there is a pest, not before. And eventually the insects they want to get rid of will develop immunity to the pesticide,” she said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at [email protected].

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