Commercial Beekeeper: No, The Bees Are Not Back up on Their Knees

A person is wearing protective gloves and clothing.  They are holding up a frame from a man made beehive.  The frame is cover
A person is wearing protective gloves and clothing. They are holding up a frame from a man made beehive. The frame is covered in honeybees, honeycombs, and honey.

Colony Collapse Disorder: We beekeepers hate that term. It's not a disorder or disease that is causing our bees to die at still-alarming rates, contrary to the assertion of Noah Wilson-Rich in a recent New York Times op-ed. It is the toxic fountain of pesticides we've turned on full blast in America's heartland. The writer quotes academics and government officials who say "colony collapse disorder" is over, but try telling that to commercial beekeepers who are struggling to keep their livelihoods intact.

This summer, I've lost more than half my colonies, and in recent winters have seen losses as high as 67 percent. Compare that to the years before nicotine-derived pesticides when winter loss would average 6 percent.

The writer opines that trucking bees around the country can be blamed for their poor health. This would have the reader believe that trucking bees was something new rather than a practice that has been going on as long as there have been blueberries in Maine, oranges in Florida, and almonds in California. Does he think commercial beekeepers suddenly all forgot how to keep bees at the same time?

My operation has migrated between California and Minnesota since 1960. Back then it took about 64 hours of driving on bumpy two-lane roads with numerous stops; today it takes under 33 hours on smooth freeways with few stops.

Mr. Wilson-Rich mentions pesticides, but he downplays their role in widespread bee losses. Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have found that one nicotine-derived pesticide is "very highly toxic" to honeybees and other insect pollinators, and other peer-reviewed studies show links between these pesticides and colony collapse on a greater scale. Despite this science, the EPA has approved this pesticide for wide use on a variety of common bee-dependent crops, and is in the process of significantly raising the tolerance for residues on many crops to allow for new applications of the poisons on crops that attract bees.

USDA surveys show that while bee colony losses have improved over the last two years, they are still at unsettling and unsustainable levels. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last March, "While we're glad to see improvement this year, losses are still too high and there is still much more work to be done to stabilize bee populations."

There may be other factors that contribute to widespread bee die-offs, but given the science we have, it is unreasonable and irresponsible to dismiss pesticides as a leading cause. It is just as irresponsible to claim that bees are back and these problems are over.

For the survival of the entire beekeeping industry and the survival of the honeybee species, it does the world no service to shift the blame or divert attention from the problems we can easily solve. We need to act on what we can, and that must be by banning the pesticides that are killing our bees.