A 44 Percent Bee Decline?

REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Steve Milloy Contributor
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“Beekeepers lost 44 percent of honeybee colonies last year.”

The headline, based on a new U.S. Department of Agriculture Report, is meant to make you think that there’s a shortage of bees, which are about to vanish from the face of the earth. Nothing could be further from the truth.

All we need to do is take a look at another recent USDA report which says there are almost 2.7 million honey-producing honeybee colonies in the United States. That’s up 10 percent from a decade ago. The USDA has also begun releasing quarterly surveys of all honeybee colonies. They show roughly the same trend at about 2.6 million, a figure not including small-time beekeepers with fewer than five colonies.

Yet there are groups actively trying to mislead the public into thinking otherwise. “If we do not suspend neonicotinoid pesticides immediately,” says a Friends of the Earth press release citing the new report, “we risk losing our beekeepers and harming important ecosystem functions upon which our food supply depends.”

Neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are the most popular class of crop protection products, usually applied as seed coatings. Farmers prefer them because they’re highly effective and safer than the alternatives. Activists hate them because they despise everything about modern, efficient agriculture. So they take any excuse to blame a bad headline on neonics, like the “44 percent decline in bees.”

The gimmick works if the public takes the headline at face value. For most people, a 44 percent loss is what happens when you make a lousy stock market investment. If you lost 44 percent of your investment annually, you’d have nothing left by the 8th year. But bee populations are actually up over the years. How could that be?

It’s because the 44 percent figure doesn’t take into account the fact that some loss is inevitable and that beehives rapidly regenerate in the warmer months, as a happy queen can lay over a thousand eggs every day. And beekeepers can accelerate the process with techniques like splitting hives. That takes extra effort and some money. And when losses are so high, it can cut into profits. But that doesn’t mean there’s a “pollination crisis” or even necessarily a loss in overall populations.

So what is making overwinter losses so high? The USDA report explained: “Honey beekeepers with five or more colonies reported Varroa mites as the leading stressor affecting colonies.” Varroa are nasty little parasites that invade bee colonies and feed on the blood of the inhabitants. They bring disease and destruction to hives on a massive scale— and over one out of three honeybee hives in the U.S. are infected with Varroa, according to the report.  Together with other pests and diseases, Varroa accounted for over 65.5 percent of the major stressors on bee colonies.

But what about neonics? Friends of the Earth insists they’re killing bees, but the USDA report doesn’t back that up. According to their survey, pesticides only accounted for 10.5 percent of the stressors on honeybee colonies. And that’s ALL pesticides, including organic pesticides that are known to be much more harmful to bees. It also includes pesticides beekeepers apply directly inside the hive to kill the Varroa parasites.

As May Berenbaum, head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, explained recently to NPR, Varroa mites don’t just suck bees blood and vector in viruses. Varroa is “the reason beekeepers are introducing pesticides into the hive, since they’re desperate to control this parasite, and the pesticides themselves suppress immunity.”

In other words, the pesticides beekeepers use to kill the Varroa mite is weakening the bees resistance to the Varroa mite. Berenbaum appropriately calls this a “vicious cycle.”

How likely is it that neonics are killing bees? Not very. Activists point to lab studies that dose bees with high levels of neonics and then show, not surprisingly, that the bees become disoriented. But every high-quality field study conducted to date — exposing bees to realistic doses in real-life conditions — has arrived at the same conclusion, that when bees come upon the amount of neonics they are likely to find in the wild, there is no observable adverse effect.

If Friends of the Earth really cared about bees, they’d be seeking contributions to find new treatments to fight Varroa mites. But don’t expect that to happen soon. It’s much easier to raise money by creating false fears about harming ecosystems and imperiling our food supply with bee declines that aren’t even happening. That’s their real bottom line.

Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com.