Trade and economic growth, not pesticides, major driver of beehive declines?

The debate over whether bees are threatened and if so, why, is contentious. Globally, the number of bee hives has risen steadily over the past decade, and the number of bee hives is at record levels in North America and throughout most of Europe. But there are definite problems, say top entomologists. While the number of over-winter hives is at their highest numbers in years, losses during the summer are stubbornly high.

"Such high colony losses in the summer and year-round remain very troubling," said entomologist Jeff Pettis, a researcher at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., and a co-author of the government survey that tallied up the bee losses.

But what's driving these losses? Activists say pesticides, neonicotinoids in particular, are the primary driver. But overall colony numbers have risen in the decade and a half since the pesticide was introduced. Most scientists say the issue if multifactorial. But which factors are most key?

Honey imports and exports and dramatic economic changes in certain nations have been more responsible for honeybee colony decreases (and some increases) than GMOs, pesticides, mites or diseases, according to a new study by German researchers.

The research, conducted by analyzing bee colony and honey production data collected by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), countered popular assertions by environmental non-government organizations and even some European countries, which have advocated (and enacted) bans on neonic pesticides, and looked at mites and diseases as a cause for colony collapse disorder (CCD) and other declines in populations of European honey bees.

Robin Moritz and Silvio Erler at Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, crunched numbers submitted to the FAO by more than 100 countries over 50 years (from 1961 to 2013), and found that major economic upheavals and trade in honey accounted for decreases in bee colonies. Pesticide use, disease or mite infestation did not at all correlate with decreases in colonies.

Moreover, the data clouded the picture often seen in media and NGO reports, pointing to a consistent, global decrease in bee colonies. While some countries, like the US and in Western Europe, have seen a consistent decline in colonies, other countries have seen dramatic increases in colonies and honey production. Southern Europe, for example, saw a doubling of colonies over the past 50 years, while South American colonies grew by 5.2 percent annually, African colonies grew by 3.3 percent annually, and Asian colonies grew by 4.4 percent annually (all over the past 50 years). Overall, despite the decreases in Western Europe and the United States, the FAO data showed an increase in the number of all colonies globally. Perhaps significantly, the data also showed an increase in demand for pollination which was higher than the number of existing honeybee colonies.

In fact, “countries with a positive correlation between honey production and colony number are the main honey exporters, while countries with a negative correlation are those importing honey,” Moritz and d Erler wrote. “None of the colony number dynamics of the past 50 years, neither increase nor decrease, show any relation to the arrival of novel pests or the use of novel pesticides.”

But the Natural Resources Defense Council, among other groups, have advocated banning neonics because of alleged links to colony collapse disorder and other bee population declines. The NRDC petitioned the EPA to ban use of neonicotinoids pesticides, and cited several studies that used “field realistic” levels of neonics in a solution to determine bee behavior. A recent NRDC blog noted that “Scientific studies have shown that chronic exposure of honeybees to field-realistic levels of neonics can impair learning and memory, making their pesticide habit a dangerous one.”

EPA should cancel the use of neonics. An NRDC legal petition asks EPA to initiate cancellation proceedings for all neonicotinoids pesticide products, beginning with those for which safer alternatives are available. Systemic and persistent pesticides like the neonics pose too much risk to non-target and beneficial wildlife.

But while the NRDC cited studies looking at sub-lethal behavior and mortality rates, it did not look at actual field studies, nor did it cite studies looking at mites, disease and other factors. And other groups, as we have covered in Genetic Literacy Project stories, continue to look at the herbicide glyphosate (and, by extension, genetically modified crops) as a culprit in colony collapses.

Anti-GMO scientist Don Huber warned his readers to focus on “a more problematic cause of CCD”: glyphosate. Huber claimed that glyphosate’s widespread use worldwide could only link it to bee mortality. And the pro-organic website Natural News ran a headline in 2014, “Groundbreaking study shows that Roundup causes honeybees to starve,” based on an Argentine study that did not actually show that.

The USDA and the White House have looked at a number of other factors to develop a picture of colony collapse disorder that has far more complex causes:

  • Varroa mite, a parasite-containing bug that helped wipe out hives in the 1980s.
  • Global climate change, which could be affecting how bee foraging behaviors respond to weather patterns.
  • Decreases in numbers of flowering plants, to which a White House task force recommended the planting of flowers and other plants to increase opportunities for pollination.
  • Insecticides, which may kill bees outright or affect their foraging behavior

All in all, about 60 possible environmental causes of bee health threats have been investigated. But nobody, until the German study, has tried to systematically match economic issues, individual country dynamics, and the behavior of professional beekeepers with changes in colony numbers.

The closest match, the German researchers wrote, were associated with severe political, social and economic changes, such as a 66 percent decline in colonies in Madagascar after a political coup in 1977, and a 73 percent decline in Burundi during that country’s civil war, and significant declines in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But in the U.S. and Western Europe, the declines have been steady and significant. Last year in the US, the number of disappearing hives reached 42 percent. The researchers pointed to the growth of commercial beekeeping as a possible link to colony declines, especially in the US and Western Europe. According to Moritz and Erler:

It may well be that slowly changing societal values, from hobby to business beekeeping, are important drivers of colony declines. Clearly, the increase of honey trade in relation to the national honey production in Europe goes hand in hand with the colony declines over the five decades listed in the FAO database.

Beyond trade figures, the researchers did not clarity exactly how professional beekeeping practices could contribute to decreases in bee colonies, and how practices in South America or Southern Europe may differ from the United States and Western Europe. However, several beekeeping blogs and articles reveal a rather passionate rivalry between hobbyists and professional beekeepers, including blaming incompetence on either side for what eventually became colony collapse disorder.

“I have a friend who works for a very large scale commercial beekeeping operation in California, and when I asked her about Colony Collapse she said they didn't have a problem, and if others did it probably had more to do with bad beekeeping,” wrote one. Meanwhile, a professional beekeeper told one writer:

Ninety-nine percent of the so-called beekeepers are hobby beekeepers. In North Carolina there are thousands of hobby beekeepers. And there are less than ten commercial beekeepers. There’s a public misconception that a beekeeper’s a beekeeper’s a beekeeper. But the difference between a hobby beekeeper and a commercial beekeeper is like the difference between someone with an aquarium in his living room and somebody that owns three oceangoing deep-sea vessels.

On the other hand, the long-distance transport of beehives practiced by commercial beekeepers also has been blamed for colony depletion. According to British beekeeper (and self-professed agent provocateur) Philip Chandler, the spread of the varroa mite is due to bee transport:

Bees are now in trouble as never before and much of the blame for this potentially disastrous state of affairs must be placed at the door of negligent, commercial beekeepers. The inter-continental migration of pests and diseases has widely been blamed on climate change, but in fact the spread of the Varroa mite from its native Asia and its original host species, the Asian bee Apis cerana, can be directly linked to the commercial bee trade.

So, while pressure has mounted on the United States to ban a pesticide that already is about halfway through a ban by the European Union, colony declines in some countries may continue despite any actions taken for or against neonics and other pesticides. And while correlation does not equal cause, the German research opens the door to including economic and business factors behind bee colony changes.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • Farmer with a Dell

    I have long suspected these bee problems are a result of mismanagement by beekeepers. Always cutting corners, cramming in a few more hives and a few more and never planting any additional bee feed, harvesting gobs of honey but never properly cleaning & disinfecting anything, never taking any precautions for the health of colonies. Too many of these bee outfits are filthy, contaminated with every sort of germ and grime in the neighborhood. Just disgusting.

    Time for these beekeepers to stop whining and blaming. They are their own worst enemy. The rest of us can only stand back at a safe distance and watch the implosion. Filth and greed were bound to catch up with ’em.

    • Steve

      “Too many of these bee outfits are filthy, contaminated with every sort of germ and grime in the neighborhood. Just disgusting.” How do you dream up this nonsense.

      • Farmer with a Dell

        No need to dream anything up, Steve. Just drive around and visit a few of these apiaries. Hell, you can smell them before you even get out of the truck. You will find piles of used wooden hive parts that have been scraped off a little bit, ready to go right back into service carrying disease and nastiness along with it. Doubt that? Here’s typical bad advice from the typical state agency overseeing apiary activities:

        Here may be my personal favorite quote from the above link:
        “Frames with only a few [dead] bees stuck in the cells need no action and should
        be reused since bees can easily remove the dried corpses.”

        Seriously?!?!? This is the sort of disastrously lazy advice coming from the same state agencies responsible for conducting apiary inspections (on a hit or miss basis, I might add). They are clueless!

        Imagine telling grocery store produce and meat department managers to just wipe off and reuse stuff. It’s like having kids in day care reuse each others’ kleenex.

        These silly beekeepers need to step into the 21st century and clean up their act. Of course, it is so much easier to whine and blame. And all of the anti-agriculture whackos are eager to jump aboard the neonic bandwagon and lend support to the foolishness. The result — a lively but dysfunctional clown circus. Not exactly the sort of minority we want forcing draconian regulatory decisions the majority of us will have to live with.

    • WeGotta

      What you describe “Always cutting corners, cramming in a few more” is the current business model of our corrupt consumerism culture.

    • Andrew Porterfield

      I was rather surprised at the volume of argument among professional and “hobby” beekeepers. Nobody in the industry talks much about GM, pesticides, or the things people outside the beekeeper world talk about. They’re mainly talking about shoddy practices and poor hygiene and upkeep.

  • Cerceris

    Is it of value to look at hive productivity? National hive numbers could drop, but if productivity is up, total production might be stable or improved.

    And, I too have wondered about issues of “livestock husbandry” regarding the big commercial operations. Anyone that hauled avian or mammalian livestock over the distances, under the nutritional stressors, and over the extended durations that appear to have been the norm circa 2006 would, appropriately, have been open for criticism from livestock welfare groups (distinguishing from rights groups).

  • ldasteelworker

    It must be “Trade and Global Economic Growth” — why those poor bees are having to fly halfway around the world and work so much overtime their little wings just drop off!

    It must be those dirty bad hobby beekeepers — why they hardly know what a queen bee even looks like!

    It might be the mites — you just can’t trust mites — why they’re almost as bad as maybes…

    For example, maybe it’s the NRDC and other groups that are the culprits — sticking their proboscises where they don’t belong — like looking at the science of the herbicide Glyphosate. You know the systemic herbicide that Monsanto makes…

    Oh, wait a minute, maybe it’s just a coincidence that you would trash environmental organizations and obfuscate environmental causes of bee health threats with 60 possibilities when the scientific consensus is that Neonicotinoids are one of the leading suspected causes of colony collapse disorder in honey bees.

    Or maybe it’s because we’re on the Genetic Literacy Project’s webpage — a GMO lobbying organization funded by Monsanto a corporation that makes GMOs and Glyphosate herbicides?

    Maybe the maybes are worse than the mites!

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