Pesticides and food: It’s not a black and white issue

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Honeybee population isn’t ‘crashing’ and seed pesticides are not driving health problems—and here’s why

In recent years, articles on honeybees have often started with a sentence like this: “Populations of honeybees have crashed in recent years, and many researchers have pointed the blame at a class of widely used insecticides called neonicotinoids.”

In fact, that’s how an otherwise excellent article in The Scientist summarizing a recent USDA study on honeybees’ molecular responses to neonicotinoids began. The narrative that honeybees, which are not originally native to North America, face mortal danger––has been advanced by environmental groups for years and echoed in the media, in casual blogs and the mainstream science sites alike. This twist on the news is so pervasive that it’s often accepted without question: bee populations are rapidly declining as a result of pesticide use, particularly the use of neonics, and the crucial pollinators could be edging towards extinction, plunging our entire food system into chaos.

  • “Declining honeybee population could spell trouble for some crops,” blared a headline on Fox News last year.
  • “Death and Extinction of the Bees,” was the banner claim on the activist Centre for Research on Globalization.
  • “Honey Bees in a Struggle for Survival,” claimed a guest columnist writing earlier this month for a Tennessee newspaper.

The only problem is that it isn’t true.

Myth of Honeybee decline

Honeybee populations haven’t “crashed” in the United States or elsewhere. Honeybees are not going “extinct.” Crops are not “in trouble.” 

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Source: USDA annual report on honey-producing colonies in the U.S. USDA publishes its final statistics one year after its preliminary estimates. USDA also collects a census, taken every five years in December, of honey-producing and non-honey-producing colonies. While not as valuable for tracking annual numbers, the census confirms the upward trend in managed bee colonies, with a 13.1% increase between 2007 and 2012.

The overall population of honeybees in the US, Canada and Europe has held steady or increased slightly since the widespread adoption of neonics in the 1990s. The US honeybee population hit a 22-year high in 2016, according to the figures released by the USDA before dipping slightly last year, and globally are at an all-time high.Screen Shot at PM

So what’s behind the popular meme of the honeybee, legs pointing to the sky? As often happens in discussing controversial issues such as food and dead honey beechemicals, it’s complicated––and in part ideological.

First of all, honeybees aren’t the cute symbol of the natural world that environmentalists make them out to be. They’re actually a managed species, like livestock, bred by beekeepers to make honey and shipped around the country to pollinate crops like almonds. They’re also an exotic species in North America, brought over from Europe by early colonists. [Note: European honeybees originated in Asia 300,000 years ago.]

It’s not that honeybees are not facing health challenges — they are. Just not to the degree that environmental groups and the media suggest and not for the reasons popularized by protestors in yellow bee suits. Most of the problems, say entomologists and bee keepers, are linked to bee keeping practices, Varroa destructor mites (which vector roughly a dozen different diseases into beehives), and the widely prevalent gut fungus Nosema ceranae. Seed pesticides, most experts say, play a minor if measurable role, with the miticides used to control the parasites presenting far more of a health threat than neonics. These problems have led to higher-than-average over winter losses. While beekeepers always lose some of their bees over the winter, winter losses of managed honey bee colonies in the US have averaged 28.7 percent since 2006, almost double the historical rate. 

So what’s going on? How is the US honeybee population stable or rising despite a doubling of winter loss rates?

Colony Collapse Disorder is not the same as bee losses linked to diseases and chemicals

The independent Bee Informed Partership, which was founded by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture, reported that despite bee health problems in recent years, trends are favorable in tracking overwinter losses, considered the key statistic in evaluating bee colony health.

Screen Shot at PMAccording to a recent USDA report on honeybee health, beekeepers have been able to adapt their managerial practices and repopulate their stocks when cold weather or virus-related losses occur. Winter losses can easily be replenished by splitting hives, but experts say that’s not the optimal solution; it would be better for bee stocks for overwinter losses to continue their recent decline.

“The media have overstressed the mortality aspects and largely ignored the fact that the beekeeping industry is able to rebound,” Michael Burgett, professor emeritus of entomology at Oregon State University and a co-author of the report, told the GLP. “The honey bee is in no way endangered.”

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Bee boxes set up at an almond grove in California (Image credit: Claire Brittain/University of California – Davis)

Burgett has been studying bees since 1969, and has noticed a significant uptick in public interest in, and funding for, honeybee research since the onset of “Colony Collapse Disorder” first raised eyebrows when it appeared in California in 2006. 

“As a practicing academic for the last 49 years, I’m always delighted when more money becomes available to do research and outreach programs,” Burgett said. “However, it’s based on the falsehood that our honeybee industry is on the decline.”

CCD, which lasted for about 3-5 years, is a sudden phenomenon in which the majority of worker bees mysteriously disappear. That problem, which showed up most dramatically in California, abated by 2011. But reporters continue to use the term, erroneously, to describe other health challenges faced by bees since then, including the growing threat of mite infestations.

High prices are the solution to their own problem

Related article:  Could we protect bees from neonicotinoid insecticides by planting trees?

The latest USDA report credits the market for crop pollination services as a key reason why, quoting the old adage, “high prices are the solution to their own problem.”

When winter bee loss rates increased in the mid-2000s mostly as a result of the temporary CCD threat, beekeepers’ bottom line was hurt. This incentivized them to replace their lost colonies and to move their “livestock” to farms that offered better rates. Beekeepers offset the higher winter losses primarily through a process called “splitting.” Splitting involves taking a portion of the eggs, larvae, pupae, adult bees and food stores from a healthy colony and creating a separate colony with a newly mated queen. During spring, both colonies will grow, replenishing the beekeepers’ stocks.  

At the same time, pollination fees (mostly for California’s booming almond industry) and honey prices have increased in recent years, boosting the profitability of beekeeping and further incentivizing beekeepers to replace lost colonies. In 1988, honey sales accounted for 52 percent of beekeeper revenue while pollinator service fees made up less than 11 percent. Today, pollination service fees make up over 41 percent, the largest source of beekeeper revenue. Of that, 82 percent comes from almonds.

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Aside from beekeepers ability to repopulate their colonies and move to fields that pay the highest rates, a third factor that has contributed to the US honeybee population’s stability is the fact that pollinator services make up a small percentage of total farm costs. While pollination services account for a little over five percent of the total cost of growing almonds, no other crop tops 3 percent. And when you consider what the product is sold for in grocery stores, it’s even less, with pollination services for all crops (including almonds) making up just 1 percent or less of retail food costs. This means that pollination service cost increases don’t have a large impact on farmers’ costs or food prices.

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USDA bee researcher: “If there’s a top ten list of what’s killing honey bee colonies, I’d put pesticides at number 11.”

While it’s great that beekeepers are able to rebound from increased loses, “it’s not fun having a lot of dead bees,” says Burgett. High loss rates mean more work and costs for beekeepers.

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Varroa mites on honeybee.

He says the cause of the increased loss numbers are multifactorial, but that varroa mites and the viruses they carry are likely the leading drivers. Nutrition is another big factor. With many colonies being transported to California’s almond groves for pollination, the bees’ diet isn’t very diverse. Burgett says bees need more than just almond pollen to stay healthy.

In the last five years, concerns over Colony Collapse Disorder have eased considerably. Surveys have shown that beekeepers only attribute around 20 percent of their losses to CCD, says Burgett.

And while still an issue, he says pesticides including neonics have become much less of a hazard in recent decades, and doesn’t see them as playing a significant role in the recent increase in losses.

“If there’s a top ten list of what’s killing honey bee colonies, I’d put pesticides at number 11” [not even on the list], he said.

bees exposed to systemic pesticides are unable to gather enough pollen neonicotinoids kill honeybees
Organic Consumer Ass fund-raising campaign.

When Burgett first came to Oregon State University, beekeepers would often tell him that pesticides were their number one issue. But things have improved significantly in the decades since.

“The agricultural industry has gotten much, much better,” he explained. “The pesticides we’re using have changed a lot from 30, 40 years ago to generally safer products for honeybees.”

As for neonicotinoids, the controversial class of insecticides commonly applied as a seed coating, Burgett says that despite over a decade of study, it’s still yet to be proven that they’re playing a significant role in honeybee deaths.

But you rarely find that kind of nuanced reporting in the general media or even among the farm press. The anti-chemical meme targeting neonics with the not-all-that vulnerable honeybee as their symbol remains a powerful fund-raising tool for environmental advocacy groups, and is often linked to the organic industry.

Jon Entine is the founder and executive director of the GLP. Follow him on Twitter @jonentine

112 thoughts on “Honeybee population isn’t ‘crashing’ and seed pesticides are not driving health problems—and here’s why”

    • bees are in trouble – wild or bred. Imidacloprid and thiamethoxam are more commonly used insecticides and they are toxic and continue to kill bees. The publication only suggests that they have found enzyme systems which can help metabolize a less toxic variant of these insecticides called thiacloprid. But this is not new!! researchers always knew that this compound is metabolized in bees; now this group has identified the enzymes responsible for that. In theory, this can help augment the defenses of bees against insecticides. This doesn’t change anything as suggested by the founder of GLP here.

  1. I read GLP often but am disappointed to read this article from the ‘founder’. The article suggests – research (and mainstream media) reports on honeybees dying due to insecticides (neonicotinoids) and being endangered aren’t really correct. However, the publication it sites doesn’t seem to suggest so.

    The publication states “We demonstrate that bumble bees also exhibit profound differences in their sensitivity to different neonicotinoids (read insecticides), and we identify CYP9Q4 as a functional ortholog of honeybee CYP9Q3 and a key metabolic determinant of neonicotinoid sensitivity in this species. Our results demonstrate that bee pollinators are equipped with biochemical defense systems that define their sensitivity to insecticides and this knowledge can be leveraged to safeguard bee health.”

    This basically means that:
    1. They have identified CYP9Q4 (as a functional ortholog of honeybee CYP9Q3) helps metabolize neonicotins in bees. Period.
    2. This knowledge can be leveraged to safeguard bee health.

    No where does the publication suggest bees are not in fatal danger from insecticides as suggested by the writer. How very manipulative.

      • That’s not abundance, that’s one or two butterflies and bees now and again on just two or three species of wildflower, which look like artificially sown strips. Unimproved wildflower grassland should be much more diverse than this and would be thronging with insect life in a balanced ecosystem!

          • Really? A two minute video of a some butterflies in a field of flowers? You do know that is not any kind of proof of anything, right? That there is actual scientific proof demonstrating the mode of action that damages the nervous systems of insects?

          • Again, short videos of butterflies and bees are nice to watch, but do not in any way constitute scientific evidence.

          • If the alledged nervous system “damage” was substantial and then it should not be easy to film bees and butterflies in abundance in landscapes such as southern Minnesota and Iowa that are dominated by GMO herbicide tolerant crops and that were grown from neonicotinoid insecticide coated seeds. But it is easy to film them for not just minutes, but hours and days at a time.

          • Do some research on nervous system damage. It can take time to have effects. Insects have short life spans. Some won’t die because of it, some will. But it’s long term effects on ecosystems can be disastrous.
            People die on highways every minute of every day, yet you can still observe people driving there all the time. Are you saying that’s proof that accidents don’t kill people?

      • Paul; years ago the seed coatings you speak of was more of a problem. Modern planters use air to push seed through tubes to seed trench. Not simply drop seed mechanically like my older planter. However the seed treatments now have changed and there is not the dust to settle on field edges there once was.

      • I have also witnessed with my own eyes that Monarchs that used to migrate are no longer in the abundance they were when I was a child. I do not need articles to tell me they are still there when they are not. I grew up in the midwest and remember each year thousands of butterflies hanging on the windows to my school and then 30 years later they were gone.

          • Really? A two minute video of a some butterflies?
            You do know that is not any kind of proof of anything, right? That there
            is actual scientific proof demonstrating the mode of action that
            damages the nervous systems of insects?

    • Come to Western Canada in July and see for yourself. the canola is in bloom and the sky is dark with bees. Virtually all canola is GE and has neonic seed treatments.

  2. You claim that
    environmentalists don’t know that honey bees are “actually a
    managed species, like livestock, bred by beekeepers.” This is a
    preposterous statement. We, environmentalists, turn blue in the face
    telling ignorant, uninformed people this very fact. Some beekeepers
    even get angry at us for saying that the honey bee is not at risk of extinction. I will not bother dealing with a couple of similar
    absurd claims in this article. There may be a few kernels of truth
    here and there, but these false statements discredit the entire

        • We do know they were an introduced species, and I agree, they have adapted to be a managed species. And while the neonic conversation remains inconclusive, there is mounting evidence, particularly as it shows up in our honey!

          • Yes Helen, you are right. The problem for us environmentalists is that we get blamed for the excessive and stupid propaganda created by others who posed as environmentalists. Jon, please try, in the future, to not fail to mix up true (and well informed) environmentalists and the crazies.

  3. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Bee losses in Maryland this year are in the 80-90% range, the worst we’ve ever seen. Many beekeepers have nothing left to split. I’ve lost 23 out of 26, and other beekeepers I know have lost 26 out of 30, 19 out of 20, 5 of 5, 6 of 6, and 40 out of 40. The Bee Informed Partnership and Departments of Agriculture continually understate losses, which are devastating. Insecticides, not miticides, are the cause. We are poisoning the bees and poisoning ourselves, as these chemicals are in all of our non-organic food.

    • If you’ve lost 80% of your colonies, then I’d wager you have some other issues at play (probably including mismanagement). Maryland has a reported 61% population loss of honeybees this past summer and ~42% in the winter (nowhere near 80-90%), but I have friends working a small farm in Mount Airy, and they, fortunately, haven’t lost -any- hives in the past year.

      Colony collapse is definitely a thing, and bees are absolutely facing a health crisis. This article is not refuting that factors like neonicotinoid insecticides are decreasing life expectancy and overall health. What it is saying is that these issues will not cause bees to face extinction, because humans invested in the continuation of honey agriculture will continue to keep the bee population going.

      • So who compensates the beekeeper now faced with extra cost of keeping Bees alive because of human controllable environmental factors. That entire paragraph raises serious red flags about the current status quo.

        • Nobody. I mean, beekeepers could conceivably set up a class-action suit against the manufacturers of the offending insecticides, but the logistics and financial burden could be maddening.

          The way I see it though, Beekeepers never bothered about compensating for the loss/displacement of wild indigenous pollenator populations when they set down their honeybee colonies. From my perspective they should have been managing hives and separating their colonies from the environment to begin with. It’s not an extra cost, it’s a corner they’ve been able to cut until now to subsidize their business..

    • The last two decades winters have been colder and shower than average in MD. I don’t know many beekeepers that cover their hives not manage humidity in their hives. This, alone, can account for losses you report.

  4. Strange article. My grandma kept bees for years, and I learned a lot from her. 3 years ago, a wild colony of honey-type bees found me and settled into the Eastern-exposure siding of my garage. They just survived their 2nd winter. We have a vast diversity of plants, and no grass to speak of. We let them alone, since we understand a thriving colony needs absolute privacy. They are incredibly relaxed, ignoring humans, dogs and chickens. They viciously attack interloping carpenter bees and wasps.
    The other day, a group came to the window and buzzed, exactly like the wild birds do when they need something. I went out, to see them drinking from the dirt filled planters and the dog dish. I gave them some drinking areas of their own and dampened the soil in a couple pots. I sat back and watched them for 30.mins. Every once in a while, one would fly up and look at me.
    The point of this long-winded monologue is that (just like everything else) bees need food/water security, diverse nutrients, and a safe place to live. Deprive ANY being of those things and there will be problems.

  5. Pesticides are engineered to kill anything that lives attacking the nervous system with potent neurotoxins on contact…but don’t worry, they’re good for humans!

  6. Instead of arguing:
    Save this article while making a note of current honey and almond prices, retrieve it in ten years and compare availability and price to what it was a decade ago. Then decide.

  7. Tom Beegee:

    I wonder what the average age on a colony is in 2018 compared to 2000 or 1960. A new colony only takes a fertile queen. If the average age has decreased while the numbers remains the same that tells us that something is killing bee colonies.

  8. Good synopsis. Seems that the folks who are out railing against the neonicotinoid insecticides would prefer to have them replaced by the organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids, just like the good old days… Heck, while they’re at it, lets let the organochlorines back into the mix; or then again how about the good old arsenicals that our organic grandpappys used to spray! Quite honestly, I can’t figure out what the anti-neonic screamers really, really want to happen.

    • Right, that’s the point. If you don’t use neonicotinoids to kill parasitic insects, and use organophosphates instead, such as naled, then you WILL kill bees. For clueless people who don’t get it, let me boil it down for ya> The neonics aren’t as bad as the old fashioned insecticides that used to kill everything. The neonics only kill the insects that eat the plant you are trying to protect. Get it now????

      • Wrong.
        What I get now is the science behind the discussion.
        No doubt organophosphates are horrible, nobody’s going to argue that (except the manufacturers and lobbyists). Your argument is like saying Hitler wasn’t that bad because Stalin was responsible for the death of far more people. But the mode of action of neonicotinoid in the insect’s nervous system is a well known scientific fact. It’s not really debatable, because neonicotinoids binding to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors is a provable, replicable scientific fact. Acetylcholinesterase cannot break down neonicotinoids and their binding is irreversible. It eventually kills ALL insects, not just targeted ones .I’ll take science over sound bites.

  9. Love the tagline “science not ideology.” The author needs a lesson in the difference between the two, because this article is full of capitalistic ideological assumptions that have no basis in science. I’m sick of the religion of science masquerading as the scientific method.

  10. The lies and distortions in this article would be shocking if they weren’t so commonplace.

    If you want to know what selling out reads like, this article is archetypal.

  11. People please read the vast scientific research that supports the growing understanding that pesticides are indeed killing the bees …and giving rise to a lot of the cancers we are seeing.

  12. Bee colony collapse disorder comes from attacks on the hive by two species–a virus and a fungus. In the Bible, it says mankind has dominion over animals, and that means that animals reflect what is going on in humans. Fungi generally prefer warm and dark environments, and darkness is fear based. Viruses are thought-forms that are manifested into the physical. If you compare where incidents of Bee Colony Collapse disorder occurs, there is a correlation with conflicts in the region. The same thing is occurring with Panama disease in bananas and tan oak disease. Fungus related, and the problem occurs when there is conflict–generally character defamation and harassment. To stop these attacks on our food supply, mankind has to learn to live in peace.

    Zika virus has the same common denominator. It is found in communities like Rio, Miami and Texas where there are very wealthy living close young Hispanics who want to apply their talents and gifts to sell their art-for example–to the wealthy, and the wealthy don’t support their business. The young couples get loans from loan sharks and put their family business–their shops or shoe repair business– up for collateral. Their business becomes their “baby,” and their baby is being squeezed by goons when they can’t pay their debts. The young couple loses the family business.

  13. Why is the US importing bees from Australia to polinate its crops?

    Because Australian bees have not been effected by colony collapse disorder.

    This article is clearly Fake News.

  14. Highly unlikely. This sounds like Monsanto’s propaganda in the earlier days, when they swore on bibles that Roundup and GMOs were safe and would be cheaper than regular seed. Everyone knows how THAT worked out. Monsanto is selling RoundUp and that is the bottom line — they will do anything or say anything and pay anyone off to do it.

  15. Why does Google News prominently display a headline to this excrement?

    This is corporate-driven propaganda. May all who participated in its creation fucking BURN

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