And no wonder, since honeybees contribute $15 billion in annual agriculture revenue to the U.S. economy alone.
One suggested culprit has been pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, which kill insects by attacking their nervous systems. Their leading manufacturer, Bayer Crop Science, has been fending off lawsuits from angry beekeepers for years now. But recently, a front-page New York Times article pointed to another solution.
Running under the headline "Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery," the article reports that a new study claims the cause is actually "a fungus tag-teaming with a virus."
However, one fact that the Times article did not mention is the relationship between the study's lead author, Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer -- and failed to disclose the conflict of interest to the Times.
"The Times reporter who authored the recent article, Kirk Johnson, responded in an e-mail that Dr. Bromenshenk 'did not volunteer his funding sources.' ... Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the health group at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that while the Bromenshenk/Army study is interesting, it fails to ask the underlying question 'Why are colonies dying?'"
In the last four years, up to 40 percent of U.S. bee colonies have been destroyed at the hands of "colony collapse disorder," (CCD) a mysterious malady that causes bees to become disoriented, not return to their hives, and ultimately die.
There is currently a grueling debate over what may be causing CCD, and there are more theories than there are answers. Genetically modified foods, pesticides, corn syrup used for feeding, cell phones, viruses, and fungus have all been pinpointed as potential causes.
One of these, neonicotinoids pesticides manufactured by Bayer, has received particular heat because the agents are known neurotoxins that kill insects by attacking their nervous systems, and lawsuits against Bayer from beekeepers are ongoing.
But in a new study reported by the New York Times, it's suggested that military scientists and entomologists have come up with another potential answer, one that has nothing to do with Bayer's pesticides: a combination of fungus and virus, found in all collapsed colonies, may be the culprit, they say.
The new theory provides some interesting fodder to an already complex problem … especially since Fortune Magazine revealed a massive conflict of interest by the study's lead author.
Lead Author Received Money from Bayer
Bayer was undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief when the New York Times blasted the news across its headline that the bee mystery had been solved … and the culprit had nothing to do with pesticides.
But the findings took on a new light when Fortune Magazine revealed that Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, the study's lead author, has "received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination."
Even more suspicious, Bromenshenk was reportedly all set to serve as an expert witness in 2003 for beekeepers involved in a class-action lawsuit against Bayer. He dropped out without explanation, however, and subsequently received the grant from Bayer.
Bromenshenk also owns a company, Bee Alert Technology, that is developing hand-held scanners designed to detect bee ailments. His company would therefore profit nicely if a disease, such as a virus, was found to be causing CCD rather than a pesticide.
So the latest study that suggests a virus/fungus combination is killing off bees is by no means the final word on the subject.
Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the health group at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), pointed out in Fortune Magazine that the study has not addressed why colonies are dying, such as if they're dying because they're getting weak.
She likened the issue to people who die of HIV not from the actual virus but because their immune defenses are down. It could be, then, that pesticides or another factor are weakening the bees and making them susceptible to viruses, fungus or a combination of factors that ultimately kills them.
Bayer Pesticides Long Implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder
Two of Bayer's best-selling pesticides, Imidacloprid and Clothianidin, are known to get into pollen and nectar, and can damage beneficial insects such as bees. The marketing of these drugs also coincided with the occurrence of large-scale bee deaths in many European countries and the United States.
The non-profit group NRDC filed a lawsuit in August 2008 to force the U.S. government to release the studies it ordered on the effect of clothianidin on honeybees.
NRDC attorneys believed the EPA already had evidence of a link between pesticides and the mass honeybee die-offs, yet was not making the information public. NRDC is now being allowed to look through the studies.
There is some information already publicly available, though, and that's the EPA's fact sheet on clothianidin. It says right there in black and white that:
"Clothianidin has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other nontarget pollinators, through the translocation of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen … In honey bees, the effects of this toxic chronic exposure may include lethal and/or sub-lethal effects in the larvae and reproductive effects on the queen."
Unfortunately, the EPA approved neonicotinoid pesticides on the basis that the amounts found in pollen and nectar are not enough to kill bees. This says nothing of their potential to impact the bees on a non-lethal level, and, in fact, studies have shown that the substances can impair bees' learning and memory even at low doses.
France, meanwhile, after reporting large losses of bees after exposure to Imidacloprid, banned it for use on corn and sunflowers, despite protests by Bayer. In another smart move, France also rejected Bayer´s application for Clothianidin, and other countries, such as Italy, have banned certain neonicotinoids as well.
The Cell Phone Connection: Are EMFs Killing Bees?
Despite the research pointing to a virus, a fungus or a pesticide as the most likely suspects in CCD, it's hard to ignore the research from at least two studies that point to cell phones and electromagnetic fields (EMF) as major threats.
When cellular phones were placed near hives, the radiation generated by them (900-1,800 MHz) was enough to prevent bees from returning to them, according to a study conducted at Landau University.
Scientists believe the radiation produced by cellular phones may be enough to interfere with the way bees communicate with their hives. Cellular phones may create a resonance effect that interferes with the movement patterns bees use as a kind of language.
Most recently, experiments by Sainuddeen Pattazhy, a researcher and dean in the department of zoology at SN College, Punalur, Kerala, also found that microwaves from mobile phones appear to interfere with worker bees' navigation skills.
When Pattazhy placed mobile phones near beehives, the hives collapsed completely in five to 10 days. The worker bees failed to return home and vanished, never to be found. Adding to the mystery, parasites, wildlife and other bees, which would normally raid the abandoned hives, would not go near the collapsed colonies. Pattazhy said in The Pioneer:
"The navigation skill of the worker bees is dependent on the earth's magnetic properties. The electro-magnetic waves emitted by the mobile phones and relay towers interfere with the earth's magnetism, resulting in the loss of the navigation capacity of the bee. Then it fails to come back.
Also, the radiation causes damage to the nervous system of the bee and it becomes unable to fly."
So cell phones appear to be another likely threat to bees around the globe, and there may be a cumulative effect going on that is making it more and more difficult for bees to survive, let alone thrive.
Disappearing Honeybees an Ecological Emergency
When most people think of honeybees, they think honey. But honey is only a sliver of what bees are used for in the United States. Honeybees are critical components of U.S. agriculture, used to pollinate nuts, fruits and vegetables. The California almond crop alone requires 1.3 million colonies of bees, and bees actually add an estimated $15 billion in value to crops like these.
A full one-third of the U.S. food supply depends on pollination from bees. Apple orchards, for instance, require one colony of bees per acre to be adequately pollinated. So if bee colonies continue to be devastated by colony collapse disorder -- or whatever is causing them to die -- major food shortages could result.
It is therefore of crucial importance that studies looking into the true causes of CCD are unbiased and conducted with only the strictest of scientific integrity. Unfortunately, it does not appear that this is happening.
As for whether or not Bayer's pesticides will ultimately be named as the primary cause remains to be seen … but this is a company that has a history of giving children HIV-infected drugs, putting their workers' lives in danger by exposing them to toxic chemicals that cause organ damage, and continuing to produce unsafe products.
So I don't think they will be given the all clear anytime soon. There are other compelling potential causes, too, and you can read about them in-depth in the Related Articles below.
Most likely it is a combination of man-made factors that are causing honeybees to die, and this should serve as a major warning sign that society as a whole had better start respecting the laws of nature, or major environmental and health catastrophes could result.