By Dr. Mercola
U.S. bees are in trouble, and, if the latest figures are any indication, the problem is getting worse instead of better.
The preliminary results on bee colony losses from 2015 to 2016 were released by The Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).1
The survey included responses from nearly 6,000 U.S. beekeepers managing about 15 percent of the estimated 2.66 million managed honey-producing colonies in the U.S.
Over the 2015 to 2016 winter, more than 28 percent of the bee colonies were lost — an increase of nearly 6 percent compared to the previous winter.
Further, more than half of the beekeepers reported winter colony loss rates that were greater than the average "acceptable" winter mortality rate, which is just under 17 percent.
Bee Losses Occur Year-Round, Not Just During the Winter
In addition to what were described as "unsustainable" bee colony losses during the winter were losses that occurred during the spring and summer months. It was long assumed that such losses only occurred during the winter, such that — up until six years ago — no one even kept track of annual losses.
Now, however, it's apparent that bee colonies aren't only at risk during the winter and losses are occurring year-round. The featured survey revealed beekeepers lost 44 percent of their colonies from April 2015 to March 2016, which is the highest annual loss on record.2
Dennis VanEngelsdorp, Ph.D., a University of Maryland bee scientist and survey leader, told The Guardian:3
"It's very troubling and what really concerns me that we are losing colonies in summer too, when bees should be doing so well … This suggests there is something more going on — bees may be the canary in the coalmine of bigger environmental problems.
One in 3 bites of food we eat is directly or indirectly pollinated by bees. If we want to produce apples, cucumbers, almonds, blueberries and lots of other types of food, we need a functioning pollination system."
Beekeepers Resort to Mail-Order Queen Bees to Save Their Colonies
There is only one queen bee per hive, and her job is, in part, to lay lots of eggs to keep the colony thriving. Without a queen bee, the colony cannot survive, and there are now queen bee producers in the U.S. that sell queen bees to beekeepers trying to save their queenless hives.
It's a sign of just how desperate the beekeeping industry has become. In The Guardian, VanEngelsdorp continued:4
"We are seeing greater cost pressures to pollinate crops. It costs around $200 a year to keep a colony alive and replace a queen. You're lucky if you make $200 a year through the honey produced, so a lot of operators aren't even breaking even. There are a lot who are really hurting."
The USDA considers 18.7 percent to be the benchmark beyond which the bee losses become economically unsustainable. The USDA's internal research agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) reported:5
"If losses continue … it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry. Honey bees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honey bee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs."
Summer Losses Suggest Pesticides Are Involved
There are many theories as to why bees are disappearing. Bayer, Syngenta and other chemical companies have blamed mites as a reason for the bee deaths. However, the summer losses weaken their argument, according to Jeff Pettis, a USDA senior entomologist, as mite infestations are more likely to occur in the winter.6
Instead, pesticide exposure is a likely factor. Neonicotinoids have been increasingly blamed for bee deaths (and were implicated in the 2013 mass bee die-off of 25,000 bumblebees along with millions of bee deaths in Canada).
The majority of soybean, corn, canola, and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are coated with neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics). The chemicals, which are produced by Bayer and Syngenta, travel systemically through the plants and kill insects that munch on their roots and leaves.
Neonicotinoids are powerful neurotoxins and are quite effective at killing the pests, but they're also harmful to non-target pests, namely pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
This occurs because the pesticides are taken up through the plant's vascular system as it grows and, as a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant.
An independent review by 29 scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (which looked at 800 studies) found neonicotinoids are gravely harming bees.7 One of the researchers, Jean-Marc Bonmatin, Ph.D., with the National Centre for Scientific Research, said:8
"The evidence is very clear. We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT … Far from protecting food production, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it."
Loss of Natural Habitat to Plant Monocultures Takes Away Bees' Natural Food Sources
Another glaring problem is the fact that vast areas of meadow and grasslands in the U.S. — meccas for pollen-rich plants — have been lost to monoculture. Monoculture is the growing of just one type of crop on a massive scale — a growing method that is contrary to nature.
Not only does this do away with natural food sources for pollinators but at the same time it exposes them to increased risks. Genetically engineered (GE) corn is the epitome of monoculture, and the vast majority of GE corn is treated with neonicotinoids like clothianidin or thiamethoxam.
As reported by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) North America, honeybees in the Midwest "get it from all sides" when the vast expanses of GE corn are planted, as they:9
- "Fly through clothianidin-contaminated planter dust
- Gather clothianidin-laced corn pollen, which will then be fed to emerging larva
- Gather water from acutely toxic, pesticide-laced guttation droplets
- Gather pollen and nectar from nearby fields where forage sources such as dandelions have taken up these persistent chemicals from soil that's been contaminated year on year since clothianidin's widespread introduction into corn cultivation in 2003"
Glyphosate May Also Be to Blame
Neonicotinoids are not the only chemicals the bees have to worry about. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, may also play a role in bees' deaths.
As stated by GMO expert Don Huber, P.h.D.,, professor emeritus of Plant Pathology at Purdue University, there are three established characteristics of colony collapse disorder that suggest glyphosate may be at least partly responsible:
- The bees are mineral-deficient, especially in micronutrients
- There's plenty of food present but they're not able to utilize it or to digest it
- Dead bees are devoid of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are components of their digestive system
In many cases of bee die-offs, the bees become disoriented, suggesting endocrine hormone disruption. Glyphosate is a very strong endocrine hormone disruptor. Huber also cited a study on glyphosate in drinking water at levels that are commonly found in U.S. water systems, showing 30 percent mortality in bees exposed to it.
While the majority of glyphosate is sprayed onto agricultural crops, it's even used in city parks, which means bees may get little reprieve. In 2014, for instance, New York City agencies applied glyphosate to parks and other areas 2,748 times, and that is likely an underestimate.10
A Freedom of Information Act request found pesticide information related to Central Park and other parks that are managed by non-profit conservancies (and not by the city government) has not been made public. The bottom line is that bees and other pollinators are being exposed to pesticides and other chemicals virtually everywhere they turn.
And in all likelihood, it's not one or two chemicals that are the problem but many. In 2013, researchers analyzed pollen from bee hives in seven major crops and found 35 different pesticides along with high fungicide loads.11 Each sample contained, on average, nine different pesticides and fungicides. When the pollen was fed to healthy bees, they had a significant decline in the ability to resist infection with the Nosema ceranae parasite, which has been implicated in bee deaths.
How You Can Help Bees
To avoid harming bees and other helpful pollinators that visit your garden, swap out toxic pesticide and lawn chemicals for organic weed and pest control alternatives. Even some organic formulations can be harmful to beneficial insects, so be sure to vet your products carefully.
Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant an edible organic garden. Both flower and vegetable gardens provide good honeybee habitats. It's also recommended to keep a small basin of fresh water in your garden or backyard, as bees actually do get thirsty.
In addition, you'll want to grow your own pollinator-friendly plants from organic, untreated seeds. If you opt to purchase starter plants, make sure to ask whether or not they've been pre-treated with pesticides.
Keep in mind that you also help protect the welfare of all pollinators every time you shop organic and grass-fed, as you are actually "voting" for less pesticides and herbicides with every organic and pastured food and consumer product you buy. You can take bee preservation a step further by trying your hand at amateur beekeeping.
Maintaining a hive in your garden requires only about an hour of your time each week, benefits your local ecosystem, and you get to enjoy your own homegrown honey.
Saving Pollinators Must Be a Global Priority
On a larger scale, in order to save bees and other pollinators we need to stop the widespread use of chemicals that harm them, while at the same time returning much of our land to grasslands and building a network of herbivore economics. There is virtually no better way to improve the conditions for animals, protect pollinators, bring more revenue to farmers, and improve human health via nutritious foods from properly pastured animals.
By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals — meaning allowing livestock to graze freely and moving the herd around in specific patterns — farmers can support nature's efforts to regenerate and thrive, while providing natural, pesticide-free foraging area for pollinators and other beneficial insects. The good news is that we don't need to invent yet another chemical or a new piece of farm equipment to solve this problem.
We simply need to revert back to a system that works with nature instead of against it. Finally, if you're wondering why bees are so important, when one Whole Foods store removed all produce from plants dependent on pollinators, it ended up pulling 52 percent of its produce offerings from store shelves. A sampling of the produce that disappeared without bees is below. Imagine a world without it.12