Beekeepers Speak Out on Pesticides

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Steve Ellis 

Old Mill Honey Company

     The nature of keeping bees has changed drastically over the past few decades.  In addition to honey production, commercial beekeepers increasingly depend on hive rental as a pollinator service.   California’s almond industry produces 80% of the world’s almonds and pollination services are required to ensure adequate pollination, with an estimated 70% of all commercial beekeepers providing pollinator services during almond bloom. According to the USDA, pollinators are responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat, and most of those pollinators are honeybees.  

 

     Beekeepers also face a remarkably different set of environmental challenges which include new pests and diseases, changes in climate, and exposure to chemicals. While there has been ample press highlighting the destructive nature of the varroa mite, there seems to be less public awareness regarding the catastrophic impact that some chemicals have on bees. While scientific research shows a link between exposure and bee population decline, most people are not adequately informed of the danger certain pesticides pose to bees.This is especially true in situations where bees are exposed to sublethal doses of pesticides because the damage is not immediate but instead develops over time.  In one study, bees fed a pesticide containing imidacloprid at the rate of 5 parts per billion had less capped brood which can ultimately lead to death by attrition (Meikle et al., 2016).  Because population decline due to exposure can happen over time, it may be challenging to determine when the exposure occurred.  But sometimes, there is an obvious link. 

     Steve Ellis began keeping bees in 1974 and by 1979 had moved into a commercial operation with his father-in-law and eventually took over the business.  Steve had a longstanding connection with a local farmer, who had provided one of the original sites to host his father-in-law’s bees back in the 1960s.   The farmer asked if Steve would be interested in setting out hives to pollinate sunflower fields as he had received a contract from a major seed house to grow and produce hybrid sunflower seed.  To produce this hybridized seed, two parent plants are bred for a hybrid offspring seed, which typically has improved genetics including increased vigor. To create the crop of hybrid sunflower seeds, farmers planted 6 rows of male plants alternating with 10 rows of female plants.  After bloom, the male plants were plowed under and the female plants continued through harvest.  To ensure ample pollination, Steve placed 1 hive of honeybees per acre of sunflowers and received payment of $50 per hive for this service. The farmer was pleased as the increase in pollination added to his yield and profits.  The seed company was gratified by the high quality and germination rate of the seed.  The bees were pleased and routinely produced 60-80 pounds of sunflower honey per hive.  Steve appreciated the added income of approximately $150 per hive in honey and pollination fees.  Due to the success of the initial endeavor, Steve was able to expand efforts and was soon providing pollination services for six sunflower seed farmers, with a combined space of 450 acres and annual revenue of over $67,000.  

 

     But in 2007, something changed. The bees stopped working and exhibited odd behaviors.  Honey production crashed to a mere 10 pounds per hive, a remarkable decrease of 85%.  Steve observed striking symptoms he hadn’t seen in his decades as a commercial beekeeper.   The bees appeared to be in good health, no increased deaths, and inside the hives appeared normal.   However, the bees acted strangely, with little interest in attending to the hundreds of acres of healthy looking flowers blooming in fair weather.  Flight was greatly reduced and bee behavior was odd.  He considered this unusual set of symptoms and recalled reading some years back about unusual bee behaviors and declines in France. He began doing some research to see if there might be a link. 

 

     In 1994, French beekeepers reported incidents of unusual behavior in honeybee populations followed by significant losses, referring to it as “mad bee disease” (Benjamin, A. 2012).  Bees appeared to be disoriented, failing to return to hives after gathering pollen and nectar.  This condition was believed to be the cause of nearly a 40% loss of bee colonies and researchers began to establish a possible link with this loss and the use of a type of systemic pesticide. This class of pesticide enters and travels throughout a plant’s tissue, killing the insects that feed on it.  In this way, flowers themselves are contaminated and honeybees are exposed to small amounts of these chemicals through their collection of pollen and nectar.   Bee population and honey production in western France dropped by an estimated 60%, with most of this loss occurring in areas in which Gaucho, a systemic neonicotinoid pesticide containing imidacloprid produced by Bayer Corp., was applied to sunflowers.  Franck Allaitru of the FDSEA Agriculture Union stated  “A poisoning problem from insecticide is the only explanation for the behaviour of the bees and their systematic disappearance during the first week that the sunflowers bloom” (UPI, 1998). As research linking imidacloprid use to hive loss poured in, France became the first nation to ban the class of systemic pesticides known as neonicotinoids. 

 

     However, use continued in other regions and in 2006 Gaucho sales topped $746 million. 

 

     Steve asked the farmer if he was aware of any changes in pesticide use either in the fields or in treated seed coatings. The farmer assured him that he had not applied any different products in the field but volunteered to inquire with his seed company representative.  Several weeks later, the farmer contacted Steve and suggested that he speak directly with the rep, who ultimately referred him to the seed company’s chemist.  The chemist was evasive, unwilling to name the chemicals in the seed coating.  As Steve pressed for answers, the chemist became increasingly resistant and informed him that the seed company could find a replacement beekeeper as they had others who would appreciate the work.  Subsequently, Steve’s pollination contract was not renewed. In 2008-2009, other commercial beekeepers were contracted to pollinate sunflowers but by 2010 sunflower seed breeding was halted in the region.  The company sold their sunflower genetics to an overseas buyer the following year. 

 

     In the United States, use of neonicotinoids is rampant and massive losses in hives and honey production have become commonplace.  Looking back on his situation, Steve wonders “Who won?  I lost a great income opportunity.  The farmer lost lucrative contracts. The seed company lost the ability to raise hybrid sunflower seeds in the region, and locals lost employment. Crop diversity in our area decreased. The pharmaceutical giant, Bayer Corporation, was the only winner as the sunflower fields were replaced with corn and soy seed, which was coated with their neonicotinoid chemicals.These kinds of costs must be tallied if we are to understand how out of balance the real ‘cost-benefit analysis’ is on neonicotinoids.”

 

     Unfortunately, Steve’s experience has become increasingly commonplace as the US continues to allow insecticides containing neonicotinoids.  Commercial beekeepers find themselves exhausted by hive loss of around 45% annually. US National Agricultural Statistics illustrate the stark reality:  a decline from nearly 6 million hives in 1947 to less than 2.5 million hives in 2008. Research continues to show a link between chemicals like neonicotinoids and bee population declines, yet beekeepers often find inadequate attention given to bee health during risk analysis of pesticides by regulatory agencies like the EPA.  Without sufficient attention to the critical importance of pollinator health, highly skilled veteran beekeepers continue to suffer preventable loss due to the use of neonicotinoids.  

References

Benjamin, A. (2012, March 29). Toxic pollen and the mad bee disease disaster | Alison Benjamin. The Guardian. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/mar/29/toxic-pollen-mad-bee-disease

Meikle, W. G., Adamczyk, J. J., Weiss, M., Gregorc, A., Johnson, D. R., Stewart, S. D., Zawislak, J., Carroll, M. J., & Lorenz, G. M. (2016). Sublethal effects of imidacloprid on honey bee colony growth and activity at three sites in the U.S. PLOS ONE, 11(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0168603

Meyerhoff, A. (2008, July 30). Buzzzzz Kill. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-jul-30-oe-meyerhoff30-story.html.

Upi Focus: 'Mad bee' disease probed in France Upi Science News. (1998, April 9). United Press International .

US pollinator information. US Pollinator Information | USDA REE. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.ree.usda.gov/pollinators

Meyerhoff, A. (2008, July 30). Buzzzzz Kill. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-jul-30-oe-meyerhoff30-story.html.

vanEngelsdorp, D., Hayes, J., Underwood, R. M., & Pettis, J. (2008). A survey of honey bee colony losses in the U.S., fall 2007 to Spring 2008. PLoS ONE, 3(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004071 

Published February  2022, Jennifer Bryan-Goforth, Pollinator Stewardship Council

Richard Coy

Coy's Honey Farm 

       

     In the summer of 2017, Richard  noticed disturbing  changes in his Arkansas colonies; populations  were not building at the normal level, leading to colony loss and low honey production. Recent discussions in the local farming community linked drift from the application of new dicamba products to damage in nearby crops, and he saw firsthand the damaged soybean fields with telltale symptoms of leaf cupping and stunted development.  He wondered if there could be a connection between the new dicamba products and the health of his bees. During a discussion with his wife one evening, she went online to search for dicamba effects on pollinators and suddenly the population decline in his colonies began to make sense. 

Dicamaba is a broad spectrum herbicide registered for use around the same time that Coy’s Honey Farm began.  Dicamba was designed to target and kill broadleaf annual and perennial weeds.  Absorbed by leaves, stems, and roots, it works by targeting the vascular system of a plant, causing abnormal cell growth resulting in damage and death. Historically, dicamba was shown to have a high incidence of damage to trees and off-target crops from drift  which led to low commercial use. Although other broad spectrum herbicides also cause damage from drift, dicamba has been shown to impact a significantly larger area than similar products.  (Osipitan et al., 2019) 

     In the 1990s Monsanto developed a line of glyphosate resistant “Roundup Ready” genetically modified seeds, allowing farmers to plant crops such as corn or soybeans and spray glyphosate herbicides directly onto the field, killing weeds without damaging the seeded crops.  Less than a decade later, nearly 9 out of 10 acres of all commercial soybeans were planted with glyphosate resistant seeds.  Unsurprisingly, weeds quickly responded by also becoming resistant to glyphosate which led to increased interest in developing alternative products to replace the Roundup Ready line.

     In 2016 the EPA conditionally registered three dicamba herbicide product formulations for use on genetically modified dicamba resistant soybeans (Xtend) and cotton seeds. Promoted as a replacement for the Roundup Ready product line, they became an immediate cause for concern within the farming community as fields of Xtend soybeans  and cotton treated with dicamba caused drift damage to surrounding farms planted with crops and vegetation cover other than soy and cotton. Unfortunately, this was just the first observable stage of damage. 

     Honey bees are affected by dicamba in a myriad of ways including the impact on forage. Research shows reduced forage opportunities for bees due to dicamba drift in areas with native landscapes–plants are killed, leading to a reduced diversity of plants. Dicamba drift has also been shown to delay flowering and reduce the number of flowers per plant. Combined, the reduced forage opportunities significantly impact a colony’s ability to source pollen. With insufficient pollen to feed larvae, bees struggle to create the next generation, affecting the short term health of the colony.  In the  long term, insufficient pollen collection reduces overall honey production  critical for survival of  bees during winter months.  Both short and long term impacts can lead to loss of colonies.  

     As Richard Coy began to make the connection between his colony damage and dicamba, he worked with a variety of area experts who helped verify his observations.  Accompanied by a  bee researcher from the University of Arkansas, they visited Coy’s Honey Farm sites located near fields treated with dicamba. The researcher was amazed by the lack of pollen in the hives. Later that afternoon, they compared these to other hives located at a site 50 miles away and well clear of dicamba treated crops. Those colonies were symptom free and loaded with honey.  

     In the face of the massive losses suffered by the new dicamba product’s release, Coy’s Honey Farm was forced to make major changes for the future of their bees and their business. As dicamba use increased throughout their home state of Arkansas, the area became untenable for their honey production business, ultimately forcing them to relocate to Mississippi. When asked about the cost of the move, Richard said “It was heartbreaking, I can tell you that.  All the families involved with Coy’s Honey Farm had to move and leave friends and community behind.  There just wasn’t an option to stay and go out of business.  It was very costly…financially, emotionally.  What is the value of 40 years of relationships with families and communities?” 

     Facing  income loss due to significant decrease in honey production and loss of colonies, a massive expense in relocating the business, and an uncertain future with increased use of dicamba as more farmers were forced to use Xtend soybeans in order to avoid damage to their own crops, Richard Coy determined that the only way forward was to address the cause of the problem. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed as farmers sought compensation for harm caused by Dicamba. In 2020, Richard Coy became one of them. 

     He found representation with Richard Mays Law Firm in Little Rock, which has a substantial amount of experience in environmental law and litigation. That firm filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas against    Bayer and BASF in May, 2021,outlining 12 counts of violation and requested a jury trial.  They are asking for damages to compensate for the loss to their business and cost of relocation, and for the removal of dicamba from the market.  Bayer and BASF responded with a request to dismiss the case, and on January 21, 2022 the presiding judge ruled that with some changes, the case would continue and will include a substantive claim naming violation of the Lanham Act.  

     With an increasing number of lawsuits and favorable rulings, dicamba may not be on the market much longer. The most recent report from the EPA in December 2021 highlights damage from dicamba drift with over 3,500 reported incidents in 2021 and damage of more than one million acres of non-dicamba tolerant soybeans.( EPA, 2021) Allegations of destruction to non-agricultural plants including damage to a 160,000 acre wildlife refuge, leave the future of dicamba precarious and uncertain. Beekeepers like Richard Coy are doing crucial work to protect bee populations, one of the most critical components of our food system, in seeking to eliminate use of this dangerous product by applying pressure to chemical corporations and regulatory agencies.  

 

References 

Osipitan, O., Scott, J., & Knezevic, S. (2019, July 17).

Effects of dicamba micro-rates on yields of Non-Dicamba soybeans.

CropWatch. Retrieved January 26, 2022, from

https://cropwatch.unl.edu/2019/effects-dicamba-micro-rates-yields-non-dicamba-soybeans 

CÓRDOVA, R. A., TOMAZETTI, M., REFATTI, J. P., AGOSTINETTO, D., AVILA, L. A., &

CAMARGO, E. R. (2020). Drift distance in aircraft glyphosate application using rice plants

as indicators. Planta Daninha, 38. https://doi.org/10.1590/s0100-83582020380100048 

Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, December). EPA. Retrieved January 26, 2022,

from https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/

dicamba-2021-report-dicamba-incidents 

Published January 2022, Jennifer Bryan-Goforth, Pollinator Stewardship Council

     From humble beginnings as a hobbyist endeavor in the 1960s, Coy’s Honey Farm has grown to a substantial commercial operation with over 10,000 hives.  A family business, most of the daily operations are currently managed by Richard Coy and his brother David who grew up working with bees at the family farm in Arkansas.  While producing honey in North Dakota and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a portion of their hives reside in the Mississippi Delta region, an alluvial valley that supports the largest wetland and bottomland hardwood forest area in North America. A highly sensitive and critical region, 40% of migratory birds spend at least part of their life in the Delta and the area is home to many threatened and endangered species. The months that Coy bees spend in this area are vital to the success of the colonies, as they make use of the summer and fall in an area typically abundant with flowering plants to collect pollen and produce honey.