Are organics killing our bees?

Bees are still in the news. We are continuing to lose too many hives to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD has had a whole host of theories attached to it since the term was coined. Some of them seem a bit outrageous, such as an “Aids-like” bee virus. Some seem more plausible, like common agricultural pesticides. Scientists are still working on the problem, but it will be some time before conclusions can be made with any accuracy.

While the exact cause of CCD may still be a mystery, bee die-offs are a certain reality. Commercial beekeepers report 30% – 70% hive losses annually. Massive bumblebee die-offs have been reported in Oregon and Canada. It’s pretty much undeniable that there is a strong link to neonicotinoids. This class of pesticides, known by product names such as Imidacloprid and Clothianidin, kills insects by attacking their nervous systems. Neonics are often applied to the seed before planting, and are taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows, ending up in the nectar and pollen, where they are collected, taken to the hive, fed to young bees and stored in the hive cells.

There is legislation pending (HR 2692) that may severely restrict the use of neonics. It was assigned to the Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture in August 2013, where it still sits. If you want to express your support here is one link: Support HR 2692. With only 11% of bills making it out of committee, and 3% getting a vote, it does not look promising.

It is not just pesticides that are of concern. Recent studies of pollen stored in beehives found 35 different pesticides along with high fungicide loads. An average of 9 pesticides and fungicides were found in individual samples, with one sample containing 21 different chemicals.

It has previously been assumed that fungicides were safe for bees, however in the study, bees fed pollen contaminated with fungicides showed a significant decline in their ability to resist infection with a parasite called Nosema ceranae. It is now believed that fungicide exposure compromises the bee’s immune system.

While scientists sort the research out, individual beekeepers are focusing on bee health. Fewer beekeepers are using chemical hive treatments, opting instead for essential oils, mineral supplements, and pest traps that do not use pesticides. If supplemental feeding is required, natural sugars are preferred over the HFCS used by large commercial apiaries. An entire movement of organic beekeeping has been renewed using practices that concentrate more on hive health and colony dynamics and less on pounds of production.

Gardeners have responded by showing an interest in planting bee-friendly gardens. They are planting masses of nectar and pollen producing plants, and using organic products in their gardens. It all sounds so promising, but…..

It turns out that a commonly used, OMRI approved product is quite harmful to the bees. Spinosad was approved by the EPA in 1997. It was granted USDA National Organic Program status in 2003. Spinosad recently hit the economic news when a Chinese scientist was sentenced to 7 years in prison for stealing research on Spinosad from Dow Agroscience and Cargill.

Derived from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Spinosad was quickly accepted by the organic farming community as an alternative to synthetic pesticides. It is found in sprays, drenches, and ant baits, as well as a popular oral flea treatment for dogs and cats. It is approved for use on vegetables, fruits, and ornamentals.

Spinosad is reported to be non-toxic to mammals for both oral and dermal exposure, non-toxic to birds for oral exposure, and only slightly toxic to fish, oysters, and aquatic invertebrates. However, it is highly toxic to bees – more so in its liquid form and less so once the product has dried. Spinosad is most effective when it is ingested, but it will kill on contact as well. The length of effectiveness is less specific. Some articles report it to last as long as four weeks after application, and others say it is 5 – 7 days.

Organic gardeners have to have something in our tool box to kill pests, but we also have to do everything we can to protect the bees. Our suggested guidelines for using Spinosad are as follows:

1) Use it sparingly and only when necessary to preserve a crop or save a plant

2) Mix according to package directions, no stronger

3) Use it on crops that do not attract bees; bees are attracted to flowers for their pollen and nectar so spraying your lettuce and greens should be OK, but avoid spraying cucumbers and fruit in bloom

4) Do not spray when bees are foraging; most pesticides state this already; spray near dusk when possible which should allow the residue to dry before morning

5) If you must spray a blooming ornamental, place a tent of tulle or lightweight row cover over the plant for several days to block the bees access to the blooms; tulle is inexpensive and available in large sections at fabric stores

I hope they find a solution to CCD soon. In the meantime, everything we can do to provide safe habitat will help. Hobby beekeeping is experiencing a resurgence with both homestead and urban beekeeping growing every season.

Public education has been very effective. I write plant descriptions for catalogs and websites. A few years ago I was cautioned by one client not to mention “attracts bees”. Now those same growers are doing all they can to promote bee plants in response to their customers interests. People are less afraid of being stung than they are of suddenly finding that a favored food is simply not available due to lack of pollination.

What else can you do to help? Support your local beekeeper. Buy only locally produced honey and don’t quibble over a few cents. Farmer’s markets and local feed stores are a good source. Supermarket honey is packaged by large bottling companies that have been under scrutiny for blending non-honey components, including HFCS, into their product. You will get a superior product from your local beek. Ask questions. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask how they raise their bees and what their practices are regarding hive treatments and feeding.