The Bee Conundrum


Beleaguered bees attacked by drugs, diet and deadly sprays 

By Michael Leach

I went to the workshop hoping for a simple explanation of honey bee problems caused by pesticides called neonicotinoids, a relatively new class that’s blamed for bee deaths.

Turns out, there’s no sound bite or even a half dozen. Explaining honey bee problems is only slightly less complicated than charting the latest Greek financial bailout or hedge funds.

There is, however, an easy way to reduce insecticide dangers — don’t spray while plants are flowering.

This is the only simple take away from an update by Luis Canas, associate professor of entomology at The Ohio State University. In July, he spoke at “Cultivate 15” in Columbus. Produced by AmericanHort (a horticulture and landscape industry association), the event is one of the nation’s premiere floriculture trade shows. It incorporates OSU short courses, such as the one presented by Professor Canas.

As an “apprentice” beekeeper for the past couple years, I was vaguely aware of ills facing honey bees. The workshop expanded the gloomy horizon of colony collapse disorder (the term used for the sudden disappearance of honey bees) which is a worldwide problem.

For instance, one of the biggest problems is varroa mites (which have the perfect scientific name Varroa destructor). These tiny parasites deform wings and other body parts. Add more challenges: 1) tracheal mites that affect the bee’s ability to breathe; 2) negative side effects of drugs given to bees to protect them against bacterial diseases; 3) gut parasites; 4) poor nutrition; and 5) habitat loss.

Here in the Midwest we can also add Arctic vortex to the honey bee on aster pollen sacs 10-3-05list. The past two frigid winters decimated hives, about half died in my hometown region this winter.

Despite these woes, there are an estimated 2.6 million hives in the U.S. Sounds pretty good until compared to 6 million hives tallied in 1945.

What’s to be done? Following label directions and precautions are obvious ways to cut pesticide dangers. But even the best safety intentions can be thwarted with toxic substances.

Bees forage in a 6-mile diameter circle from their hive. A lot can happen in that much territory. Wind carries agricultural dust from chemicals used on corn and soybean seeds to nearby plants.

Systemic insecticides, which are absorbed by the plant, eliminate the air-borne dangers of drift  but may still cause problems. If applied to greenhouse plants early in the season, they will probably dissipate before transplanting into fields or flower beds.  But such products used before shipment to retailers are likely to harm pollinators because the insects will be gathering freshly tainted nectar and pollen. 

Systemics used as soil drenches to protect home landscape plants endanger bees. The pesticide’s toxic ingredients can move through the soil and be absorbed by non-target plants. Pollen is tainted.

Some types of chemicals disorient bees, causing them to be confused and unable to return to the hive.

Biological pest management techniques and fine horticultural oils that have no lingering effects, are being used by some growers. As a budding beekeeper and supporter of pollinators in general, I’m hoping for breakthroughs here. Perhaps such approaches are the future for large-scale growers, too. Let’s hope something much less toxic comes along soon.

Until then, pesticide applicators please use extreme care or better yet, find alternatives. In our inter-related world, we all live down stream — or down wind.  If it hurts bees, what about us?


Tips to make your outdoor space pollinator (and wildlife) friendly

You can help pollinators whether your “backyard” is an estate or an apartment balcony. Here are two helpful links:





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