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For Garden State Honey Bees, Life Can Be Less Than Sweet

Joe Tyrrell | May 8, 2013

Pesticides, mites, colony collapse take their toll on state's shrinking swarms.

Even in a Garden State, those avatars of industriousness, honey bees, face increasing challenges simply going about their fruitful routine of pollinating flowering plants.

Culminating 20 years of increasing difficulties, in 2006 many beekeepers began reporting devastating mortality rates of 30 percent to 90 percent. The ongoing phenomenon quickly attracted a sinister but accurate name, colony collapse disorder.

In February, state apiarist Tim Schuler gave the New Jersey Beekeepers Association a “disturbing” report. His most recent samplings of pollen from hives around the state found 20 different pesticides, he said.

Schuler said he is concerned about the findings, the more so because he is unable to put them in context for beekeepers. The levels, parts per billion, do not represent a threat to human health, he said. But there is little guidance on what they mean for bees, he added.

While some pesticides are known to be toxic to bees, other agricultural chemicals apparently can become toxic in combination, Schuler said. Some may adversely affect bees without killing them, he said. But the precise mixtures and doses remain unclear, he said.

“Over the last two or three years, Penn State University has looked at those questions … but with so many potential combinations, it becomes of matter of money to do enough research,” Schuler said.

The Bee Business

As our agriculture has grown in size and scope, many commercial crops have become dependent on managed pollination visits from worker bees. Of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of human food, 71 depend to some extent on pollination by bees, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. It estimates the value of pollination services at $200 billion annually.

That might be low, because in New Jersey alone, the state beekeepers association estimates that its $2.5 million industry annually provides pollination for $200 million worth of crops here.

And while most New Jersey beekeeping is a hobby or sideline, the state’s handful of large commercial pollination operations generally take their hives south for the winter, then work their way back north with spring crops, Schuler said.

“About 15,000 bee colonies come into Jersey for blueberry pollination, which is right now,” Schuler said. “That’s more hives than our keepers have, so some of those are from commercial beekeepers in other states.”

The United States had about six million bee colonies in 1947, and now has just 2.5 million. That decline made headlines this spring, when growers in California’s massive almond groves worried they did not have enough bees to pollinate their crop. Eventually, they brought in an estimated 60 percent of the nation’s remaining commercial hives.

With such dramas highlighting the falling bee population, policymakers have begun responding to years of pressure from beekeepers and environmentalists to find solutions.

On April 30, the European Union imposed a two-year ban on one suspected culprit in colony collapse disorder, a widely used class of pesticides related to nicotine.

Although lethal to bees, neonicotinoid pesticides are used in the United States to treat genetically modified corn seeds and in garden products sold in stores and nurseries. Labels warn not to spray them “when bees are present.”

The EU decision followed smaller-scale action by some member states, but was hotly contested since the major manufacturers of neonicotinoid pesticides are German-based Bayer and Sygenta of Switzerland.

“I was thrilled with that, and how quickly the ban will take effect, on July 1,” said Debbie Demmer of Branchburg, a beekeeper who tries to adhere to “natural” methods. “But I do wonder whether two years will be long enough to reach a conclusion about the effects.”

The American Plan

Indeed, even some who are afraid of the pesticides are skeptical that there is one easy answer to solving colony collapse disorder. But after years of shrugging off the problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency released it own report on May 2.

Based on its own October “summit” with researchers from Penn State and interested parties ranging from environmental groups to pesticide producers, the American study is less definitive than the EU action.

But it language is stark, “Currently, the survivorship of honey bee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops.”

“Despite a remarkably intensive level of research effort,” overall mortality among bees remains high and so far, there is no clear-cut cause or solution, the report said.

Participants identified a series of factors that may contribute to the problem, including continued depredations by the Varroa mite, first recorded in the United States in 1987. Besides feeding off bees, it transmits some viruses to them. The report also cites other pathogens and pests, lack of sufficient nutritional sources to sustain hives, and a need to manage bee genetics.

While the effects of pesticides are “a primary concern,” the participants, who met in Arlington, Va., called for more field research, not a ban.

Bayer CropScience US, which provided the research the EPA relied on in approving the pesticides, issued a statement praising the report as a “comprehensive assessment” of the problems facing bees. It called for continued sharing of information among the participants.

Dizzy Bees

Colony collapse is particularly mysterious, because unlike other diseases or attacks, it does not leave piles of dead bees outside hives. Instead, worker bees vanish, leaving their Queen and brood to fend for themselves on dwindling resources.

But in 2011, “Dan Rather Reports” cited an internal 2003 memo from EPA scientists, theorizing that the clothianidin, a now widely used neonicotinoid, could cause disorientation among foraging bees, making them forget their way home.

“I have mixed emotions, because I too would like to blame a bad corporation,” Joel Sternin, a Mount Laurel beekeeper, said of the USDA/EPA stance.

But bees have so many “insidious” enemies, finding a single “silver bullet” solution seems unlikely, he said. The good news is that the government agencies are now “engaged” with the problem, he said.

Demmer and Sternin are typical New Jersey beekeepers. They both have real jobs in computers, she as a systems analyst, he as a systems administrator, and only got interested in bees five or six years ago.

For Demmer, the hives are a legacy of her daughter’s involvement with 4-H, “she gave it up, but I really took to it.”

As his children got older, Sternin found himself with more time on his hands. While not afraid of bees, “I didn’t care for them more than anyone else,” he said. But beekeeping seemed like a “green” complement to his gardening.

The two got involved with bees at a time when the state Department of Agriculture was encouraging new beekeepers with classes and start-up grants. New Jersey had suffered the same sort of sudden declines in bee populations as the rest of the country.

But Sternin and Demmer have been highly successful. They describe themselves as lucky, but also describe hours of work and a naturally cautious approach.

“I don’t know that in New Jersey, you can call yourself organic, since bees forage in a three-mile radius,” Demmer said. “But I do not treat my hives with anything that I consider a chemical. I use herbal treatments.”

Although every hive now has Verroa mites, Demmer said. “The levels are so low that they are below the threshold to pose a virus threat.”

Sometimes, a nonchemical approach really does mean “hands on.” When Demmer encountered another pest, hive beetles, in one hive, she “went right through and picked them all off, squished them manually. It took a lot of time.”

Over five years, she has expanded from two to 16 hives, and decided to focus on raising bees for sales to other keepers. She also is conducting courses for aspiring beekepers.

Sternin has just gone to 16 hives, and expects to surpass 20 by the end of summer. After inspecting them last month, Schuler recommended him as an example of best practices.

With thriving broods, he sells some bees to other keepers. While a healthy hive may hold 50,000 to 60,000 bees, at a certain point, the occupants become crowded. That leads to swarms when many leave in search of a new home.

Demmer, Sternin, and other beekeepers often find themselves called in to relocate swarms away from backyards or attics or hanging baskets.

Unnatural Corn

Finding a good location is important for the bees and keepers. Demmer is happy placing hives in backyards in Somerset and Hunterdon counties, but some farms scare her off.

“I won’t put a hive anywhere near corn,” she said. “I don’t know that we have any of our natural seeds left.”

Corn is America’s largest crop by value, and the country’s largest single land-use. But it is now largely controlled by Monsanto and other genetic patent holders, who treat its seeds with “systemic” pesticides like clothianidin. Rather than being sprayed on and washing off, the chemical becomes part of the plant, posing a threat to any bee that comes in contact with it.

Sternin has hives at an organic farm a short distance from his home, where a wide array of plants provides steady nutrition for much of the year. When it comes to bee nutrition, New Jersey’s traditionally varied farming is much better for bees than vast monocultures.

That’s why California needs to import bees for its almond groves, there is not enough food to sustain local populations, he said.

“They have a few goods weeks when the almonds are coming into bloom, but the rest of the year, there’s nothing for them to eat,” Sternin said. “I understand from a business perspective, for that level of production, ‘feed the world,’ you want to have your crop in one area. But for bees, it’s like a desert.”

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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