Teach In

A panel of beekeepers (Theresa Gaffney and David Hackenberg, left) and scientists (Kim Stoner and Frank Drummond, right) discussed Colony Collapse Disorder at a Common Ground Country Fair teach-in, moderated by Sharon Tisher, center. English photo.

Common Ground Country Fair Teach-In 2012

Ten years ago an average of 15 to 20 percent of commercially managed honeybee colonies died annually; now, it’s 30 to 40 percent.

Native bumblebees in North America have declined by as much as 96 percent in two decades, and their geographic range has shrunk by up to 87 percent.

John Upton noted in Grist, “The near disappearance of once-common bumblebees across the nation – and in other parts of the world – doesn’t only jeopardize our food supply. It puts into question the future of nearly every single wild plant that blooms.”

In 2006, scientists coined the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) to describe the phenomenon of adult honeybees suddenly abandoning their hives. This was the topic of the 2012 teach-in, organized by MOFGA’s public policy committee, at the Common Ground Country Fair.

Beekeepers Theresa Gaffney of Highland Blueberry Farm in Stockton Springs, Maine, and David Hackenberg of Hackenberg Apiaries in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and scientists Dr. Frank Drummond of the University of Maine and Dr. Kimberly Stoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station addressed the issue.

Looking for Bees That Weren’t There

Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper for half a century, trucks (now with the help of his sons and crew) 3,500 to 4,000 hives around Pennsylvania and to Maine, New York, Florida, Georgia and California. In a good year his bees produce 250,000 pounds of honey. He also owns two farms that others cultivate, so he follows agriculture closely.

Hackenberg has testified in Congress about CCD and is featured in the film Vanishing of the Bees and in various media reports, including 60 Minutes. He is past president of the American Beekeepers Federation and co-chair of the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, a board of stakeholders concerned about pesticide use.

David Hackenberg with Ellis Percy at the Fair. Hackenberg brought critical attention to the issue of Colony Collapse Disorder to Penn State University researchers and the U.S. Congress. English photo.

For decades, his bees pollinated apples in spring, then blueberries, “and you put supers on and then you went fishing.” In fall, Hackenberg continued, “you extracted the honey, got the bees ready to go south, and you went hunting. Then you got the bees to Florida and you did some more fishing.”

In the mid-‘80s, the appearance of Varroa mites, which are external, and tracheal mites, which get in bees’ breathing tubes, changed beekeeping. “If you don’t take care of them,” said Hackenberg, “they take care of you, and you’re out of business.”

In the early 2000s, bees began being lost for unknown reasons. By 2005 and 2006, the problem was epidemic in the United States.

“In 2006, probably 45 percent of the bees in California in late January just disappeared,” said Hackenberg. Mites were blamed at first, but in October 2006, three weeks after Hackenberg trucked his last load of bees south for that year, only 36 of 400 hives in one location had any bees – and he knew his bees were mite-free. He was the first to report massive die-offs to Penn State researchers.

These losses led him to suspect pesticides, particularly a relatively new class called neonicotinoids, which are systemic – they are taken up by and travel through all parts of plants. “Neonics” are widely used in agriculture and on lawns (in Scotts GrubEx). Bees that survive feeding on treated plants bring the insecticide back to the hive.

“I got down on my hands and knees looking for bees that weren’t there,” said Hackenberg. Some hives had only a queen and a handful of bees – but 70 or 80 yards away, through some brush, about 80 hives belonging to someone else looked great. Hackenberg concluded that something had happened to his bees before he trucked them south.

Researchers at Penn State found that the insides and sting glands of Hackenberg’s bees were crystallized and discolored – “a lot of things that nobody had ever seen before.”

What had changed in the bees’ environment – which includes foraging for at least a few miles in all directions?

“We went to systemic pesticides in early 2000,” said Hackenberg; “from the old, hard, knock-‘em-down organophosphates to the systemics, which according to the manufacturers are safe.”

Hackenberg and his wife read research done by pesticide companies and the University of Florida that showed the same effects in sub-Mediterranean termites in Florida: The termites quit eating and grooming, lost their way home and lost their memories. That research has disappeared from pesticide manufacturers’ websites, said Hackenberg.

Tony Jadczak, Maine’s state apiarist, had been collecting and freezing dead bees since the ‘70s. Scientists studying them started finding pathogens and diseases they hadn’t known existed – including Nosema ceranaea, a gut disease, which had been here even in the mid-80s.

Moving bees around the country combined with diseases and mites are part of the problem, said Hackenberg; but something is breaking down the immune systems as well. “We didn’t see these problems [50 years ago], so something has really changed their environment.” He noted the difficulty researchers have in replicating bees’ diets, because of the variety of plants they visit.

Hackenberg makes his own essential oil patties to control mites and feeds protein to bees almost nonstop through spring, summer and early fall to boost their immune systems. He says soy, a common protein source, is a cheap food but is not as good as his protein patties made with dried eggs and brewers’ yeast (recipes at https://hackenbergapiaries.org/index.php?page=hackenberg-apiaries-links).

Honeycomb. English photo.

Healthier Bees in an Organic Environment

Tom and Theresa Gaffney’s Highland Blueberry Farm has been MOFGA-certified organic for 10 years. They manage 25 acres of wild blueberry fields and sell value-added products, including “whole plant wild blueberry tea.”

Theresa began keeping bees for pollinating and honey five years ago. She calls herself a biodynamic beekeeper, concerned about toxic exposures she cannot control, fascinated by the question of whether we can “have a healthy bee even in an unhealthy environment.”

Gaffney said that she and Tom began managing their wild blueberries in 1999 and used organic methods to avoid conventional chemical sprays around their home – which, they believe, can affect them personally and the entire eco-system, including honeybees and bumble bees, mason bees, sweat bees and the other 270-plus species of native pollinators in Maine. They wondered if they could keep bees safe from contaminants within their own land, and whether their organic methods could reduce the risk to pollinators of exposure to harmful pesticides.

In 2009, Frank Drummond was part of a research project on their farm that concluded that growing organically will help but won’t eliminate exposure, because honeybees travel far to exploit rich food sources, thus picking up pesticides. Drummond found 10 different pesticides in pollen brought by honeybees into Highland Blueberry’s hives – fewer than all other apiaries in six other U.S. states, but still disturbing. Large commercial growers near the Gaffneys are a possible source of the pesticides, as are homeowners treating lawns to get rid of dandelions – which are, ironically, a great spring plant for bees, Gaffney noted. (See Bulletin #7153, Understanding Native Bees, the Great Pollinators: Enhancing Their Habitat in Maine, https://umaine.edu/publications/7153e/)

When the Gaffneys stopped leasing their blueberry land to a conventional grower and decided to manage the fields themselves, organically, they stopped trucking in hives and spraying chemicals, and they burned their our own fields.

“Within a few years of stopping the trucking in of hives,” said Theresa, “I noticed a sudden and very unnerving lack of honeybees in our fields during one spring bloom. As many of us have come to realize, ‘No bees, no food.’”

Surrounded by 60-plus acres of forest with a beaver dam within 1/4 mile of the blueberry fields, the farm has fresh water and shelter for pollinators but needed a diverse food source for them. So in places with soil less amenable to blueberries, the Gaffneys let goldenrod, St. John’s Wort, self-heal, red clover and other plants grow naturally. In grassier places they planted Rosa rugosa windbreaks, which also supported pollinators. In their gardens they planted crops for themselves and for bee food – flowers, herbs, buckwheat, squashes, pumpkins and more. They stopped mowing their yard and let native plants grow.

Todd Hardie of Honey Gardens Apiaries in Vermont brought Theresa a starter kit of hives and frames. Theresa took a bee class from Lincoln Sennet of Swan’s Honey, who provided her first nuc of bees.

“I have been learning from the honeybees ever since,” said Theresa. “I want to encourage anyone who might think that they can’t keep bees to consider a class and prepare yourself for the best experience of your life!”

She does not treat her honeybees with traditional chemicals or essential oils but will use powdered sugar to treat mites.

“I supply clean food sources on our farm to strengthen their immune system … my belief is survival of the fittest by giving them every opportunity to be strong. I leave them honey and I do not sugar water them in the spring. I get plenty of honey for our family but I also leave the bees plenty of honey so they can get through the spring. I realize this may not be practical for larger beekeepers and it goes against everything beekeepers have learned, but these practices can work well for the backyard beekeeper. If you and I are keeping bees, and things do not change for the good in our environment, perhaps we can become a vital participant to the sustainability of our food sources because we may be the only ones with bees.” Gaffney recommended Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally (www.bushfarms.com/bees.htm).

The Gaffneys are willing to lose a little to gain a lot. “We may not harvest 4 to 6,000 pounds of berries off our fields like conventional growers … but we have built up a habitat that makes it possible for pollinators, whether native or hived, to sustain themselves through their life-cycles without worries of pesticides and other harmful sprays being applied in their home.” This year they harvested more than 20,000 pounds of berries from about 10 acres – one of their best crops in a long time.

“We all can manage our land for clean bee forage,” said Gaffney, “and this is a start to minimizing the exposure of these wonderful creatures to pesticides in their environment.”

English photo.

Subtle Effects of Pesticides

Dr. Frank Drummond, a professor of entomology at the University of Maine, researches pollination ecology, integrated pest management of blueberry pests, and conservation of native bees. He is completing a project following 30 honeybee colonies in each of seven states, exploring links between honeybee pathogens, pesticides in pollen, foraging area in agriculture and honeybee colony health.

Drummond said that when he started working as an entomologist, money wasn’t available to study pollinators; it was all going to pest management. But thanks to people like Hackenberg, who spoke up to legislators about pollination issues, money is now available.

Drummond and Kim Stoner have a $7 million USDA-funded project to look at pollination security for pollinators and crops in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine. They are looking for volunteers in Maine to take a free workshop on native bee identification, possibly in the spring of 2013, to help study the diversity and abundance of native bees in Maine. (Contact Drummond at [email protected] for more information.) Drummond and colleagues Dr. Alison Dibble and Connie Stubbs have cataloged 257 species of bees native to the state.

“Native bees are certainly under attack, but we are lucky in Maine,” said Drummond, because we still have pockets of many of the bumblebees that have gone extinct in southern New England. The rusty patched bumblebee, for example, is no longer as common as it was in Maine, but it is here.

Native bee communities are changing, though. The white fringed bumblebee was one of Maine’s more common bumblebees in the 1960s but is very difficult to find now. The impatient bumblebee, brought in by farmers for pollination, was not present in the 1960s in Maine, but now about 20 percent of bumblebees foraging on flowers are this more southern species. “Whether this is due to climate change, pesticide use or other factors is not known,” said Drummond.

He noted that queens of orange-belted bumblebees, one of our most common bumblebees over the last decade, were foraging in blueberries abundantly at the end of bloom this year, but disappeared for about a month after a tremendous rainfall – 8 or 9 inches in places. “Usually about that time they’re spawning off their workers, their daughters, and this did not happen,” said Drummond. “Finally, around August, we started to see some orange belted bumblebees. Is this because of the unusual rain or other factors? We just don’t know.”

English photo.

To manage Varroa mites organically in honeybees, Drummond suggested using powdered sugar, screened bottom boards, drone traps and thymol (essential oil from thyme). “It’s very labor intensive, but for the smaller scale honeybee keeper, it’s doable.”

Some effects of pesticides on bees are subtle and difficult to detect, said Drummond. For example, in assessing the health monthly of 30 colonies each in apiaries in seven states, more than 18 viruses, three fungal pathogens, three or four bacterial pathogens and several species of parasitic mites have been found.

This study equips hives with pollen traps that have small, square entrance holes. As bees squeeze through these, the pollen on their hind legs is knocked off and collected in a bin.

“Every place we’ve tracked pollen in Maine,” said Drummond, “even in extremely pristine areas isolated from agriculture or urban areas, we still pick up pesticides. Exposure to pesticides is ubiquitous, and it isn’t necessarily greater in agricultural areas; it’s actually quite severe in urban areas in Maine, but these pesticide doses are minute – parts per billion.”

He and fellow researchers have found extremely subtle effects of pesticide exposure. For example, as pesticide exposure increased from minute amounts in pollen, the likelihood that these colonies would undergo supersedure – lose their active queens and have to produce new queens – increased.

“This slows population growth during peak times in the summer when the colonies are building up,” said Drummond. “So these pesticides aren’t causing colony death but are weakening them going into the winter.”

Some fungicides, previously considered to have benign effects on animals, no longer seem so benign – “especially fungicides that work by inhibiting sterols,” said Drummond. For example, animals use sterols from plants to make cholesterol, “so the hypothesis was fungicides might be interfering with cholesterol formation in bees.”

Very low levels of these fungicides used in blueberries didn’t kill colonies nor affect the degree of pathogens and disease, but they did shorten worker longevity from an average of about 30 to 28 days.

“Honeybees are very hormonal animals,” said Drummond. “Hormones drive their growth and development. They have a pair of endocrine glands called hypopharyngeal glands right behind their eyes that they use to produce royal jelly, which is rich in lipids, amino acids and proteins. Honeybee workers, the nurse bees, secrete royal jelly to larvae, to give them a quick boost of energy when they first hatch from eggs. To make new queens, they feed them more royal jelly so the queens can develop reproductively capable ovaries. Slight exposure to these fungicides resulted in enlarged hypopharyngeal glands.”

Humans exposed to toxics often have enlarged glands, such as the spleen, Drummond noted. “We haven’t figured out what exact role these fungicides are having, but they might have subtle effects, although at this time we can only say that the size of the glands are affected, but we can’t say if the glands’ functions are compromised.”

Many researchers are looking at low level pesticide effects, said Drummond, but some of the effects are very difficult to tease apart.

He said herbicides indirectly affect bees by reducing plant diversity. “As the diversity of weeds in blueberry fields is reduced, so is the number of beneficial wasps that are parasites of many of the pest insects. We haven’t been able to show that it’s the same for the native bees. Maybe because what has been shown in many cropping systems is that bees forage not only in the field but also in habitats right outside the field, and if your farm is near a meadow, it’s rich in flowering plants offering a food supply.” The lack of wildflowers in the Midwest, where vast areas of monocrops are maintained with herbicides, is harming bee populations, he said.

English photo.

Blame Neonics?

Dr. Kimberly Stoner studies pesticides in pollen and nectar, pollination of pumpkins and squash, and the abundance and diversity of native bees on vegetable farms. She said that beekeepers in France had mysterious losses of bees where sunflowers were growing from seeds treated with imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide.

Systemic insecticides such as imidacloprid are safer for farm workers, said Stoner, because they’re not sprayed in the air, leaving clouds of spray or dust, and they can be applied precisely, reducing drift – although there is some question about leaching into water, she noted.

Imidacloprid was the first neonicotinoid and is now said to be the most widely used insecticide in the world, Stoner continued. “It seemed really good at first, replacing organophosphates, which are highly toxic and hazardous to people. But there were observations that bees were dying off.”

These insecticides do not stick to seeds – especially corn seeds – as well as people thought, she said; and the way seeds are planted caused the highly concentrated insecticide on the seed to peel off as dust. “Farmers were told to blow this dust out of their seeders after planting – invalidating the idea that these insecticides wouldn’t create clouds of dust.”

That caused bee die-offs in Germany and in field corn elsewhere. “Millions and millions of acres of field corn are grown in the United States, and 98 percent of it is said to be treated with this seed treatment,” said Stoner.

Originally only 1 to 3 parts per billion of the insecticide was thought to move into pollen and nectar; instead, applying neonicotinoid insecticides to the soil at labeled rates for squash resulted in 10 to 12 ppb in pollen and nectar, Stoner found, while another researcher who applied the insecticides differently found 126 ppb in nectar.

“So there’s more in the nectar,” said Stoner, “and nectar is the fuel source for bees. They consume much more nectar than pollen.”

Neonics last for years in woody plants, she continued, and trees are important sources of nectar and pollen in the spring for honeybees and for many native bees. “Application rates are a lot higher than they should be, now that we know these insecticides hang around, and people can apply these pesticides every year, which they really don’t need to do if the pesticides stay around for five years.”

Some people also apply GrubEx, an imidacloprid, to their lawns. It travels through the grass plant, is taken up by trees in the lawn and stays in the trees for years.

“So bees are exposed to these insecticides by different routes and higher levels than we thought,” said Stoner.

Also, very low levels of neonicotinoids have more effects than previously thought. “They affect the immune system of the bees, making them more susceptible to pathogens.”

Demonstrating outright that neonicotinoids kill bees is difficult. “In Connecticut we’ve been testing pollen for pesticides for about five years. We consistently find four or five pesticides in every sample of pollen, different pesticides as we go through the year, and some of them persist for a long time in the wax in the hives. People are trying to pin down why they’re there, how they get there, and how these combinations have their effects over time. It’s really difficult research.”

Stoner said we can change the way these pesticides are applied to seeds to eliminate or at least capture the dust from the seed and make sure it’s disposed of as hazardous waste. We can change pesticide application methods to those that leave no detectable pesticide in plants, rather than those resulting in 126 ppb in plants. Imidacloprid is in many products that homeowners can legally apply to ornamentals at higher rates than farmers can apply to crops; changing this would be good policy.

English photo.

Stoner’s research found high levels of imidacloprid in pollen from white clover, black locust and alfalfa – plants to which people do not normally apply the insecticide. “Presumably they were applying it to something else,” said Stoner, “and plants flowering at the same time were exposed. So it’s important to know what’s flowering at the same time as the application.”

Moderator Sharon Tisher asked if labeling requirements exist for plants or seeds treated with these insecticides and sold to the public. Stoner said conventional seeds treated with fungicides are labeled to ensure they aren’t eaten, but plants are not necessarily labeled.

Drummond said that increasingly in Maine and in southern New England, a lot of stores are selling hanging plants treated with neonicotinoids and other insecticides. He gets callers asking, “Gee, we have all these dead bees under these plants. What’s going on?”

“For a lot of these systemic pesticides to out-and-out kill bees and have them fall on the ground,” said Drummond, “those levels have to be extremely high. Yet you don’t know what’s treated or untreated. It’s a big issue.” In fact, Drummond had trouble finding untreated bee-friendly plants – especially perennials – for his research.

Asked about genetically engineered (GE) crops, Stoner said researchers have not found evidence that the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) protein in GE plants, nor Bt formulations applied externally and approved for organic production, affects bees. Spinosad is approved for organic production and at recommended doses kills bees that contact it directly. Stoner said not to use Spinosad or Pyrethrum (also toxic to bees) on flowering plants (including weeds) when and where bees are present.

A lot of herbicide is used to kill weeds in corn engineered to resist herbicides, reducing plant diversity and flowers available to bees. “Bees collect corn pollen,” said Stoner, “but that is a poor food source for bees.”

Bees also feed on guttation water exuded from corn stomata and containing systemic insecticides. “We are trying to understand all these routes of exposure and their importance to bees,” said Stoner.

France has banned some imidacloprid (as Gaucho) seed treatments in corn and sunflowers in some areas. Some people in France, said Stoner, say bees have recovered; some say they have not.

The pathogen Nosema ceranaea is a microsporidian – a fungus – and is among the pathogens that have increased in bees whose hives have a low level of imidacloprid, “so there seems to be some synergistic effect,” said Stoner, “possibly through the immune system or other ways.”

Regarding a petition to ban the neonicotinoid clothianidin, also highly toxic to bees, Tisher said the EPA had granted conditional approval for the insecticide, requiring that within a certain number of years the manufacturer show no adverse effects from the product.

“Someone dropped the ball,” said Tisher. “They never made the demonstration of no adverse effect, so it was an easy case to bring.”

Stoner said clothianidin, a corn seed treatment, was involved in some bee die-offs associated with dust from corn planting. “I don’t see that banning clothianidin will solve the wider range of problems,” she said, adding that a comprehensive look at the entire class of neonicotinoid pesticides is needed.

Hackenberg said chemical companies are seeking conditional registration on numerous crops by December for a new class of chemicals used on cotton last summer.

“Every 10 years the chemistry changes,” he said, “because the chemistry runs out or the patents run out. If there’s no money to be made … and now everybody makes [imidacloprid] – it’s coming in from Vietnam, China, wherever – they’re not making any money. So they have to make a new chemical. It’s already out there. One of these days the manufacturer of neonics will say, ‘Oh, we found there’s a problem out here so we’re going to ask EPA to pull this stuff off the market, or whatever, because they’ve already got the new technology, and it’s not any better than what we’ve already got.”

The GE Train Wreck

Hackenberg said a friend at the University of Michigan calls genetically engineered corn “a train wreck.”

“We’re already seeing the train wrecks in corn fields across the country,” said Hackenberg. “Corn falling over for no reason at all, corn not pollinating, a list of things. This year a lot of the seed companies have put on four fungicides and two pesticides in the seed coat.”

Asked whether the EPA under the current administration is more receptive to dealing with pesticide issues, Hackenberg said, “The answer is, ‘No.’ I’m sorry.” As chair of the National Apiary Advisory Board, he finds that lower level EPA staff want changes in labels or enforcement, but “somewhere there’s this watchdog in the middle of things, and those people have names. Their job is to basically stop all that.

“Who are they working for? You can make your own comments.”

– Jean English

Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.