VISALIA, Tulare County (KPIX 5) – Honeybees have been dying at an alarming rate for years, but a new government survey shows nearly a third of the nation's honeybees died over the winter. Some beekeepers said the problem may have to do with what is being sprayed on the food we eat.
It may not seem like a big deal to most of us. But billions of dollars of commercially grown fruits and vegetables, a big chunk of our diet, depend on honeybee pollination.
The cause of the die-off is unknown, but some beekepers believe it started suspiciously soon after a new generation of pesticides hit the market.
David Bradshaw's commercial honeybee farm took its worst beating ever this spring. "What was a large thriving colony was down to 2, 3 frames, 4 frames and just a shadow of what it used to be," he said.
Beekeepers across the country have been losing honeybees at alarming rates for seven years now. Experts blame a combination of lack of forage, parasites, viruses, and pesticides.
But a growing number of beekeepers suspect the main culprit could be a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, also known as "neonics." They came on the market a decade ago and are now used everywhere, from local garden bug sprays to huge commercial farms.
Neonics work by absorbing into the body of the plant. They target the brain of small pests like aphids, killing them instantly. But honeybees survive, carrying so-called "sublethal" doses of pesticide back to the hive all summer long.
It is bad news for the honeybees, said Paul Towers with the Pesticide Action Network. His group is one of several environmental groups suing the EPA, the agency that oversees pesticide use.
"Honeybees are in peril. The Environmental Protection Agency allowed these neonics onto the market with very little review," Towers said. The suit claims the agency gave conditional approval "with no adequate risk assessments."
The industry denies the claim. "It's clear that all of the studies that have been thought of have either been conducted or are now underway," said Jay Vroom with Croplife America.
Vroom said neonics are likely the least of honeybees' problems. "We think there is a holistic series of issues that need to be looked at, including the management of verroa mites," he said.
UC Davis honeybee expert Eric Mussen agrees. "If you don't just look at the gross number that says 31 percent of the bees were lost, well yes we did lose 31 percent, but it was to a combination of all the other things that aren't going right."
He said only a minority of the nation's beekeepers are having continuous problems. "I imagine that if they took even a closer look at their bees they would find out that there were some things that they would be able to straighten out," Mussen said.
Those are fighting words for Bradshaw. "You're talking about piss poor bee keeping. It's not piss poor beekeeping! I have been doing this all my life, I feel I am a good steward of my bees," he said.
Bradshaw has no mite problem and said Mussen may be towing the pesticide industry line for a reason. "The major pesticide manufacturers do a lot of funding to the universities and you can't bite the hand that feeds you," he said.
UC Davis does get millions of dollars from the big six pesticide manufacturers. Mussen sees it as a positive, because research has led to better pesticides.
"They are basically limited to the plant to which they are applied, so it isn't really contaminating the rest of the environment," he said.
And if some bees are dying, Mussen said, "They are collateral damage is what I think the military would call it."
For Bradshaw it's a lot more than collateral. "At this current rate of losses beekeeping is virtually unsustainable," he said.
The EPA can't comment on the lawsuit. The agency has just approved a new class of neonics. Meanwhile, Europe has proposed a temporary ban on neonics until more research is done.
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