Bee colony collapse disorder kills worker honeybees that have left the hive to search for food. They simply don't come back. Between 1947 and 2008, the number of honeybees in the United States declined by 61%, from 5.9 million to 2.3 million.
Winter losses have been huge since then. Most losses occur during the winter, with some bounceback during the warmer months. The average winter loss rate was 15%. In winter 2008, beekeepers lost 28.1% of their bees. In 2010, they lost a record of 43.7%. The latest year, 2019, saw a 35.6% loss.
The problem began in the 1980s. That's when two bloodsucking parasitic mites entered the United States. But many scientists believe that insecticides had already weakened the bees' immune system.
- The U.S. honeybee population has fallen dramatically over the past few decades.
- Neonic insecticides, fungicides, and weed killers have made bees more susceptible to viral diseases.
- As pollinators, bees are vital to growing fruits, nuts, vegetables, and forage crops.
- Colony collapse disorder is a growing threat to the food supply.
Effect on the Economy
The Western honeybee is the world's premier managed pollinator species. Demand for its services has soared from fruit, nut, and vegetable growers. Among nut producers, almond growers have the highest need for bee pollination. The demand represents almost 100 crop species, making up one-third of the average diet. Bee pollination is worth $15 billion to the U.S. farming industry.
Disruption of the honeybee supply raises prices for domestically grown nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
In California, it tripled pollination fees. Beekeepers charged almond growers $51.99 per hive in 2003. By 2009 that rose to $157.03 a hive. By 2016, that fee increased to prices between $180 and $200 a hive.
Over the last six years, the bee industry spent $2 billion to replace 10 million hives. That's for an industry that makes $500 million a year.
These high costs force beekeepers to charge more to replace hives when they collapse. Higher fees cost almond growers an extra $83 million a year. They pass those costs on as higher prices.
Colony collapse disorder also affects the beef and dairy industries. Bees pollinate clover, hay, and other forage crops. As they die off, it raises the cost of feedstock. That increases beef and milk prices at the grocery store.
The disorder will lead to increased imports of produce from foreign countries where it doesn't exist. That will raise the U.S. trade deficit.
Causes of Colony Collapse
Colony collapse disorder was recognized as a serious threat in 2006. Scientists suspected viruses, pesticides, and fungicides made the bees vulnerable to the mites.
In January 2013, the European Food Safety Authority reported that three neonicotinoid class insecticides weakened the bees' immune system. These chemicals are clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam. A 2015 study found that bees even become addicted to nicotine-based pesticides.
Neonicotinoid insecticides are used in America's corn crop.
That's despite protests from Beyond Pesticides, the Pesticide Action Network North America, and the Center for Food Safety. These groups argued for years that pesticides are responsible for bee colony collapse. They also negatively impact many birds and other wildlife.
In September 2018, the University of Texas researchers found that a popular weedkiller is another factor. Honeybees exposed to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, lose some of the beneficial bacteria in their guts. That makes them more susceptible to infection and death.
The bees pick up the chemicals through dust and residue on nectar and pollen. They bring the poison back to the hive. That weakens their immune system. As a result, they are more susceptible to parasites.
The bees don't die in their hives. Instead, they fly off to die alone. That makes it difficult to collect enough bee carcasses to study. But researchers at the University of Maryland found conclusive evidence. It fed pollen filled with fungicides and insecticides to healthy bees. They became more susceptible to the Nosema ceranae parasite.
Beekeepers are coping by breeding more bees. They divide the hives in the spring and summer. This forces the bees to create more queens. That's only a stopgap measure.
Some farmers are experimenting with other types of bees. They are cultivating blue orchard bees, bumblebees, and alfalfa leafcutter bees. These bees are more expensive.
The Environmental Protection Agency halted approval of any new use of neonicotinoid pesticides. It prohibits these pesticides when crops are in bloom and bees are present. It is also reevaluating the use of all neonicotinoid pesticides by 2022.
- On May 22, 2019, the EPA banned 12 neonicotinoid pesticides.
- On January 10, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty-patched bumblebee on its endangered species list.
- In January 2018, Maryland's ban on neonicotinoids went into effect. Connecticut followed suit a week later.
- In 2018, Costco sent a letter to suppliers encouraging them to phase out the use of neonicotinoids. The retailer's buying power is a big incentive for food growers to comply.
On August 3, 2018, the Trump administration rescinded the ban on neonicotinoid use in wildlife refuges.
Neonicotinoids in Your Food
More than 4 million pounds of neonicotinoids are applied to between 140 million and 200 million acres of cropland annually. They became popular because they are very effective on insects.
But studies show adverse effects on mammals including humans. They have a similar effect as nicotine. They affect the nervous system and may have contributed to nervous system disorders. These include increased risk of autism spectrum disorders, memory loss, and harm to developing fetuses.
Neonicotinoids cannot be washed off of food prior to consumption.
They are used in 90% of corn seeds and 50% of soybeans. They have been found in 12 of 19 fruits and vegetables. Neonic insecticides are most prevalent in potatoes, spinach, lettuce, cherries, and cauliflower. They are in up to 31% of infant and toddler foods. The pesticides are also in half of North American honey.
The only way to protect yourself is to buy organic. The only way to protect the bees is to encourage Congress to ban these pesticides.