The honeybees are still dying

The eerie mystery of the vanishing honeybees has not been put to rest.

In the last few weeks, three separate studies explored the effect of insecticides on honeybee and pollinator health. One paper linked neonicotinoids, a new class of systemic insecticides that have come into widespread use in recent years, to impaired honeybee navigation; a second noted the effects of low levels of the pesticides on bumblebee reproduction.

The most talked about study, from a Harvard team, found that the colonies fed neonicotinoid-laced corn syrup collapsed in a manner that appeared to mimic the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD—the mysterious phenomenon in which otherwise-healthy bees simply vanish from their hives. Neonicotinoids, declared the Harvard team, were “the likely culprit in sharp worldwide declines in honeybee colonies since 2006.”

Dramatic headlines soon followed: “Mystery of the Disappearing Bees: Solved!” announced a Reuters headline. Ah, if only that were true. Even if neonicotinoids were banned tomorrow, honeybees would still be in big trouble.

The recent studies add to mounting evidence that low levels of neonicotinoids may have “sub-lethal” outcomes—long-term effects on pollinators that haven’t been measured in chemical-company testing submitted for EPA approval. What those papers don’t prove, unfortunately, is that “neonics,” as they are called, cause CCD—or explain the troubling colony losses we’ve seen in recent years.

CCD is defined as a condition in which the majority of bees disappear from a healthy hive in rapid fashion, usually within two weeks—leaving behind a queen, ample honey and brood, and little obvious sign of disease that might explain the colony’s collapse.

Since the phenomenon was first named and made headlines in late 2006, however, the disorder has too often been conflated—by the media, and sometimes by beekeepers as well—with honeybee losses in general. “It’s like saying that everyone’s dying of a heart attack,” explains Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the Pennsylvania entomologist who first discovered the disorder. “When in fact we die from all sorts of causes.”

A Matter of Life and Deaths

Bees, too, die in all sorts of ways: they suffer from parasites and fungal and bacterial and viral infections; they starve to death; and yes, they also succumb to pesticides—sometimes when they are mistakenly sprayed and are poisoned outright, and also, perhaps, due to long-term neurological and developmental effects when exposed to lower amounts. Not many of them, however, actually die of CCD.

In fact, though about a third of the nation’s honeybee herd has died each winter since 2007—a number much higher than the 15 percent loss beekeepers consider “acceptable”—few recent losses can be attributed to CCD. In 2008, beekeepers reported symptoms of CCD in 60 percent of colonies that died; in the last year, “I haven’t seen one verifiable case of CCD,” says vanEngelsdorp. Annual winter losses have been just as heavy in the last couple of years as they were in 2008. But “they can usually can be explained by something else,” he says. And that’s true even though neonicotinoid use continues apace.

The recent neonicotinoid studies have also come under fire. Bayer CropScience, which manufactures a number of widely used neonicotinoids, argued that the dosing given to the bees in all of the recent research was higher than what is considered to be “field realistic”—and most of the non-industry scientists I spoke with agreed with this assessment.

The Harvard study—which most explicitly linked neonics to CCD—has earned particular censure: “The study out of Harvard is sort of an embarrassment,” vanEngelsdorp said, noting that the team fed colonies “astronomical” levels of CCD-laced corn syrup, that the sample sizes were way too small, and that the symptoms the colonies subsequently suffered did not, in fact, mimic the symptoms of CCD. Randy Oliver, a biologist and beekeeper in California, provided this in-depth exploration of the study’s weaknesses on his website, Scientific Beekeeping. This study was “fatally flawed,” both in its design and its conclusions, added Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Chensheng Lu, the author of the Harvard study, had no such reservations. He compared his findings to those of Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring, published 50 years ago, linked pesticides to plummeting bird populations and human cancer, and helped launch the modern environmental movement. “The hives were dead silent,” Lu told Wired News of the failed colonies in his study. “I kind of ask myself: Is this the repeat of Silent Spring? What else do we need to prove that it’s the pesticides causing Colony Collapse Disorder?”

One Piece of a Bigger Puzzle

What we need, sadly, is better evidence—and so far, it’s not there yet. This is not to say that anybody working with pollinators believes insecticides aren’t a big issue for bee health. It makes perfect sense that systemic pesticides—which are absorbed throughout plants’ vascular systems and into their pollen and nectar, and remain toxic to insects for a year or more after application—might present issues not seen with traditional pesticides. Perhaps chronic exposure to low doses of poisons disorients bees, or interrupts brood-production, or weakens them so that another pathogen—one that would under normal circumstances cause only limited mortality—can finish them off.

In a recent review of neonicotinoid research, the Xerces Society noted that neonicotinoids upended conventional wisdom about safe pest management. This is because pesticides can’t be avoided by relocating hives during application, or by not spraying during the bloom. Still, while the organization advocates a more critical look at these pesticides, especially revisiting the high dosages permitted for horticultural use—“we should have a better sense of the risk before we start spreading poisons around our kids, our pollinators and our farmworkers,” the Xerces Society’s Scott Black told me. The group doesn’t recommend an outright ban, because neonicotinoids are still considered safer for wildlife and human health than the organophosphate pesticides they replaced.

“One of the biggest concerns,” notes University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak, a Macarthur fellow and tireless advocate for honeybee health, “is that if all neonics are banned, other much more harmful pesticides will be registered.”

And things won’t necessarily get any better for the honeybee. This vital pollinator is suffering “death by a thousand paper cuts,” as beekeeper John Miller, about whom I wrote a recent book, The Beekeeper's LamentThe Beekeeper’s Lament, once described the malady of the honeybee.

Pesticides and other chemicals may provide a nasty gash, but so do the stresses of long-distance pollination to which many commercial beekeepers must subject their bees to stay afloat, and poor nutrition, and all varieties of pests and pathogens that have accompanied the globalization of modern agriculture and apiculture.

Indeed, in places where neonicotinoid pesticides have been banned, such as France, Italy and Germany, there’s no evidence that honeybee populations have rebounded. And in Australia, which has among the healthiest bee herds in the world and has never reported a case of CCD, neonicotinoids have been in widespread use for over a decade. Australian agriculture isn’t as industrialized as in the U.S., where beekeepers make a living by dragging their hives from monocrop to monocrop, feasting their bees on one single nectar and pollen source, and then moving them on to the next. “The only situation in Australia where honeybees used for pollination are strongly restricted to one crop,” Australian bee pathologist Denis Anderson told me, “is in the pollination of almonds. However, we don't see losses among those colonies, even though neonicotinoids are used in the almond industry.”

The other thing they don’t see in Australia—but do see everywhere else in the world—is the varroa mite, a nasty, tick-like creature that latches onto a bee’s exoskeleton and sucks the life out of the bee, and then the colony, and the apiary, and eventually, the entire beekeeping outfit. Since varroa was first found in the U.S. in 1987, American beekeeping has changed dramatically—inalterably. Indeed, this tiny mite has been the major cause of honeybee mortality across the United States. The nation’s CCD losses pose no comparison. For most beekeepers and bee scientists, it is the varroa mite, not CCD, that occupies most of their worrying hours.

Here are the conclusions of another recent bee study—one that hasn’t seen nearly as much play in the press. The paper, published in the Journal of Apicultural Research, puts it this way: "In many cases, bee mortality appears to be the product of many interacting factors, but there is a growing consensus that the ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor plays the role of the major predisposing liability. We argue that the fight against this mite should be a priority for future honeybee health research.”

Until we deal with that problem, all the pesticide bans in the world won’t make it right with the honeybee.

Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees? []

In-situ replication of honey bee colony collapse disorder []

Neonicotinoid Pesticide Reduces Bumble Bee Colony Growth and Queen Production []

A Common Pesticide Decreases Foraging Success and Survival in Honey Bees []


  1. You mean it wasn’t cell phones?!
    But but but all of those people suffering from radio frequency disorders will no longer be able to trot out the bees to support them!

    More science is needed, and that takes time.  You cannot reach a conclusion because someone has a press deadline.
    The problem is going to be balancing the needs of farmers, chem makers, and the pollinators.
    There is nothing out there that can replace the pollinators, and it might be time to focus on real research not bound by what might be best for anyone other than the bees.

    1. More science is needed, and that takes time. You cannot reach a conclusion because someone has a press deadline.

      I think the deadline was about still having some bees left.

      1. “Indeed, in places where neonicotinoid pesticides have been banned, such as France, Italy and Germany, there’s no evidence that honeybee populations have rebounded.” 


        There was a secondary source already implicating the neonicotinoids before the RFID and other studies came out this year: Decourtye and Devillers (2010) “Ecotoxicity of Neonicotinoid Insecticides to Bees” in Insect Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors ed. by Steeve Hervé Thany (New York: Springer/Landes) Chapter 8, pp. 85-95, on p. 86

        1. That was June 09. European honeybees have since experienced similar mortality to those in the US. And again, not saying neonics aren’t bad for bees and don’t have sublethal effects–these studies indicate clearly that they do–just that we can not say at this point that the “mystery is solved” and they are the primary cause of CCD or the general honeybee losses (often conflated with CCD) in the last eight years.

      2. And I think thats why we need science working hard on the problem and ignoring all of the outside interests who want to make sure that it never appears they are at fault. We really need to get past spending so much time to assign blame “correctly” and instead focus on finding the problem, getting the solution and putting it to work. Then everyone involved can use their PR spin machines however they want once its solved.

        1. That’s what happening. At least, from what I can see. Right now… it looks like the science is headed down a constructive path.

  2. Has anyone thought of or researched the possibility that maybe its the powdered aluminum that they keep spraying from airplanes.  Chemtrails?
    I know that aluminum intake in humans results in confusion and ultimately alzheimer’s.  Its just a quick idea I had just now, but it seems like something worth researching.

      1. It’s a well-established* fact that skeptics like you are part of the disinformation arm that covers for the Greys as they systematically replace bee larvae one by one with their tiny hybrid fetuses, bringing us ever closer to colonization.

  3. Why ARE we hauling hives around from field to field in the US? Why aren’t the farmers who need bee pollinators keeping their own hives? It’s not like they won’t need them every year. This seems so obvious to me that there must be some reason why not, what is it?

    1. Presumably different crops, or crops in different locations, need pollination at somewhat different times and large monoculture blocks would leave the bees with not much to nibble on during the non-pollination period, making it cheaper to transport the hives from place to place.

    2. Because some one can make money doing it, perhaps. But I do think it is extremely strange and as far as I am aware is unknown or rare outside the US.

    3. Because of industrial farming.  It used to be farmers would cycle what grew in each field they owned to keep the soil fertile and good.  Now we just keep adding chemicals and growing the same thing over and over.  We gave up the “ineffiecent” farm for industrial farming… we are now seeing the fallout of this.
      A while back there was a story, IIRC, about how the current thing we call bananas might be lost because they lack the ability to fight off a fungus.  All bananas we grow are all basically the same plant, no diversity.  We do this so we can always have the perfect yellow banana we remeber, even if it means that to keep it we might have to use more and more toxins to keep it safe.
      We grow more food than we need or can use, and much is wasted or thrown away for not being “perfect” but somehow we can’t bring ourselves to make sure that food gets the the hungry who don’t give a damn if a tomato has a blemish.
      We can have nearly any fruit or veggie we want year round, because there are industrial farms around the world keeping us supplied with the perfect example of the fruit/veggie.
      Applying industrial concepts to argiculture might have made farmers lives easier, now a few men with a few machines can feed thousands, but the cost is high should something go wrong… like something or combinations of things leading to the demise of a pollinator we need for several crops that has no replacement.

      1. You are right.  We need to be thinking about systems for small-scale at-home farming for a family.  Ideally outside, but we should also be thinking urban indoor low-power growing systems too for essentials.  Not just sticking seeds in the ground, but the entire system for recycling waste and making it grow into useful plants.

      2. All the bananas you see in the grocery store aren’t “basically” the same, they are the same. They all come from a single banana tree which is propagated vegetatively. So are any given variety of apples.

    4. “Why aren’t the farmers who need bee pollinators keeping their own hives? ”
      For the same reason that farmers can’t rely on native pollinators that do a much better job than European honeybees: when they spray their crops with pesticides, it kills everything.  The honeybees have to be brought in when the toxins have dispersed enough that the bees won’t immediately die.  (Also, of course, as others have mentioned, there’s the monoculture issue.)

      1. Given that my current urgent-to-read pile is about 8 books deep, I was hoping for a link to a summary. If I have to read an entire book to find out, I’ll just have to go without knowing for at least a couple of months. Thanks, though.

        1. Here’s the original article from which the book evolved. 20 times shorter though obviously not as detailed: 

    5. The problem is that things like almonds are grown in huge monocultures. If you tried to keep bees there they would starve once the almonds are done blooming. The old style diversified farm could support year round hives. The modern industrial methods do not provide enough habitat for bees.

      1.  You know this really isn’t true. Even without ‘modern industrial methods’ a field of wheat or corn or oats simply isn’t going to support a hive. A field of soybeans isn’t going to do much better.

        People were practicing migratory beekeeping long before the advent of modern agriculture.

    6. Because there is an expense of time and money to manage hives. Some farmers are doing this, but most don’t have the time, money or inclination to manage “yet another thing” on their farms. Small or large.

  4. Keeping bees is a full time job..  the cost of having your own beekeeper is probably higher than hiring the services of one.

    There must be a predator for the Varroa, nature evolved solutions long before we knew there was a problem.

    1. Is that cost higher than not having bees to pollinate your crops anymore?  There are several crops that will cease to exist if the bees die out.

      There very well might be a predator for the varroa, the downside is we do not have a very good track record of trying to outwit mother natures plans.

      1. When my neighbors had bees, my apple trees went BONANZA.  When their bees died, my trees went back to paltry cropdom.  Bleh.  Wish I had time for bees.  They are so wonderful.

        1. Set up a few Mason Bee Houses that you can build in your property and your trees will be producing again without extra work for you.

    2. The natural predator for varroa is bees themselves. Beekeepers are working to breed in good grooming behaviour in their hives, but it is slow work and often undermines the other things we keep bees for.

      ETA: also, there is no reason why beekeeping should be a full-time job if you’re not hauling bees all over the country. Smallholders could easily add some hives around their farms which they manage one day out of every 14.

      1. It is my understanding that these ‘smallholders’ of which you speak are substantially more endangered than the bees…

      2.  You need a lot of beehives, especially considering things like winter, and other natural causes of hive collapse, to keep a large farm well pollinated.

        Keeping a few hives is easy, keeping a few hundred is much more difficult, especially when you need to keep them distributed throughout your orchards.

    3. There must be a predator for the Varroa

      Mr. McGuire: I just want to say two words to you. Just two words.
      Benjamin: Yes, sir.
      Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
      Benjamin: Yes, I am.
      Mr. McGuire: Cane toads.

  5. Maybe it would be a good idea to clarify that the issue with neonicotinoids is not just that they show up in pollen or nectar. The bees are also exposed through the corn syrup they are fed while working as pollinators.  Bees don’t pollinate corn (it is wind-pollinated, and also a New World plant), but we don’t know what the effects are of giving them a food from a plant they are not adapted to and which is also laced with all kinds of pesticides and anti-pesticide genes. The study would be too complicated to pick apart, I think, since nothing has been adequately tested as it was introduced into the environment.

  6. My cherry tree still hummed loudly during its annual bloom. 

    Stay away from my bees, people!

  7. Let’s not indulge in any “omigod the crops will fail” hysteria.  European Honey Bees are not native to the USA, and yet –  crops were pollinated before bees were introduced.

    1. Monoculture is also not native to the USA but it is, sadly, the cornerstone of modern agriculture and until we transition away from it, honeybees are necessary. Monoculture is bad for native pollinators for the same reasons we have to ship honeybees in to pollinate vast acres of crops. Native pollinators are also suffering from many of the same problems that plague honeybees: acres upon acres of single crops, pesticides, and little wild hedgerow and woods to sustain wild pollinators. 

    2. Honey bees were introduced in combination with non-native crops (apples, almonds, etc.) and a huge influx of people. When crops were at a small scale and the population of humans needing those crops were relatively small scale, native pollinators were sufficient. Adding honey bees even at that scale boosts crop yield by sometimes up to 2x. I.e., crops would succeed, but honey bees make them yield bumper crops.

      But we are a big nation now and have more crops under production than ever before. Would reducing monocrops help? Yes. A little. But you still need that yield to feed so many people. Want to have no need for honey bees? Reduce the population of people in the USA to about 30 million or less and then one could argue there is less need for honey bees. Also get rid off all non-native fruits and veggies. That would help as well.

      So… until we reduce the human population dramatically. Get rid of most non-native fruits and veggies. And move to smaller plots… honey bees are needed.

    3. And your plan for coming up with a couple billion native bumblebees is…?

  8. My holly trees bloomed their tiny flowers a couple weeks ago and they were humming loudly with bees.

  9. They keep telling us how great modern agriculture is with all the wonderful chemical pesticides and monsanto goodies.  They keep telling us that, but I just have to wonder if we switched to organic farming en masse, if the bees would stop dying like this?  Is that crazy of me to think such things?

  10. Personally I think it’s the Bee Singularity –

  11. My favorite take on this story so far is that Monsanto is in fact behind the bee die off so that they can then introduce their genetically modified bees which will ONLY work with Monsanto crops.

    Stranger things have happened.

    1. Then the Monsanto bees mutate into seriously hostile flying scorpion-things foretold in the book of Revelation……
      (& I don’t entirely know whether I’m joking or not…)

  12. Umh, have you ever met a pesticide manufacturer that didn’t question a study that was critical of their product?  Out of all the pesticides that have been discontinued have you ever heard of a manufacturer voluntarily taking a pesticide off the market without years and years of fighting?   Think about how many screw ups this industry has brought the world.

    Now they have new wonder insecticides called neonicotinoids.  These insect neurotoxins have been known from the start to be poisonous to bees.  This isn’t a surprise.  This is just another example of how Big Chemical, Big Ag get to play roulette with the biosphere.  The government is controlled by the corporations.

      1. Yup. This breeding program looks to be a winner. Hopefully it will help speed adaptation.

  13. Living in the desert southwest, I have to ask- why are Africanized bees thriving here while bees elsewhere are not?  It is very strange to see signs tacked to telephone poles for “BEE REMOVAL” services when knowing they are struggling in other parts of the country.    Bees here do very well- too well- at times.   We have approximately 10 hives per square mile in my section of town and I’ve seen three swarms so far this spring.

    What aren’t the bees exposed to here?  Disease?  Chemicals in corn syrup?  A lack of exposure to pesticides as they mainly harvest nectar from mesquite trees in the wild?

    1. Hi Ninabi, The Africanized bees haven’t halted their progress. I’m providing a link that shows how their spread (through 2005) was first horizontal and westerly during their trek into the U.S. It was only after a large horizontal band of infestation occurred that the bees continued their northern spread.

      The bees were, in part, designed to withstand higher temperatures like the ones found in deserts – remember, they have some of the traits of bees from Africa. So, they prefer warmer climates. It most likely has nothing to do with what they might not exposed to there. Back in 2009, they were already well-established in Florida, where the citrus crops provide lots of food. As of 2012,they’ve been confirmed in both Tennessee and Oklahoma. They’ll keep reestablishing when the area they’re in can’t tolerate any more bees.

      1. From what I understand,  we are taming these Africanized bees somewhat by removing the more aggressive hives- the ones that go on the attack are the ones that definitely get removed.    Is the Africanized bee a viable alternative to the traditional, placid honeybees used as commercial pollinators or are they simply too aggressive? Will there be a limit to their northern range if they prefer warm weather?  Will global warming further extend their range northward?  I didn’t realize they were as far north as TN and Oklahoma.   

        The bees here reproduce more quickly and swarm more often.  I was told all domestic beekeeping in the area involved the Africanized bees.    Is it merely my limited observations that these bees more resilient (there are a lot of them and disturbing a hive by accident is a worry) or are they suffering from the same problems as honeybees in general?

        1. Africanized bees, as they have marched northward, have calmed a hair… just a hair. That aggressive gene is a very dominant one.

          The projections I have seen have shown a northern boundary that closely approximates the Canadian border. It’s an estimate. But yeah… all the way up the continental USA. Yippee! ;) And with warming trends, probably deep into Canada. And if they keep interbreeding with European bees… they could be more adaptable to those colder climes anyway.

          Resilent? Africanized bees are superior (evolutionarily speaking) to European honey bees in almost every conceivable way. In some ways that is a good thing, in others… not so much. Great for bees, bad for humans. :)

          1. Sorry to correct you tawser, but your information is bad. According to the USDA, “while substantial hybridization does occur when AHBs first move into areas with strong resident EHB populations, over time European traits tend to be lost.” That’s due in part to the EHB queens mating disproportionately with AHB drones. The larger, more aggressive and dominant bees take over EHB hives from within and basically usurp existing colonies. In total, the USDA found six ways in which AHB disrupt EHB colonies.


            So, the only calming going on has to do with individual hives. Remember, AHB’s are already the result of an initial experiment wherein a European queen was artificially-inseminated by a fully-African drone. They’re not behaving differently than they would in another location. This trait of swarming and then taking over existing colonies is just a part of their standard behavior.

            In addition, we understand little about how far the bees can honestly travel northward. In the southern hemisphere they only range south as far as 34 degrees S. That corresponds with Atlanta, Georgia in the northern hemisphere, but further south than that there’s proportionately little land mass and human population drops off. As of 2012, they’d already been found in both Tennessee and Oklahoma. It’s true that the bees don’t overwinter well, but the larger land mass and ready accessibility of heated buildings in the U.S. may provide housing for them to continue their northern trek much farther than they they could in the southern hemisphere.

            AHBs do show increased resilience to varroa mites, and have been studied for this. They are susceptible to CCD, it just doesn’t get reported here because we don’t keep them in the U.S. Beekeepers in Brazil have reported CCD in some hives.   The biggest advantage that AHBs have over EHBs is simply their trait of usurping existing colonies. EHBs currently have a much broader range of travel and the ability to safely overwinter in fully frozen climates. Right now the EHBs are losing the battle because they’re not just battling the AHBs, but also: pesticides, mites, viruses, fungi, etc. They really need us to give them every consideration.

          2. Actually, you confirmed my thoughts far better than I could articulate them apparently. The *behavioral* traits win out over time… with the effect of replacing the genetic profile of a hive over time. Faster drones, shorter gestation, aggressive swarming/”invasion” of a hive, etc. etc.

            Interesting article, it’s fascinating that there is evidence that queens preferentially choose africanized sperm first!?!? What? Gah!

            As for range, the local college here (apiculture program entomologist) suggested that the range could extend to Canada based on the adaptability shown by africanized, established colonies that had migrated into mountainous regions at surprising elevations. That being said, we’ll see, one way or another. :)

            Thanks for your comment.

  14. There have already been petitions online to halt the use of neonicotinoids. Beekeepers petitioned against one of the pesticides citing that the EPA didn’t follow their own safety standards for release. Defenders of the pesticides claim that they are “safer” than the other options available to them, but in truth they’re “safer” for mammals and toxic to all insects, even the beneficial ones. 

    In addition, neonicotinoids do not wash away after treatment or weaken over time. Unlike some other pesticides, they end up in the soil and are then taken up by the roots of plants they’re used on to later express in the leaves and nectar. So bees don’t need to be present for a spraying to be killed. They can just sip from a treated plant. I believe that it’s important to note that – while removing neonicotinoids may not save the bees – using them will definitely keep killing them. 

    The bees are under threat from many sources, some natural some manmade, and each chink in their armor brings us closer to a world without them. When we have the ability to recognize a threat (as we did with the Varroa mite) we can’t waste time debating if it’s THE threat that will tip the balance in the bees’ favor. We simply need to shut it down.

  15. Meanwhile,  Monsanto Blamed For Bee Population Collapse, So It Buys Bee Research Firm ( Beeologics, a major international research firm devoted to studying and protecting bees). Hmm.

  16. i’m no scientist but if you ask bee people where i live, they will tell you that hives thrive in places where there is no cellphone coverage and they dwindle where there is a strong singal…

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