MILLBURY, Mass. - There have been numerous reports of sharp declines in honeybee colonies since 2006 and a report from Dr. Alex Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology in the Department of Environmental Health cites the culprit as imidacloprid, one of the most widely used pesticides. This was published in a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health.
“The significance of bees to agriculture cannot be underestimated,” said Lu. “And it apparently doesn’t take much of the pesticide to affect the bees. Our experiment included pesticide amounts below what is normally present in the environment.”
Finding the cause of this problem is of critical importance because besides producing honey, bees pollinate nearly 33 percent of the crop species in the United States, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. If there was a loss of honeybees in the United States the results could be catastrophic, causing billions of dollars of loss in the agriculture business.
Lu conducted an experiment over a 23 week period during 2010 in Worcester County aiming to prove how imidacloprid may have caused Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). His main hypothesis, that imidacloprid caused the CCD, was based on four different bee yards, each having four hives treated with different levels of imicloprid. After 12 weeks of imidacloprid dosing all the bees were alive. However after 23 weeks, 15 of the 16 imidacloprid treated hives had died out with the hives with the highest levels of the chemical dying first.
Bees can be exposed either by nectar from plants or through the corn syrup that many beekeepers feed their bees. Most U.S. produced corn syrup has some levels of imidacloprid in it since it's one of the main pesticides in the corn crop.
So should these massive results of CCD (between 30 -90 percent according to Lu) have scientists, farmers and beekeepers in the area panicking? Not so fast say some.
Many of the local beekeepers in the area pointed to a biologist and beekeeper from California, Randy Oliver. He writes a blog about beekeeping as well as for the American Bee Journal and some of his comments were taken from his blog with his permission.
"The study got off to a good start—several colonies were fed different “field realistic” doses of imidacloprid in syrup, and colony populations and brood area were measured," wrote Oliver.
He added, "When the investigators failed to prove their case after a month of feeding spiked syrup, they changed the protocol, and ramped up the doses of insecticide in the syrup to sky high and acutely toxic levels, and then made a series of compounding mistakes, notably by not performing the sort of necessary parasite management required for colonies to survive the winter. And then, the symptoms of the colonies when they died did not match the symptoms of CCD, yet the Harvard press agent claimed that they did."
Oliver cited a specific paragraph of the Harvard paper, “The range of dosages used in this study from 20 to 400 μg/kg were not only environmentally relevant…”
Oliver was outraged stating, "Since when has 400 ppb ever been been considered to be “environmentally relevant”? Levels of 1-4 ppb are environmentally relevant; levels above 40 ppb are usually considered to be overtly toxic. So the 400 ppb figure is 100 – 400 times as strong as the normal measured levels in the field due to seed treatment."
Finishing with even stronger wording, Oliver said, "I find it unfortunate that the press, including both of our national bee journals, gave publicity to this paper without any sort of critical analysis. Such messages only confuse the public. Pesticides are a major issue to the beekeeping community. What we need are well designed and executed studies, (as well as better enforcement of pesticide law) in order to solve these problems. Sadly, this study just confuses the issues.
The Corn Growers response was similarly strong and can be found here:
TheDaily Millbury.com also spoke with one of the local beekeepers in Millbury, Cam Bishop, who runs his own bee business called Circle 7 Honey and Pollination on Elmwood St.
Bishop too was unimpressed with the Lu study, "I think it was a really poorly constructed investigation," he said. "They never showed that the CCD was caused by pesiticides at all." Citing the Oliver document, Bishop said, "Randy Oliver is a man I follow and greatly respect. He's a scientist and a beekeeper and if you read his blog, its filled with investigations he does at his own expense that are greatly respected within the beekeeping community."
Bishop added, "I think his analysis (Oliver's) was completely correct. Bees are insects, if you give a bee enough insecticide, it will eventually kill him. It doesn't mean that the chemical itself is going to kill the bees in the manner its normally used."
He added one final thought. "You know, the insecticide used in the study (imidacloprid) is now only used on 5 percent of the cornfields in the United States. As far as them getting the analysis from the corn syrup, that's never been done before. I'd like to see how they arrived at that."
Dr. Lu's research did use pesticides in amounts that were normally lower than one would find in the environment. But during that time, during the first 12 weeks of the study, the bees were all alive. It was only after dosing the bees to what is normally over 100 times what is found in the environment did the bee colonies collapse.
So the bee colony collapse, is it a sign of impending doom for farmers or just some shoddy research done to "prove" a theory. That's up for the reader to decide.