Honeybee Deaths Rising Again [Video]

Melissa Stusinski

Honeybee deaths are on the rise again and it appears that the population drop is due to pesticides. Honeybees have been dying en masse for several years, but this year the deaths have spiked even more, according to commercial beekeepers.

About 40 to 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of America's fruits and vegetables are gone. So far scientists studying the ailment, called colony collapse disorder, have not been able to find a conclusive explanation.

However, beekeepers and researchers believe that a powerful new class of pesticides is responsible for the problem. The pesticides, called neonicotinoids, are incorporated into the plants themselves.

The pesticide industry disagrees. But its representatives have also said they are open to further discussions about what, if anything, is happening with the honeybees.

Commercial beekeeper Bill Dahle, who owns Big Sky Honey in Montana, stated that his bees looked healthy last year. But, he added:

"... about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We've been doing this 30 years, and we've never experienced this kind of loss before."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also started looking into the problem. The EPA sent its acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and two top chemical experts to California for discussions on the spike in honeybee deaths. The federal Agriculture Department is expected to issued its own assessment about the problem in May.

He planned to have 13,000 beehives to work in California this spring. But only 3,000 healthy hives remained by pollination season. The impact of honeybee deaths has not been limited to beekeepers. About one quarter of the American diet depends on honeybee population.

Fewer bees means smaller harvests. It also means higher food prices. California almond growers are faring even worse. Eighty percent of the world's almonds are grown in California, but growers have struggled to find enough bees to pollinate the fields. The colony collapse disease began around 2005, but the reason for last year's death rate is unclear.

Some have blamed the drought in the Midwest for the problem. The drought was the worst seen in the region in more than 70 years. But One beekeeper said that he lost 80 percent of his bees, even with summer conditions. Others have cited bee mites that have become increasingly resistant to pesticides, while others blame viruses.

But beekeepers continue to suspect pesticides. Each substance has been certified, but there has not been much study to see what their combined effects are. Critics add that scientists have also not studied the effects of the neonicotinoids. The new pesticide is derived from nicotine. European regulators have implicated the pesticide, first considered in the 1980s, for bee deaths.

Their explosive use since 2005 has also roughly tracked rising bee deaths. A coalition of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the EPA last week over the pesticides, saying the agency exceeded its authority by approving some of the neonicotinoids conditionally.

Neonics, as some farmers call them, are applied in a much smaller dosage than older pesticides. They are often embedded into the seed of a plant. Older pesticides also posed a risk to bees and other beneficial insects, but those ones degraded quickly. Instead, neonics persist for weeks and months.

Beekeepers believe that the bees are carrying a summer's worth of contaminated pollen to their hives, where the next generations receive a steady dose of pesticide. While eating them once or twice isn't a problem, a steady diet of them can be damaging. One beekeeper explained:

"If you have one shot of whiskey on Thanksgiving and one on the Fourth of July, it's not going to make any difference. But if you have whiskey every night, 365 days a year, your liver's gone. It's the same thing."

But further research is needed to see if it is pesticides killing the honeybees, or if it is something else entirely.

[Images via Wolfgang Hägele and Migco]