Tag Archives: Environment

How Will We Feed the World?

I’ve been on an extended book tour, giving lectures and reading from “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.” It’s been a great ride, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a wide range of public, beekeeping, academic and farming audiences.

Whenever I speak, the current plight of honeybees and wild bees has been part of my message. There are many interacting causes behind the decline of bees, but farming practices including heavy pesticide use and the predominance of vast single crop acreages are two of the most significant factors causing bees to circle the drain.

Pesticides have been clearly and irrefutably linked to bee declines, including the immediately toxic as well as longer-term sublethal effects of insecticides and fungicides, and the insidious impact of herbicides that remove flowering plants that are important nectar and pollen sources from fields.

Monocropping has harmed bees by creating vast deserts of one flowering source, which results in poor nutrition and limits nectar and pollen availability to an unduly short few weeks, not sufficient to maintain most wild bees that require longer time spans with floral abundance to survive and reproduce.

My proposed solutions to the negative impacts caused by farming are simple: reduce pesticide use and break up the single-crop system with multiple cropping and crop rotations that extend floral availability for bees. But supporters of conventional farming invariably bring up the “how will we feed the world” argument, suggesting that alternative agriculture is pie-in-the-sky feel good nonsense, and totally impractical to feed the 7 billion and growing human global population.

Until recently there hasn’t been any way to counter the claims of conventional agriculture, except to balance the feed-the-world argument with the benefits of diminished environmental impacts from alternative agriculture, especially organic farming. And the negative environmental impacts of conventional agriculture are concerning, including damage to soil, water and air quality, biodiversity and human health.

But finally a few studies have amalgamated research from many sources that indicate organic agriculture not only leaves a softer environmental footprint, but also stands up well in productivity and profit when compared to high-input, single crop conventional farming.

Organic agriculture has been the most intensively studied, and a 2015 publication by Lauren Ponisio from the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues analyzed 1071 organic vs. conventional yield comparisons from 115 studies. Organic farming was only slightly lower, averaging 10 – 20% less yield, although organic farms that used multi-cropping and crop rotation systems showed differences less than 10%.

What’s most important to realize about this result is that high productivity in organic farming has come almost exclusively from innovative growers, without the benefit of the vast research empires and extensive subsidy payments from government that have supported conventional growers. As the authors point out, “appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management systems could greatly reduce or eliminate the yield gap for some crops or regions.”

But productivity is only one measure of farming success; when profit and income are factored in, organic agriculture has proven superior to conventional systems. Two authors from Washington State University, David Crowder and John Reganold, examined 55 crops over 5 continents, and found that organic farming was 22 – 35% more profitable for growers, due to the higher premiums received for organic food. Further, the authors pointed out that their study didn’t factor in environmental benefits and enhanced ecosystem services associated with organic farming, which further tilts the ledger in favor of organic.

But we don’t require pure organic farming to see improvements in agricultural practices; some simple changes in conventional farming that reduce but don’t eliminate pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use are worth pursuing. A study in Iowa by Adam Davis and colleagues compared the typical conventional crop rotation of maize and soybeans with a four-crop rotation of maize, soybeans, small grains and red clover. They found that yields were equal or greater in the four-crop system, with lower fertilizer and pesticide inputs as well as dramatic improvements in environmental measures such as freshwater toxicity from runoff.

They concluded the “results of our study indicate that more diverse cropping systems can use small amounts of synthetic agrichemical inputs as powerful tools with which to tune, rather than drive, agroecosystem performance, while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.”

What might be done to drive agriculture towards organic, or at least in the direction of sustainable farming that reduces pesticide and fertilizer use and increases crop diversity? Certainly the marketplace is one force for change. If consumers demand more organic and sustainable food production, farmers will respond. In fact, they have; organic food sales currently make up about 4% of the U.S. market, and organic production is experiencing continued strong expansion of about 15% annually.

However, it is government that has the capacity to exert the strongest and most rapid levers for change, through setting agricultural policy and by directing payments away from the overly subsidized conventional growers and towards the sustainable and organic modes of food production. Their excuse for inaction in the past has been the “feed-the- world” rationale, but given these recent studies, that argument no longer holds water.

Bees would certainly benefit from enlightened farming practices, but improvements in environmental integrity and our own human health also argue strongly for government intervention in what has become an agricultural system driven too much by corporate profit rather than good farming practices.

There are elections coming up in both Canada and the United States. There is one irrefutable way to influence government to act: vote. I encourage anyone for whom bees are important, as well as those of us who care about where our food comes from and how farming integrates into ecosystem function, to make agricultural reform a key issue.

A vote for organic and sustainable options will not only save the bees, but will provide the kind of agriculture that benefits us all, growers and consumers alike.


For more information about the studies cited above, see:

Ponisio LC, M’Gonigle LK, Mace KC, Palomino J, de Valpine P, Kremen C. 2015. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proc. R. Soc. B 282:20141396 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1396

Crowder, DW and Reganold, JP 2015. Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. PNAS, June 16, 112: 76117616, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1423674112

Davis AS, Hill JD, Chase CA, Johanns AM, Liebman M (2012) Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47149. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047149

Perhaps Beekeeping Should Change?

(The post below first appeared as a Letter to the Editor in Bee Culture magazine)

It was an interesting January, bookmarked with the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) meeting at Disneyland at the front end, and ending with the American Bee Research Conference (ABRC) in Tucson, Arizona at the end.

These are quite different meetings. The ABF attracts around 900 beekeepers, many managing commercial operations with upwards of 10-70,000 colonies. The ABRC is much smaller, around 100 participants, mostly honeybee researchers, extension agents and government regulators.

I was left with a sense of optimism from both meetings, unexpected since beekeeping continues to flirt with an epic disaster caused by 1/3 of all colonies dying every year. This has been going on for a decade now, with colonies dying each year and replaced by beekeepers splitting their surviving colonies and building up their numbers again each spring.

But apiculturists are beginning to realize that many of the issues causing the demise of our colonies are outside our control. Of particular concern are a lack of abundant and diverse nectar and pollen sources due to the vast weed-free, single-crop acreages typical in farming today, and heavy use of pesticides by farmers.

This is a long-term problem not easily amenable to change. Even long-term transformation is problematic since political pressure exerted by the beekeeping industry has little influence, because it is a tiny industry lost in the vast magnitude of contemporary corporate agriculture.

I observed two positive trends in hallway conversations that are encouraging. The first involves recognizing that beekeepers’ interests and those of agriculture as it is practiced today are not necessarily compatible. Finding alliances with other organizations with allied values could create a considerably more effective coalition lobbying to shift agriculture in a direction healthier for bees.

Beekeeping could be leading a movement towards more sustainable farming rather than buying into the large scale and high input agricultural systems that too many beekeepers are enmeshed in. If so, there are innumerable interest groups with which to align: organic growers, sustainable farmers, the urban and local food movements and a vast array of environmental groups, among others.

The love-hate relationship beekeepers have developed with pesticide companies might be one alignment worth pondering. Traditionally, we’ve been anti-pesticide, recognizing that many field chemicals are toxic to bees. For that reason, beekeepers often have been in the forefront of movements for stronger pesticide regulation.

Ironically, beekeepers also have become dependent on those same companies to invent and market new chemicals to control bee diseases, pests and parasites. Like the farmers we criticize for overuse and reckless applications of pesticides in fields, we beekeepers ourselves have stepped onto the same chemical treadmill, losing credibility and the high ground in campaigns to reduce pesticide use and implement stronger regulations. It’s common for beekeepers to apply mite-killing chemicals four to six times a year, a sure recipe to induce resistance in the mites through over-application, as well as leaving considerable residues in comb.

Which brings up the second trend I noticed at these meetings, a realization that beekeeping itself has to change. Many, perhaps most, commercial beekeepers are no longer primarily honey producers, but have become pollination managers, moving their bees from crop to crop for the pollination fee, with honey a messy byproduct.

These are enormous mass migrations, with 60% of American bees moved onto just one crop, almonds, each February, about 1.6 million colonies, and many colonies moved three or more times a season to various crops (Canadian beekeepers are somewhat less migratory). These beekeepers have come to depend on the high fees they charge growers for pollination, but income is offset with steep costs for labor, equipment, transport and travel, not to mention stress on bees and beekeepers alike.

I have yet to find an economic analysis that shows migratory beekeeping is the optimal way to make money in the beekeeping industry. Stationary beekeepers who leave their colonies at one apiary site all year, or perhaps move only once and more locally, may not get the high pollination fees, but they also don’t have the costs. Many migratory beekeepers are starting to question whether moving bees is the best way to make a dollar.

Beekeepers also are striving to get off their self-induced chemical treadmill, and flock to sessions at meetings with speakers claiming to be managing their bees free of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics. Some talk about embracing gentler strains of African bees because they swarm often, which breaks the varroa mite’s breeding cycle. Swarm prevention has always been high on a beekeeper’s management agenda, but perhaps that type of out-of-the-box thinking will be necessary to evolve a sustainable beekeeping industry.

Another innovative idea I heard floated was for beekeepers to metamorphosize into pollination habitat managers, contracted by growers to create and maintain habitat, nesting sites and forage for wild bees. Honeybees would be used as supplemental pollinators only when necessary, and at much reduced colony numbers from the current migratory avalanche.

Honeybee health and survival can improve, but only through a combination of agricultural change and the evolution of beekeeping itself.

Planners of beekeeping meetings, here’s a session idea for your next conference: Audacious Ideas for the Future of Beekeeping.

That’s what the survival of beekeeping needs: daring and bold ideas, and the courage to implement them.


Valuing Valuation


I learned ecology tramping around the salt marshes of Cape Cod in the early 1970’s, where I was a graduate student in the Boston University Marine Program in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. At that time the word “ecology” was mostly accompanied by “the science of,” and was only beginning to be adopted as the calling card for the then-nascent environmental movement.

Our ecology class spent long days at the Sippewisset Marsh tramping through microbial mats built on cyanobacteria, diatoms, and algae, as well as tough Spartina grasses that could withstand salt water and an incredible array of intertidal organisms supported by the twice-daily ebb and flow of the tide.

We used the word “web” incessantly, not as in “world wide web” but as in the “web of life.” There were just so many living things dependent on the marsh. Its high productivity was at the base of innumerable food chains, in the marsh itself and downstream as inhabitants were swept out into the ocean and fed upon by small fish that themselves were eaten by larger species. The three building blocks of biological interaction, predation, competition and symbiosis, were ubiquitous; everything was interacting and interrelated.

Our holy scientific grail was to perfect models explaining how organisms depended on each other, from the tiniest of bacteria to the largest of whales. The wave of ecologists from that generation transformed our understanding of ecology from observation-based natural history to a rigorous professional practice. Today ecology is a sophisticated science, and startling in the predictive capacity of its models.

The trend then was to organize information and find patterns. Today that continues, but ecologists also are emerging at the forefront of environmental policy by calculating dollar values on the services that habitats provide.

Numbers abound; forests are worth so many gazillion dollars for their carbon-sequestering services, marshes are valued financially for supporting shrimp fisheries, and wild bees considered to be worth tens of billions of dollars for their crop-pollinating services.

The valuations determined by ecological service models are useful in providing an economic rationale for preserving or restoring habitats, but the dollar values can be low or high depending on the assumptions and inputs ecologists put into their models. For example, the ecological costs of a pipeline will vary dramatically depending on whether climate change is considered a cost, on whether we economically value side effects such as restricted migratory routes for moose that disrupt subsistence hunting and on lost opportunity costs such as reduced tourism.

The idea of valuating common resources and charging industry appropriately for their use of ecosystem services may be a useful bridge between left and right positions on the political spectrum. For example, an eloquent spokesperson for charging industry a fee for its use of water is Preston Manning, a conservative Canadian politician best known for starting a right-wing political party and for his conservative think tank. Yet, he has proposed that we calculate the value of water as an ecosystem service in Alberta, billing the oil industry for its water use and for cleaning up pollution downstream from the Alberta tar sands.

Acid rain is another good example. When lake acidification became evident to ecologists, and the value of the ecosystem services provided by lakes made clear, it was the Conservative Mulroney government in Canada and the Republican Bush administration in the U.S. that forced industry to scrub airborne pollutants from their smokestacks.

Almost any ecosystem or service is amenable to economic valuation, but ultimately it’s values rather than valuation that determine how serious we are about protecting ecological resources. Whether we use solar power or oil for energy, managed honeybees or wild bees for pollination, farmed or wild salmon for food, depends more on how we want to live in the world than on any dollar amount we might ascribe to nature’s services.

Whether we exploit or harmoniously partner with nature may be the most fundamental decision we face in the 21st century. Ecologists are increasingly adept at telling us the costs and consequences of exploitation and the advantages and benefits of ecological partnerships, but knowledge is not worth much in a vacuum.

To take ecosystem services with the seriousness they deserve, we need to recognize that our prosperity and even survival depend on collaborating with nature as a partner rather than as a resource to extract, exploit and discard. Similarly, we might find that forging political collaborations across party lines around ecosystem issues might heal some of the deep animosity and gridlock that pervade politics today.

If we can do that, then our values and our valuations might converge, to our benefit and the benefit of the planet on which we coexist.

The Road Not Taken

We all have our life-fork stories, those crossroads where we could have gone one way but chose another.

I was reminded about one of my road-not-taken moments last week, at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings in Portland, Oregon. My 1975 crossroads decision was whether to go to the University of Kansas and study killer honeybees in South America with Chip Taylor, or to Cornell University and work with Richard Root, studying the effects of crop diversity on beneficial insects such as unmanaged wild pollinators.

Killer bees won out, and I’ve never regretted that decision, but was intrigued to see a wave of studies presented at the ESA meeting demonstrating how habitat heterogeneity is important for the diversity and abundance of wild bees.

The role of habitat diversity as a key factor in maintaining wild bee populations has become one of those hot topics that attract the talented scientists who gravitate to the interesting questions. It’s a challenging research area, requiring sophisticated methods to measure and compare habitat heterogeneity with bee diversity and abundance, all in environments heavily altered by the human impact of farming.

Two research approaches have converged with the same result. The first, sampling bees in a range of simple to complex habitats, has clearly demonstrated that contemporary agriculture is barren for wild bees.

Industrial agriculture is a dead zone for beneficial pollinators due to vast acreages of monocropped plantings kept clear of weeds with herbicides, and limited natural habitats adjacent to farmland in which bees can feed and nest. Wild bees rely on plants whose flowering seasons adjoin each other to provide extended availability of nectar and pollen, as well as on undisturbed nesting sites, neither of which are found in and around today’s habitat-deforming farms.

The second line of research has been more experimental, planting bee-friendly hedgerows and ground cover at farm sites and examining whether wild bee populations increase and thrive. The results of these multi-year studies so far have been encouraging, often showing dramatic increases in pollinators as habitat diversifies.

There is another research direction that is difficult but necessary to make the case for habitat reconstruction to enhance pollinator populations: economic analyses. So far, there have been few studies asking that final dollar value question: Does increased diversity and abundance of wild bees lead to more pollen transferred between flowers, to better seed set, to heavier crop weight, and finally to higher yields and increased income sufficient to justify the costs of habitat improvements?

A student in my laboratory, Lora Morandin, did one such economic study a number of years ago in canola fields in northern Alberta. Her research demonstrated that a high variety of wild plants in and near farmland were associated with more diverse and abundant bee populations that increased canola yield. Farmers who planted their entire field earned about $27,000 in profit per farm, whereas those who left a third unplanted for bees to nest and forage in earned $65,000 on a farm of similar size, due simply to better pollination.

The causes of reduced plant biodiversity on farms are clear, and the solutions easily envisioned and implemented. The two most destructive factors for bees are overly large single cropped acreages and the use of herbicides that clean fields of weeds.

The solutions? Increase farm diversity through multiple crops, reduce herbicide use to allow more flowering weeds in farm fields and plant non-crop vegetation adjacent to farmland.

The encouraging news is that state and federal governments in the United States are beginning to fund bee conservation projects designed to increase bee diversity through habitat renovations. The dollar values are small, and the projects highly localized, but it’s a start.

Fundamentally, we’re faced with choosing between habitat-based farming that uses ecosystem services to pollinate crops, or chemically based industrial farming that harms habitats and requires managed pollinators, usually honeybees, to be brought into the crop to do the job that wild bees could probably do better.

If I were choosing today, biodiversity would be the cornerstone upon which I would build a research career. It makes more sense to enhance the natural diversity and services that ecosystems could provide than to stay on today’s treadmill of high input, low profit and environmentally damaging farming.

Highways BEE Act

There’s new legislation just proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment Act (BEE Act), designed to improve the lot of non-voters: wild bees and managed honeybees. The act was introduced by two representatives who co-chair the Congressional Pollinator Protection Caucus, one from Florida and the other from California, both important states for agriculture in general and beekeeping in particular.

The BEE Act focuses on improving habitat for bees and other pollinators along about 17 million acres of roadside rights-of-way, a huge opportunity to provide enhanced forage and nesting sites for beneficial insects. The concept is not old; managing vegetation along roadways to enhance nectar and pollen-producing plants and reduce disruptions of nesting sites has been proposed by bee-lovers for many decades.

The bill proposes two components, reduced mowing and enhanced plants for pollinators, which together would create habitat that not only would support bees, but also would benefit monarch butterflies, ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. Farms nearby would profit through improved pollination services.

These benefits are no-brainers for bee and wildlife lovers, but the Act also notes that the proposed roadside habitats would significantly reduce mowing and other costs for the state Departments of Transportation responsible for roadside maintenance.

So why am I disappointed? As they say in Texas, the BEE Act is all hat and no cattle, lacking legislated actions that would affect change. The Act encourages but doesn’t insist, allocating no new funding and limiting implementation to those state Departments of Transportation willing to participate.

I suppose the charged political environment in the US precludes legislation that requires state action, and perhaps the BEE Act’s polite reminder that we can, indeed, do things to save the bees is better than nothing. But I grew up in an era when more was expected of government than platitudes and recommendations, and can’t shake my fundamental belief that the reason we elect officials is to act when faced with overwhelming evidence of problems and feasible, affordable steps towards solutions.

It’s a simple equation: bees need diverse and abundant nectar and pollen-producing flowers to survive and thrive. The millions of roadside acres available for vegetation management would provide a substantial resource at a time when wild bees are becoming scarcer and managed honeybees are dying.

Bees are just one more victim of America’s political paralysis, collateral damage in a system with diminished capacity to act for those endangered by our extensive terra-forming of the globe.

Without teeth to enforce and funding to implement, the BEE Act provides the illusion of action while bees continue to decline. It’s the worst kind of tragedy, one that is preventable and about which we are doing way too little.

Corporate Influence

I enjoy congruence, when seemingly random bits of information on similar subjects converge.  Novel ideas are often inspired by news nuggets from diverse sources that connect by a common thread. Today’s blog about the influence of corporate contributions on academia and non-profit organizations was stimulated by three such converging influences.

The first was sent to me as part of an email list about bees, and covered the recent announcement that Bayer CropScience made a $750,000 donation to the University of Guelph to support and preserve pollinator health through sustainable pest management. Bayer, if you don’t know, sells neonicitinoid pesticides, the top-selling pesticides in the world today, which rightly or wrongly are receiving considerable blame for causing honeybee colonies to collapse and die.

Those who support Bayer will applaud them for their concern about pollinators, while those who accuse them of beeocide are undoubtedly livid at the university’s collaboration with the evil pesticide empire.

The second converged item was an article from the 12 May 2014 New Yorker, about how the head of the Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek, has alienated environmental purists by pushing the Conservancy towards collaborations with industry to find win-win outcomes so that industry improves its bottom line by doing environmentally friendly things. The article starts with an example of how Dow Chemical, one of the planet’s worst polluters, is being encouraged to plant trees and preserve wetlands that absorb some of their outflow pollution.

Critics are quoted in the article as condemning the Conservancy’s “schizophrenic anti-biodiversity, anti-protected-areas rhetoric,” while Tercek defends their interactions with industry as realistic and effective.

My third converged moment was at a talk I attended describing Mitacs, a Canadian non-profit that fosters partnerships between government, industry and academia. Mitacs operates by placing graduate students with corporations and government who then conduct research useful to those organizations. The students eventually use the research towards their graduate degrees.

The clear concern here is that of intellectual property, and whether the students can publish results freely when there is proprietary information involved. According to Mitacs, they can, but cynics wonder about undue influence of industry in designing and interpreting student’s experiments in which negative results might inhibit product sales.

In spite of these many concerns about corporate influence, academia and non-profit organizations have many motives for accepting industry dollars. The key reason such funding is so tempting for academics and non-profits is that we don’t have enough of it, and corporations are awash in it.

But there are other temptations as well. Products are exciting, and who doesn’t want to be part of inventing something? There is that thrill and pride that comes from being part of a team creating something that has enough value to others that they purchase it. It’s seductive, and one reason we can be so easily drawn into the corporate mindset.

There also are good strategic and philosophical arguments to be made for collaboration with industry. It’s a positive social good for industry, government, academia and non-profits to work together towards common goals, each contributing a different set of skills and experiences towards solving knotty problems in health care, energy production, transportation, environmental protection and many other social needs.

The tradeoff in accepting corporate funding and the accompanying industry culture is the loss of independence, which is perhaps the strongest value that drew many of us to academic and non-profit pursuits in the first place.

We need to create an appropriate infrastructure that recognizes the broad spectrum of stakeholders who bring differing ideals and motives to issues, while protecting the sanctity of independent research by academia and analysis/commentary/opinion from non-profits, insulating both groups from being financially beholden to special interests.

The simple solution to mitigate potential conflicts between industry interests and those of the academic and non-profit worlds would be for government to provide more funding to keep independent bodies independent and balance corporate interests. One way to do that is for government to rebalance the structure of corporate participation to insure it supports independent systems.

Perhaps a tax used specifically to generate a broad range of independent opinions from academics and non-profits would serve citizens the best, particularly on issues where corporate activity has the potential to negatively impact human or environmental health.

Corporations have gargantuan impact on our environment and virtually every aspect of human life. They should be partners with the academic and non-profit sectors, but only if their funding is buying independent analyses rather than inflating the corporate bottom line.

We are far from achieving that balance yet, as those three converged moments I started with indicate. But we do need to have that conversation, and fast, as independent thought is becoming increasingly submerged in the sea of influence that is too easily brought to bear when dollars are not disconnected from products.

Unintended Consequences

Most of us are aware by now that antibiotics are overprescribed for human use and overused in animal feed to increase livestock weight. The consequences are tragic; disease-causing bacteria develop resistance when repeatedly exposed, and many antibiotics have become ineffective.

Physicians are left with fewer and fewer tools to combat serious bacterial infections. Thousands of patients die annually in Canada alone due to infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a medical travesty that could be avoided if we reduced antibiotic usage.

But I read an article in the New York Times on Sunday that slapped me in the face with an obvious realization that I had completely missed (by Pagan Kennedy, 8 March 2014, “The Fat Drug”). If antibiotics fed to livestock result in their gaining weight, what happens to our human weight when we ingest antibiotics?

Turns out there were studies performed in the 1950’s asking just that question. Antibiotics were fed to Guatemalan school children in one study, severely mentally disabled kids in Florida in another, and Navy recruits in a third, all with the same result of increased weight gain following weeks to a full year of antibiotic exposure. And it wasn’t just a minor weight increase; children showed up to three times the weight gain when fed antibiotics compared to those not fed drugs.

Leaving aside the reprehensible ethics of using third-world and mentally disabled children, and soldiers, for these studies, it’s tempting to attribute the current obesity epidemic in the developed world to antibiotics, at least in part. It turns out that there are known mechanisms by which antibiotics might lead to human weight gain, in addition to the obvious observation that it does so in other animals.

For one thing, antibiotics flip a switch in animal digestive systems that turn extra calories into fat, which is one mechanism leading to weight gain. Antibiotics also disrupt the diverse microbial flora in the gut that play a critical role in digesting food, again causing weight gain and possibly contributing to obesity.

Antibiotics have been on my mind lately because of the book about bees I’m working on (Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive, http://winstonhive.com/?page_id=164, due out in October). Beekeepers are like many farmers, overusing antibiotics to stimulate their animals’ weight gain. In the case of beekeepers it’s been colonies gaining due to the increased honey production that results by preventing the bacterial disease American Foul Brood (AFB).

But resistance finally developed, and AFB is now epidemic. The only “cure” is to kill the bees and either burn the entire hive or subject the comb and boxes to intense radiation.

It’s not surprising that antibiotic resistance arose, given how much drug beekeepers have been feeding to bees in sugar syrup or dusting into colonies a few times a year. But giving antibiotics to bees has had another unexpected impact, synergizing the effects of pesticides and making these agricultural chemicals toxic to bees at low doses thought to be benign.

Antibiotics fed to bees increase their susceptibility to many pesticides, including neonicitinoid insecticides, which many blame for colony collapse disorder. Essentially, antibiotics reduce the effectiveness of a component in bees’ immune systems that detoxify pesticides, lowering the dose at which a pesticide will harm bees.

Similar antibiotic interactions are well known in human medicine. For example, women have been surprised to get pregnant after taking certain antibiotics that neutralize birth control pills. Antibiotics also interfere with commonly used blood thinning medications and insulin; a simple web search reveals dozens of other harmful interactions.

There’s a bigger issue here, for bees and for us. We’re exposed to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chemicals every day, from medicines to nutritional supplements, pesticides to industrial plastics, fertilizers to smog. We have some idea about the effects of each alone, but are mostly clueless as to the impacts of minute chemical exposures from multiple sources.

It’s the law of unintended consequences, a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended. Whether it’s human weight gain from antibiotics or the demise of bees, we’re becoming increasingly aware of how little we understand the side effects of scientific progress.

We’re paying some serious penalties for own health and that of the environment around us. Perhaps it’s time for interactions to be more carefully studied before we release new dangers into the world around us.

Toxic Soup

The honeybee crisis continues; one-third of all colonies die each year around the globe, and we know why. It’s not one factor, and our deepening understanding of the multiple stressors that are killing bees has clarified the extent of our human responsibility in this tragedy.

A considerable body of research has shown that pesticides are one set of factors that interact to harm adult bees, either through simple additive toxic effects or synergistically with each other so that their effects are considerably worse than what would be expected from just adding them together. Further, pesticides often interfere with bees’ immune systems, amplifying the effects of bee diseases.

And, there are well over 100 pesticides found in a typical beehive, some applied directly by beekeepers but most brought back to the hive by foraging bees. Together, this array of poisons to which bees are exposed has created a toxic colony environment.

Now a new study from Pennsylvania State University has shown that interactions between chemicals affect larval bees as well as the previously studied adults. This project examined impacts of four commonly used pesticides on honeybee larvae, as well as testing an inert ingredient used to formulate pesticides that previously was untested but thought to be innocuous to bees.

Two of the pesticides tested, fluvalinate and coumpahos, are regularly applied by beekeepers to kill the serious mite pest varroa. The other two are farmer-applied pesticides, the fungicide chlorothalonil and the insecticide chlorpyrifos, both with widespread use in agriculture. They tested each compound alone and in combination with the others, at doses reflecting typical pesticide residues larval bees would be exposed to when fed protein-rich pollen that has been processed into larval food by adult bees.

The results indicated that larval stages are considerably more susceptible than adults, and that generally the pesticides were worse together than alone. Sometimes two or more pesticides simply showed additive impact, but for some the impacts were synergistic, indicating an interaction that amplified their toxicity.

They also examined an inert ingredient commonly used as a carrier for pesticides, nicknamed NMP, that showed high toxicity to larvae.

The simplest conclusion of the study was that we are not testing pesticides widely enough for regulators to make informed decisions about approving compounds. The authors concluded that mixtures of pesticides and inert ingredients must be tested as well as the single compounds, and that both adults and larvae need to be studied to garner realistic data about impacts.

They also affirmed what most of us in the bee world believe: Bees are not dying because of one thing, but a combination of causes including pesticides, diseases, poor nutrition due to reduced diversity of nectar and pollen-producing flowers and other factors.

Their study has profound implications for what we need to do to protect bees, as well as for our own human health.

Bees will continue to die until we restructure agriculture. The necessary reforms are significant, but would have numerous environmental benefits as well as providing better health for bees: polycultural farming rather than extensive single cropping, increased plant diversity in and around farmland and reduced pesticide use by farmers and beekeepers. It’s a big bit task, but we best begin soon, before the crisis deepens.

The demise of bees also calls to our attention similar challenges for human health. We, like bees, are exposed to hundreds of pesticides and industrial chemicals. These potential toxins have been approved by regulators based on exposure to single compounds rather than to the mixtures to which we actually are exposed. And, tolerance levels are based on predicted effects for adult exposure rather than for children, who are considerably more vulnerable.

Also, our own poor nutrition due to high sugar and fat diets and over processed, nutritionally incomplete foods is reminiscent of the limited forage that bees must now depend on to meet their dietary needs.

In other words: we’re not so different from the bees, and their fate may well be the harbinger of ours.


For more detail see:

Wanyi Zhu, Daniel R. Schmehl, Christopher A. Mullin, James L. Frazier 2014. Four Common Pesticides, Their Mixtures and a Formulation Solvent in the Hive Environment Have High Oral Toxicity to Honey Bee Larvae. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0077547