The Plight of the Honey Bee


Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Lake & Sumter Style Magazine.


Honeybees do more than just produce the “nectar of the gods.” They also pollinate more than one-third of the world’s crops, but bees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Rising food costs are only the tip of the beehive; completely losing foods we love is a real possibility.

In February, a bee convention of sorts will converge in California’s Central Valley when almond flowers are ready for pollination. Almond growers will pay top dollar — anywhere from $140 to $200 per hive — to have bees trucked in from all over the U.S. and Canada because there are simply not enough honeybees in the area to do the job.

“The almond growers need a million hives to pollinate the trees, but there are only about two million hives in this country,” says honey producer Bill Rhodes of Umatilla, whose hives will be among those in California. “And if things continue the way they have been, we won’t even have that many in the near future.

 

Where have all our bees gone?

Rhodes is one of a growing number of honey producers and beekeepers who have watched their bees disappear in steadily increasing numbers.

The Apiary Inspectors of America and the federal government’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) estimate that the U.S. lost more than a third of its honeybee colonies in the winter of 2010. This is an increase from overall losses of twenty-nine percent in 2009 and similar to the 2008 numbers when nearly thirty-six percent of honeybee colonies disappeared. Although poor weather and genetically weak colonies are partly to blame, many researchers and beekeepers fear that a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is causing worker bees to simply leave the hives. Although no one knows what causes CCD for sure, many scientists and beekeepers suspect pesticides play a significant role by causing bees to become disoriented or impaired so they cannot find their way back to their hives. The chemicals are also thought to weaken the bees’ immune systems. This makes them susceptible to viruses and parasites, which causes them to die.

“The pesticide clothianidin is agriculture’s Deep Water Horizon. America’s farmland is awash in questionable chemicals as surely as the shorelines of the Gulf Coast were awash in crude oil — and for many of the same reasons,” says Tom Theobald, a founding member of the Boulder County Beekeepers Association and a concerned beekeeper in Niwot, Colorado. “I was struck by the lax oversight leading up to the Gulf disaster and the parallel to what has been occurring in the beekeeping world for several years.”

Theobald says that clothianidin and a number of other pesticides in the neonicotinoids family become incorporated into the system of the plant when the seed germinates. In May 2008, two-thirds of the bee colonies in the Baden-Wurttemberg region of Germany were killed, and the damage was traced to the pesticide produced by the German corporation Bayer. Within two weeks, Germany banned clothianidin on corn and several other crops, although Bayer described it as a “rare event.”

Two years later, however, the rare event was repeated in Indiana when dust near corn fields treated with clothianidin was stirred up during a dry spring. Purdue University researchers found high levels of clothianidin in dead bees and incoming pollen.

 

American inaction

Unlike Germany, the U.S. has not banned the use of such pesticides, much to the chagrin of beekeepers like Rhodes and Theobald. Both have written numerous letters to legislators and the Environmental Protection Agency. Theobald also blogs about the honeybee crisis and the EPA’s slow response.

“I’m not an alarmist, but the more I see and read what these pesticides can do, I think this could be the greatest ecological disaster of our time,” says Theobald. “Agricultural technologies have sterilized some of the richest farmland in the world.”

Going up against government agencies and international chemical companies has been a stinging reality for beekeepers. The chemical companies themselves often fund the research that studies the effects their products have on the environment. Theobald says the EPA has been in a bunker when it comes to standing up to billion-dollar corporations and lags far behind foreign regulators in other countries. France, Italy, and Germany banned neonicotinoids and bees rebounded within a few years. Theobald has been monitoring hearings in England that were coming to a close in late December to see if clothianidin would be banned there as well.

The EPA says it is reviewing the pesticides, but the process can take years, and that is time beekeepers say they can’t afford to lose. Theobald believes that, at the most, the industry is only one or two years away from disaster.

Honeycomb-bees

 

What can be done?

“The only hope is that all of us — and not just beekeepers — keep hammering away at these corporations and the government. People have to become involved or otherwise it’s just ‘shut up and eat your pesticides’,” says Theobald.

“People don’t realize that a third of everything they eat is pollinated by bees and the collapse of the honeybee population is a major threat to crops,” says Rhodes, “But the bees have nowhere to go where they aren’t susceptible.

“So many things are being put into the ground, it’s scary,” he adds. “Systemic pesticides come up through the plants and roots, and it only takes a little to affect bees and destroy hives. Imagine what those chemicals are doing to our bodies over a period of time.”

Rhodes first noticed in 2004 that his hives seemed smaller, yet he wasn’t finding any dead bees. In 2005, it happened again, and he lost 4,500 hives, but 2008 was the worst year: he lost 7,200 hives out of 9,000. Losing 6,000 hives last year may not seem as bad, but CCD is still a major concern because bees aren’t producing as much honey.

“A cold winter or too much rain hurts you,” explains Rhodes, “but Colony Collapse Disorder will kill you.”

The implications are extremely serious for not only beekeepers but also for the agriculture industry and for consumers.

What you can do to save the honeybee:

Plant bee flowers and a pollinator friendly habitat. To find a list of pollinators and for a free planting guide, visit http://pollinator.org/guides.

Reduce or eliminate pesticide use. If you must spray, do it at night when bees are least active.

Support efforts to help bees stand on their own six feet. Donate to the Foundation for the Preservation of Honeybees, which researches Colony Collapse Disorder.

Start a hive. Amateur beekeepers say it is a rewarding and relaxing hobby and you get rewarded sweetly with honey. And if you are a gardener, the benefits are even greater: your fruit and vegetable production will be enhanced. Begin at www.bees-online.com. The best time to begin a hive is April and May, according to experts.

Buy local honey. The best way to obtain the purest honey is to know your source, and buy from local beekeepers.

Keep abreast of news about the honey industry and honeybees at www.truesourcehoney.com and www.honey.com.

Learn more at Earth Focus – Episode 44.

The importance of bees

Flowering plants require insects for pollination, and honeybees are by far the most effective. In fact, they are responsible for approximately seventy-five percent of insect crop pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that includes most fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Even coffee, soy beans, cotton, and clovers — like alfalfa — are all dependent on honeybee pollination to increase yields.

Some crops, like almonds, are entirely dependent on honeybee pollination. The National Honey Board says that without honeybees, there would be no almonds at all. Blueberries, apples, avocados, cherries, cranberries, and sunflowers are ninety percent dependent on honeybee pollination. Without honeybees, these products would become scarce and outrageously expensive.

If bee losses continue at the thirty-three percent rate seen in 2010, the economic viability of the bee pollination industry will be threatened. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) says honeybees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honeybee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the regulatory agency responsible for protecting Florida’s apiary industry, says that without bee pollination one-third of the food in Florida would disappear. Privately funded environmentalists in the recent LinkTV documentary Earth Focus say only three crops that don’t rely on bee pollination — rice, wheat, and corn — would survive.

ARS researchers also concluded that continued losses of the 2010 magnitude will make it hard for commercial honey producers to have economically sustainable businesses.

It is of vital importance that researchers discover the cause or causes of CCD soon. If not, the repercussions will be felt in checkout lines, in open-air markets, and on dinner tables around the world.

The effect on honey production

In 2005, Bill Rhodes produced 2,600 drums of honey annually. By 2011, his numbers dropped to 1,200 drums, and he estimates it will be less than 1,100 for 2012. Even the healthy bees that return to their hives are simply not making the quantities of honey they once did

Rhodes, one of Florida’s largest commercial honey producers, began his business as a one-man operation in the early 1970s after he returned to Umatilla following a two-year playing career in the Canadian Football League.

“I got interested in the bee business through a friend,” says the former Florida State University lineman. “I started with fifty hives, and before I knew it, I had 400.”

Today, he has anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 hives and fifteen employees. Honey production fluctuates wildly from year to year because of weather and a variety of factors, including CCD. And sending his hives to other states is not without risks and costs. Trucking costs can easily top $150,000 to ship hives to California, South Dakota, and other honey-producing states.

To offset high expenses and declining bee populations, many honey packers blend local products with inferior foreign honeys or syrups.

And adulterated honey scares Rhodes more than bee stings. He says that much of the honey from India, Vietnam, Malaysia, and especially China often contains carcinogens and antibiotics.

“Importers are going after local packers to add foreign honey to local labels,” Rhodes says. “They can sell it for less than $1.20 cents a pound, whereas pure local honey goes for over $2 a pound.”

Americans consume approximately nearly 360 million pounds of honey per year, but just 161 million pounds were produced domestically in 2009, according to the USDA. The market is ripe for importers and for producers who are tempted to cut pure honey with additives that are far less expensive to produce.

Rhodes is well-known in the industry for his fight against “funny honey,” products masquerading as the real deal but are really substandard blends of rice syrup or other additives.

“Bill was instrumental in helping Florida become the first state in the nation in 2009 to set industry standards,” says Doug McGinnis, co-owner of Tropical Blossom Honey Company in Edgewater. “He is passionate about making sure honey is pure, and we need more beekeepers like him.”

Florida’s Standard of Identity for Honey defines what honey must contain in order to be sold in Florida. California, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have since established their own standards, and similar efforts have been proposed in at least twelve other states, including North and South Dakota, the nation’s largest producers of honey. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing a petition seeking a national honey standard, something that Florida’s honey producers say is long overdue.

When Rhodes isn’t writing letters or making phone calls about funny honey or harmful pesticides, he is busy making the golden nectar of the gods. And, indeed, his locally produced honeys are a taste of heaven.

“Although Bill is a large producer, he pays attention to the little details that go into producing honey,” says McGinnis, who has sold Rhodes Honey at Tropical Blossom for more than twenty years. “He knows what he’s doing, and he always brings us a superior product because he puts so much care into his hives.

Rhodes says the process of honey production should begin with healthy bees and in hives that aren’t overcrowded. The “super” boxes that cover the hives have room for ten frames, but the beekeepers use nine or less so that the bees have more room. When the honeycombs on the frames are full, they are removed and taken to the “honey barn” for processing. Each frame yields about five pounds of honey. The honey is slightly warmed, just enough to separate the honey from the wax. Raw honey is one of the purest foods on the table so it should never be cooked or overheated, according to beekeepers. A centrifuge further separates the wax and honey. The wax is placed in molds that form forty-pound “cakes” — a byproduct that has its own market among candle makers and cosmetic manufacturers — and the honey is barreled.

Despite the dire news about the disappearance of the honeybee, Rhodes is passionate about the industry and his craft. While he is not giving up his fight against “funny honey” or the big companies that produce pesticides, he is spending more time making the honey the way he thinks it should be done.

“I’m going soon to visit some orange groves myself and take soil samples,” he says. “I want to put my bees in places where pesticides can’t harm them.”


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