Bee summit

Bee summit June 20, 2013

Back in 2007, about three different servers ago when this blog was with World, I wrote a post entitled The Rapture of the Bees.   Honeybees were disappearing, which is a major concern, since they are so important in the pollination of crops.  Since then, I’ve read several pieces that purportedly solved the mystery of why that’s happening, but I guess there is still controversy over the causes, and the problem remains.  Thanks to Pete Muller, who sent me an account of a “Bee Summit” sponsored by pesticide-maker Monsanto.

Some are blaming pesticides for the die-off of bees, while others are blaming a kind of mite that preys on bees and that presumably could be controlled by. . . pesticides.  Anyone want to guess what the diagnosis will be from the Monsanto summit?  Or from environmentalists?  Notice how science, though supposedly objective, is not free from conclusion-shaping presuppositions.From NBC:

Monsanto is hosting a “Bee Summit.” Bayer AG is breaking ground on a “Bee Care Center.” And Sygenta AG is funding grants for research into the accelerating demise of honeybees in the United States, where the insects pollinate fruits and vegetables that make up roughly a quarter of the American diet.

The agrichemical companies are taking these initiatives at a time when their best-selling pesticides are under fire from environmental and food activists who say the chemicals are killing off millions of bees. The companies say their pesticides are not the problem, but critics say science shows the opposite.

Die-offs of bee populations have accelerated over the last few years to a rate the U.S. government calls unsustainable. Honeybees pollinate plants that produce roughly 25 percent of the foods Americans consume, including apples, almonds, watermelons and beans, according to government reports.

Scientists, consumer groups, beekeepers and others blame the devastating rate of bee deaths on the growing use of pesticides sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of staple crops such as corn. Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and other agrichemical companies say other factors such as mites are killing the bees. . . .

Monsanto plans to host a summit in June for experts from around the country to analyze the issue and discuss potential solutions. Bayer is breaking ground on a facility in North Carolina to study bee health.The European Union said this month it would ban the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” used for corn and other crops as well as on home lawns and gardens. Similar constraints in the United States could cost manufacturers millions of dollars in sales.

“We are concerned… that the science sometimes gets trumped by the politics,” said Dave Fischer, an ecotoxicologist at Bayer CropScience who is meeting with bee keepers and studying the bee deaths. He said critics “are searching for a culprit.”

The companies point to a vicious insect mite as one of many factors harming the bees.

But environmental scientists say evidence increasingly points to pesticides coating corn seeds as the problem, not mites. In recent years, U.S. corn seed suppliers have offered more corn seed pre-treated with types of neonic insecticides so that as the plant grows it repels harmful pests.

A study published last year by scientists at Purdue University in Indiana found evidence that planting the coated corn generates dust that contains very high levels of the neonics that can move beyond the fields where the seeds are planted. The researchers said they found the poison in the soil as well and in pollen collected by bees as food. The neonics were present on dead bees collected for study. . . .

A May 1 report funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly one in three managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost over the winter of 2012-2013. The losses are 42 percent higher than losses seen the previous winter, the report found. Fewer bees spells higher food prices, according to the government.
U.S. officials say there is no conclusive proof that pesticides caused the bee deaths, and they cite many other factors, including the mites.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it is “working aggressively to protect bees and other pollinators from pesticide risks through regulatory, voluntary and research programs” but sees no need for a moratorium on pesticides. The EPA has said it will study the situation, but many experts say immediate action is needed.

“One third of the food supply depends on pollinators to be productive,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s hard to say that these are definitively the cause of major bee declines. But there is a lot of data coming together that should be seriously examined.”

Comments from Pete Muller (who is not the callow youth of his avatar but an actual physician):

It’s a pretty interesting topic, with biological, theological and political angles. The 50,000 foot view is that our modern agricultural practices which include widespread use of pesticides and “monoculture” farming (i.e. square miles of nothing but, say, soybeans – as opposed to the variety of plants seen in nature) might be something of an “Icarus” event. We can feed numbers of people unimaginable in years gone by, but might have stirred up some nasty unintended consequences.

As apocalyptic as this all is, people who have worked closely with bees for a long time tend to have high levels of confidence in their resilience. There have been any number of bee menaces that have arisen over the years (tracheal mites, American and European foulbrood, Varroa mites) which have tended, over time, to select for survival those bees most resistant to the particular menace. The attitude of longtime beekeepers tends to be one of concern but don’t count Hymenoptera out just yet.

As a physician, I’ve been intrigued by the parallel between beekeeping and the concern in recent years about our widespread use of antibiotics selecting for broadly drug-resistant strains of bacteria. One of the interesting philosophical debates among beekeepers is: do we as humans help the bees by combatting their enemies with drugs and chemicals or does that just muck things up and we’re better to let sensitive strains die out and resistant strains reproduce?

It’s an interesting mix of natural selection walking lockstep with what appears to be spectacularly intelligent design. A crusty local longtime beekeeper is fond of saying, “Wanna confuse an atheist? Show him a beehive.”

I’m a jackleg beekeeper – inherited two hives three years ago when a retired partner had to give it up because of having developed anaphylaxis to stings. He got me up and running with all of his equipment – suit, smoker, etc. It’s been fun and the beekeeping world is an interesting subculture – lots of academic types rubbing shoulders with lots of farmer types. I’m down to one hive now, having lost one this spring. Not from anything as dramatic as colony collapse; more likely inept beekeeping, failing to feed (50:50 sugar water) them at the end of a long winter. Or, worse, harvesting (read, stealing) too much honey from them last year. Good judgment comes from experience, which, in turn, comes from bad judgment.

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