Despite all the years, and all the troubles, Darren Cox still likes to put on his bee suit.
A big, block-shaped man in his 50s, Cox sports a bowlish blond haircut and serious demeanor. But when he slips into his protective gear, his netted hat in hand, he offers a rare smile. “Time to get out there,” he says.
It’s a summer day in Cache Valley, an agricultural center set among the mountains of northern Utah. The skyline, composed of peaks popping with shimmering green, speaks resoundingly of life, vibrant and fertile. Several years ago, Cox and his wife built a beautiful house here, so high up that eagles soared within feet of the living room windows. But for Cox, a commercial beekeeper fighting for his livelihood, these days even his Valhalla strikes a sour note.
“When we first got here,” Cox tells me, “there was so much wildlife. Fox and deer. Every bird you can imagine. You don’t see wildlife like you did anymore. Where’d it all go?”
Cox keeps his “livestock” in so-called bee yards placed throughout the area. Today he’ll visit them, winding through deep valleys, up tall mountains and into one of the most perplexing questions in science: What is killing our honeybees — and can we stop it?
Wild and domestic bees are both in deep trouble. Colony losses among commercial beekeepers reach 30, 40, even 50 percent or more annually, a pace that threatens the beekeeping and agricultural industries — and everyone who eats. Bees pollinate some $30 billion in U.S. crops each year, including most fruits and leafy greens, playing a critical role in human health.
The trouble started about 10 years ago, when beekeepers around the world began reporting a mysterious phenomenon: Bees that had been healthy simply disappeared, leaving no dead bodies for study. The crisis was called colony collapse disorder (CCD). And as scientific wisdom has it, the CCD crisis is over. Bees no longer just “disappear.” Instead, they die at far faster rates than normal as a host of other ailments, such as deformed wing virus and deadly pathogens, exact a toll.
Cox’s bees don’t produce the same honey yields they did before. Queen bees struggle to survive even a third of their normal life spans, leaving beekeepers in a constant battle to replace them. According to Cox and other beekeepers, classic CCD is back, too.
In the summer of 2015, Cox showed me several hives that bore the standard signs: healthy brood; good stores of pollen and nectar, or “bee food,” and little else; a few straggling workers, maybe 10 percent of the population he had last week; and a big queen, running around her now-empty castle like a mom, knowing that without her stable of workers she’ll be unable to feed her babies.
“Our bees are manifesting a bunch of different symptoms,” Cox says as he kicks a beat-up Ford flatbed truck into gear. “Bees are dying, but what people are missing is that bees are also weakening.”
As president of American Honey Producers, a trade association for beekeepers, Cox hears this from numerous members. In honeybee years, we are many generations on from the inception of the crisis, and bees themselves seem different, weaker. “They don’t have as much vigor,” says Cox.
For Cox and other beekeepers, the long, reasoned march of science looks more like a slow hair-pull, in which a difficult scientific problem is rendered almost impossible to resolve by the toxic influences of politics and money.
Enlightenment and Paradox
In the early years of the bee crisis, beekeepers looked to science as their savior. “We believed that government, the media and, most importantly, scientists were focused,” says Cox. “If a solution to this problem existed, we figured it would be found and acted on.”
Ten years on, however, beekeepers have grown frustrated because the field seems stuck in the fact-gathering stage.
The reasons for overall bee declines are broadly understood: diminished bee habitat; the Varroa destructor, a nasty parasitic mite; viruses and pathogens; and agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, fungicides and insect growth regulators (IGRs). But the problem of declining bee health might actually be getting worse, largely because the factor of agricultural chemicals lies at the nexus of science, finance and politics. Much of the controversy, and concern, has centered around a particular class of neonicotinoid pesticides (neonic for short), which yield billions in revenue for chemical-makers.
The resulting conflict is best framed, reports E.G. Vallianatos, a scientist retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, by what he calls the “Rachel Carson paradox.” Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, documented the pernicious effects of agricultural chemicals and served as a rallying point for the modern environmental movement. But more than 50 years later, Vallianatos expresses disappointment. “Everyone acts like the book was responsible for a new dawn,” says Vallianatos. “But did anyone actually read it?”
Carson’s argument was fundamental: Because pests and weeds quickly develop resistance, chemical pesticides create a kind of arms race. We apply increasingly toxic concoctions in greater amounts, and bugs and weeds evolve and rally.
Time has proven her right. Today we pump roughly 2.5 times more chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides into the environment than we did when Silent Spring was published. But the number of regulatory labs has decreased, leaving more chemical inputs in the environment and far fewer scientists to study them.
The standard rebuttal is that modern pesticides are better targeted toward pests. But this doesn’t capture the plight of the bee, or government regulators. One of the most important papers in the field of bee declines, co-authored by then-USDA scientist Jeffrey Pettis in 2010, drew comb and wax samples from beehives in 23 U.S. states, finding an average of six different pesticides in each and as many as 39.
Numerous scientists I interviewed — from entomologist John Tooker at Penn State University, to Galen Dively and prominent entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp at the University of Maryland, to Pettis and others — said the number of chemicals in our environment is so vast that assessing all of their possible interactions is virtually impossible.
“Just think back to your chemistry classes,” Susan Kegley, a chemist and CEO of the environmental consulting firm Pesticide Research Institute, told me. “You combine three chemicals and nothing happens, but if you introduce them in a different order, you get a big reaction. So as a scientist working on this problem of bee declines, you have to choose which pesticides, how much and the order of introduction. Then you have to acknowledge everything you might be missing if you’d changed even one of these variables, however slightly.”
Scientists are doing what science does best: isolating specific interactions of chemical and bee in the lab while understanding they might miss important synergies among other variables. Thus far, the scrutiny has settled on one particular class of pesticide, yielding significant results. But in a development that shows just how politics creep into science, the data hasn’t ruled the day. The result has been gridlock.
A Complicated Picture
The confidence beekeepers once felt that the crisis would be resolved peaked in 2009 at Apimondia, the largest international gathering of beekeepers.
Two of the world’s most respected entomologists — Pettis, then research leader at the USDA’s Beltsville Bee Laboratory, and vanEngelsdorp, then at Penn State — there revealed the early results of an experiment they’d just completed.
In a conversation included in the documentary The Strange Disappearance of the Bees, both scientists appeared visibly excited. They had looked into the danger that a widely used class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, might pose to bees.
“We’re finding that virus levels are much higher in CCD bees,” vanEngelsdorp says in the film, “but since we are not finding a consistent virus or a consistent pathogen, that implies that something else is happening underneath it. Something is breaking down their immune system, or somehow challenging them so that they are more susceptible to disease.”
The pair fed neonics to bees, then exposed that group and a neonic-free control group to Nosema, a common gut pathogen in the honeybee. The bees fed neonics proved more susceptible to Nosema. And the effect was consistent even when bees received neonics in amounts too small to be detected in their system. “The only reason we knew the bees had exposure [to neonicotinoid pesticides],” says vanEngelsdorp, “is because we exposed them.”
Beekeepers rejoiced. “They really sounded like they found something big,” says Dave Hackenberg, a central Pennsylvania beekeeper. “They were like, ‘This is it.’ ”
“We really felt confident,” says Bret Adee, co-owner of Adee Honey Farms in South Dakota. “These were the guys everyone would listen to, and now we were going to get something done.” But nothing happened.
(44 percent of colonies were lost in 2015-2016.)
A confirming study surfaced quickly; a French team of scientists actually beat vanEngelsdorp and Pettis into print. But neonics remained in wide use. The deluge beekeepers expected — of scientists, nailing down the problem, of regulatory agencies, rushing to act — never materialized. And today, the neonic lies right at the heart of that Rachel Carson paradox.
Neonics are what’s known as a systemic insecticide, meaning they spread throughout the tissue, pollen and nectar of the treated plant. Companies, including Bayer and Syngenta, create varying formulas of neonics, which can be applied to seeds or growing crops. The neonic entered broad use in the U.S. in the late 1990s and quickly became ubiquitous, used on millions of acres of corn, cotton, soybeans, canola and more, accounting for about $2.5 billion in sales.
Jay Vroom, CEO and spokesman at CropLife America, a trade partnership of seed and pesticide manufacturers, says studies measuring the effect of neonics on bees in field conditions “consistently demonstrate no negative effects.”
Scientists say the picture is complicated. Regulatory agencies devote most of their energy to answering two questions: How much of a given chemical is required to kill a non-target insect outright, and how likely is it that beneficial species will encounter a dose that big? Sublethal effects are treated as less urgent, yet neonics subject bees to a variety of sublethal effects with long-term, fatal consequences.
Neonics have been demonstrated to impair the honeybee’s foraging capabilities, memory and navigation systems, undermining their ability to survive and aid their hive. In one study, led by French scientist Mickaël Henry, researchers tagged honeybees with GPS trackers and released them. Some bees received a dose of neonic equal to real-world exposures while the controls received no neonics. The bees fed pesticide proved two to three times more likely to die without returning to the hive and sharing their food.
Such deaths can add up. Honeybee colonies can total tens of thousands of bees, enough to withstand natural cyclical losses. But foraging bees last only a few weeks at best. Early deaths force premature worker bees out to forage, leading to a weaker colony of weaker bees.
To keep reading more go to: Discover Magazine // Buzzkill