Thursday, June 19, 2014

The beepocalypse will NOT be televised

Every single day, usually a half-dozen times a day, some social media informs me that the beepocalypse is nigh. It isn’t.

It would be incorrect to state that there are not real problems –big political and biological problems- with commercial beekeeping. There have been problems for some time, and there are some new problems. The problems which social media tells me are going to cause the beepocalypse are very specific. There is one class of chemical insecticide, and sometimes GMOs. The beepocalypse will be catastrophic because between 75% and 90% of all human food is the result of honeybee pollination.

The warnings of the beepocalypse are a blend of truth, and hyperbole, and misinformation. I often get sidetracked when discussing it as I believe there are problems that can be addressed, and I reflexively believe that it is always better to point out a solution than a problem. In this post I am just going to ignore my reactionary personality and just point out a couple problems with the idea of a beepocalypse:

  1. There is no imminent beepocalypse
  2. Focusing on eliminating neonicotinoids threatens to harm agricultural workers.

The reason I say there is no imminent beepocalypse is that there has been no reduction in registered hives in the US. The numbers of bees have to drop below some critical level for there to be a beepocalypse , and the bees are simply not dying off. The number of managed hives has even increased slightly. Honey production in the US, which is a crude measure of overall hive health, is up 5% this last year, with the average yield per hive increasing by 1%.

Statistics compiled by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture.
Downloaded from on 19 May 2014

Despite the fact that there are lots of happy honey-producing hives there are an alarming amount of bees dying. However, there are fewer dying than there were a couple years ago. The overwinter death rate (OWDR), which represents the largest loss of hive statistic, is two thirds of its eight-year average. Still, the OWDR is over 20%, and that is too high.

Summary of the total overwinter colony loss (October 1 – April 1) of managed honey bee colonies in the US across the 8 annual national surveys (red bars). The acceptable range (blue bars) is the average percentage of acceptable loss declared by the survey participants in each of the 8 years of the survey. Downloaded from on 19 May 2014

A 20% (one in five) annual death rate sounds catastrophic, and if bees reproduced like humans it would be. Of course if humans reproduced like bees then a child entering kindergarten could have over 50 kids, more than 1,000 grandkids, more than 20,000 great grandkids, more than 300,000 great-great grandkids, and more than 2,400,000 great-great-great grandkids. There are only about 2,500,000 commercial honey bee colonies in the US. Of course honeybee queens usually die by age 4 so they would not make it to kindergarten, and honeybee hives are usually not induced to create the maximum number of queens, but you get the idea.

At this point you may be asking: “What about those real problems you mentioned?” There are real problems. The greatest of which appears to be weakening of hives by Varroa mite infestation. Nosema infection is another. There are a handful of viruses that are causing issues. Air pollution is a big problem in some areas. Insecticide exposure can be a big problem as insecticides are chemicals designed to kill insects, and bees are insects. The one problem that captures most headlines is Colony Collapse Disorder.

In 2006-2007 a new problem was documented in hives. Some hives experienced rapid (less than two weeks) loss of workers; leaving the hive empty except for ample honey stores, and even a queen with drones. This was a bizarre event, and was named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Groups and commissions were formed to study this phenomenon. If CCD spread it would be catastrophic. Fortunately CCD did not spread. The discovery of CCD was not followed by an overall decrease in viable commercial hives in the US, and the numbers of CCD hive losses has decreased in recent years. Unfortunately “CCD” sounds dramatic, and it has become synonymous with all causes of honeybee colony death.

The oversubscription of the term CCD is not exclusively due to the scientific illiteracy of journalists. Even respectable apiologists (bee scientists) confuse the term to create hyperbole. Alex Lu and collegues at Harvard recently published a widely quoted paper linking neonicotinoids to CCD-like behavior. The introduction to the paper states: “The persistence of CCD worldwide was highlighted in a recent United Nations report (UN News Center, 2011), which calls for changes in honey bee colony management in order to save this important insect.” A search of the “UN News Center, 2011” article they link to in their bibliography turns up no mention of CCD, although it does present a host of problems impacting bees worldwide. The actual UNEP report the article summarizes does talk a little about CCD; stating that :"CCD only accounts for about 7% of losses in the USA [2008-2009] and even less in Europe."

One of the most used neonicotinoid insecticides is called Imidacloprid. It is the chemical used by Alex and his colleges in the Harvard study. It is a moderately toxic chemical, and as little as 21 grams might kill a 70 kilogram human if they drank it pure. One of the non-neonicotinoid insecticides that has been used in huge quantities worldwide is called parathione. If a 70 kilogram human got a little over a tenth of a gram (0.14 grams) of parathione on their food they would have the same chance of dying. That is just a drop. Many agricultural workers who were used to working with the much less toxic DDT were poisoned when it was replaced –because of concerns about how DDT affected the environment- with parathione.

Because parathione is so toxic there has been some successful efforts to replace it with less toxic materials. Monocrotophos is almost 10 times less toxic than the parathione it replaces. Just last summer 25 school kids in India died when their lunch was contaminated with small amounts of monocrotophos. Un-noticeable amounts of these organophosphate insecticides in food can cause severe poisoning and death.

Banning of neonicotinoid pesticides will likely result in replacing of them with much more toxic chemicals. This will put agricultural workers, and their families, at risk. Who are these agricultural workers in the US?

The 2001-2002 National Agricultural Workers Survey conducted by the US department of labor talls us a little about who these people are that would be put at risk in the hopes that bee mortality would be decreased. 83% of them identify as Hispanic. 87% of them did not finish high school. The wages and career prospects of agricultural workers are shockingly low. In other words the term “Agricultural Worker” is essentially synonymous with a racial/class group that is regularly subjected to racist attacks by the privileged minorities more prevalent in social media.

What does it say that the remote possibility of decreasing some bee deaths is worth more than an agricultural worker’s life? Do you really want to be telling another person that they are of less importance to you than an insect?

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