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Bee Deaths Create Crisis for Crops

vanishing bees bee deaths crop disaster

Our nation’s bees are vanishing. Every winter for the last six years, more than a third of all bee colonies in the U.S. have simply … gone. The staggering losses within the bee population have caused many to speculate on causes.

Is it GMOs? Is it new pesticides? Is it a bacteria or virus? The media have given the phenomena a name: Colony Collapse Disorder. Now the decimated bee population has finally reached critical mass.

According to an industry wide survey, there will no longer be enough bees in the U.S. to pollinate our almond, avocado, blueberry, pear, plum, and apple crops this year.

Yes, you read that right. Next year, these crops will fail — not because of poor weather, not because of a new blight ravaging the crops, but because of a lack of bees.

From the 2012/2013 winter loss survey:

On average, U.S. beekeepers lost 45.1% of the colonies in their operation during the winter of 2012/2013. This is a 19.8 point or 78.2% increase in the average operational loss compared to the previous winter (2011/2012), which was estimated at 25.3%.
(source)

Are you scared yet?

While I despise alarmist thinking, this crisis simply can’t be ignored.

California harvests more than 80% of the world’s almonds. But you can’t grow the nut without honey bees and it takes 60% of the US’s remaining colonies just to pollinate that one $4 billion cash crop.

If the death toll continues at the present rate, that means there will soon be barely enough bees to pollinate almonds, let alone avocadoes, blueberries, pears or plums. “We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” USDA scientist Jeff Pettis said in the report.
(source)

One poor weather event or one more winter…

Did you catch that? Another summer of drought, unseasonable rains, or one more winter like the past six.

That’s all that stands between you and no more almonds.

What can you do?

vanishing-beesA recent documentary called Vanishing of the Bees explored the potential causes of the decimation of the bee population.

One of the most likely culprits being examined is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Research done in the European Union (where they are experiencing similar, but not as dramatic losses) has led the EU to temporarily ban this class of pesticide altogether.

The research is not yet conclusive, but an overview of it published in the journal Nature describes it this way:

A growing body of research suggests that sublethal exposure to the pesticides in nectar and pollen may be harming bees too — by disrupting their ability to gather pollen, return to their hives and reproduce.
(source)

In light of the mounting evidence, the EU effected a two year ban on neonicotinoids as a precautionary measure while they examine the evidence and call for more research. We should encourage our own legislators to do likewise.

The U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a lengthy report arguing that because the cause of colony collapses are likely due to a complex set of stressors, it would not place a ban on neonicotinoids. Rather, they’re undertaking their own review, which they expect will be completed in five years.

Five years!

Say it ain’t so. We don’t have five years.

We may not even have one.

Bee-killing pesticides are not the only culprit, although they likely contribute to the problem. Many blame poor hive nutrition.

In nature, bees feed honey to their offspring. In commercial bee colonies, we harvest the honey and feed the bees high fructose corn syrup instead.

Swapping out honey robbed the bees of things they need to rev up their detoxification systems just when they needed it most — as they were exposed to an increased load of both pathogens and pesticides.
(source)

So, how can we save the bees?

1. We should err on the side of the environment, rather than on the side of economic profits for the pesticide industry, and immediately ban neonicotinoids.

2. We should encourage and support local beekeepers feeding their bees honey rather than HFCS. Heck, why not start keeping your own bees?

3. We should plant bee-friendly flowers and allow the pollinators free reign in our lawns and gardens instead of immediately trying to kill any nearby hives.

4. We can encourage and support the work of researchers trying to breed sturdier bees.

The report recommends stepping up efforts to identify genetic traits in particular bees that make them resistant to suspected causes of CCD. Some honey bees, it turns out, take “suicidal risks” when infected with disease to prevent spreading the contagion to the colony.

The report also suggests importing Russian honey bees and other “Old World” bees to diversify bee breeding stock and build up CCD resistance. Scientists already have begun to stockpile bee semen and germplasm in case the worst comes to pass.
(source)

All of this together may not be enough. There are still too many unknown variables — like GMO crops where the plant itself is registered as an insecticide with the EPA.

Who can say what the long-term effect of these crops is on the honey bee population? Perhaps they are like neonicotinoids — initially appearing safe, but ultimately weakening the bees across generations.

(photo: eleZeta)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.

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37 Responses to Bee Deaths Create Crisis for Crops
  1. Melinda
    May 10, 2013 | 5:57 pm

    And, don’t exterminate the bees! Call a beekeeper like myself who removes them and gives them a better home in a hive box so they can carry on for years and years to come.

    • Kathy
      May 10, 2013 | 7:18 pm

      Good point! I’ve never dealt with bees but this is good to be aware of.

  2. Kathy
    May 10, 2013 | 7:18 pm

    Holy Shit! This is serious. I’m scared. :(
    These poor little bees are like the canary in the mine.

    I can’t believe EPA and their reluctance to do anything! The EU is much quicker to act on matter of health than we are.

  3. Beth
    May 10, 2013 | 8:13 pm

    My husband keeps bees and he has had a similar loss ratio of his bees. No obvious cause although he is a relatively new keeper. He’s going to pick up another hive tomorrow. Scary scenarios. :(

    • KristenM
      May 10, 2013 | 8:18 pm

      They say that until recently, a 15% loss over the winter was considered normal and totally acceptable. But 30% or more for six years in a row? That’s just too much!

    • Katherine
      May 22, 2013 | 6:15 pm

      We had 6 hives last year, now we are down to one, and it was failing. With the warm up, FINALLY!, things are blooming and it seems that they are doing better. Obviously, we lost more than 30%. It has been very hard for beekeepers in general in our area. There is a waiting list to get new bees. Hopefully our one hive will strengthen and we can split it, but if not we will keep waiting for our names to move up the lists… *sigh*

  4. Astrid
    May 10, 2013 | 10:02 pm

    This is so unfortunate. We already see so much food coming in from other countries where retailers “promise” to be organic. Yet, we have no idea how they are grown or handled. It is always best to buy local.

    We support local beekeepers by buying all of their products. Our best defense mechanism is to speak with our dollars by buying organic-locally-grown REAL FOOD!

    Thanks for a great post!

  5. Terri
    May 10, 2013 | 11:16 pm

    I think it also time for farmers to consider not planting so many acres in monocrops. For example, the almond groves in California have nothing but almonds. Bees can’t live there all year, so bees are trucked in, then trucked somewhere else for the next pollinating season. It makes more sense for the bees to live where they work, so to speak.

    • Toeknee
      May 11, 2013 | 6:30 am

      Heavily Industrialized Agriculture can’t sustain itself. Tipping point for the people to think local organic farming. Nature feeds us and we need to protect it with the best we can. That should be the motto of the EPA.

  6. wendy
    May 11, 2013 | 9:05 am

    The commercial bee industry regularly transports bee colonies to GMO fields to pollinate them. Just the stress of travelling to a foreign territory and the fact that they are set into a single polluted crop should be enough answer! Bees normally travel and collect necter and pollen from diverse, wild home territory. That – and the keepers feed them high fructose corn syrup??? The Buck has got to stop lining greedy pockets and start backing the world immediately, not years from now!

    • Jojo
      May 13, 2013 | 9:17 pm

      Well said Wendy! When will America wake up?

  7. karen
    May 11, 2013 | 9:18 am

    We can help the bees by planting bio-diverse chemical-free gardens with a wide variety of flowering plants from spring to fall. Native plants and herbs are bee magnets and our seven year old garden is proof that the bee problem can be helped by providing a quality plant based food source for the entire growing season. There were very few bees when we started gardening here but this year they are abundant. We’ve created an ecosystem that fills their needs and they are thriving. Everyone can help in a small way.

  8. Dave Lance
    May 11, 2013 | 9:53 am

    Transporting bees to already poisoned sprayed GMO fields makes me believe this is why!!! Chemical companies have to be held accountable but when they pay your politicians salaries and give them Carte blanche (OH, Not really!! joke-joke) they control “YOU”! You will eat what they want you to eat and destroy everything that stands in their way, “INCLUDING NATURE”! MARCH AGAINST MONSANTO!!! MAY 25th GLOBAL!Find one in your state.

    • Linda
      May 17, 2013 | 11:24 am

      I totally agree with you, Dave. And I am marching next Saturday with some friends here in Alabama. Power to the people, and the bees!

    • Chris
      May 17, 2013 | 9:39 pm

      Dave, I totally agree, but the goverment has protected Monsanto now!! They can’t be touched! They want to control the worlds food!!!

  9. slywlf
    May 11, 2013 | 11:41 am

    I already have done what I can in my small way. My little motel sits on one acre, and I run it completely organic inside and out. Instead on a vast expanse of grass I installed raised beds for flowers and herbs in addition to my personal vegetable garden, and wherever the old lawn got thin I overseeded with white and red clover, common thyme (it grows wild in my area so I knew it would thrive), and chamomile (wishful thinking – that never took). The decorative plants were selected to bee friendly as well as hummer friendly and butterfly friendly, which adds to the charm for my guests. The local bees appreciate it and have shown their appreciation by keeping my apple trees and garden pollinated, but even with all my efforts I see fewer every year due to the non-organic practices of many ‘perfect green lawn’ neighbors :-(

  10. Morgana
    May 11, 2013 | 12:28 pm

    It is necessary NOW to act…keep your own bees, support local ag, and diversify your own plantings/properties. Also, create habitats for native bees who are also very busy little pollinators. The damned tipping point has tipped. If we all waited for the elected asses in WASH DC to act, well, when hell freezes over if you get my drift. ACTION not words.

  11. carolina
    May 11, 2013 | 3:14 pm

    I had no idea bee farmers feed bees HFCS. Disgusting!!

    • Micah
      May 11, 2013 | 11:22 pm

      It is very common for beekeepers to feed their bees a syrup made from cane sugar all winter long. I haven’t heard of using HFCS. This must be done mainly by commercial keepers.

      • Katherine
        May 22, 2013 | 6:18 pm

        You are correct, Micah, it is industry beekeeping practice. Unfortunately, it is junk to them just like it is junk to us. Sure, it tastes sweet and fills the hole, but it provides next to no nutrition.

    • Jojobeelady
      May 28, 2013 | 10:38 am

      Let’s bee fair. Not all beekeepers feed HFCS! And beekeepers don’t harvest all the bees honey in fall only to replace it with a substitute for winter! They leave plenty of honey for the bees to survive through the winter until flowers are plentiful again.

      However, sometimes bees need to be fed syrup (sugar and water) rather than let them starve. Here are some examples of when feeding bees is needed. 1) when starting a new colony (this is done in early spring before there are any flowers growing yet in my area of the country), 2) Weeks of rainy weather when they can’t fly and gather their own nectar, especially in spring when they haven’t been able to replenish the honey they used up to survive the winter, 3) in unusual years when winter is much longer than usual and/or winter comes sooner than usual, 4) when weird weather patterns produce floods and drought, which reduces the availability of nectar-producing flowers, and 5) in areas of the country where flowers don’t bloom all season, referred to as a summer dearth.

  12. Jennifer
    May 11, 2013 | 4:26 pm

    That’s a very sad story about bees. Save the bees, keep them alive, before it’s too late…

  13. Anne
    May 11, 2013 | 7:49 pm

    thanks so much for writing this all important article. Spread the word and take action NOW. I am British and that is how we get things done over there and why the EU is ahead of the US in matters GMO and food health, as well as the poor bees.

  14. Louise
    May 11, 2013 | 7:51 pm

    This is very alarming. Please check the labels on your gardening products. A few years ago I bought a fungicide labeled “for organic gardening”. At home, I read the label and there is a warning “toxic to bees” and not to use “while they are visiting the area”. It’s sitting, unused, on the shelf until I decide a safe way to dispose of it! Seek out the most gentle treatments you can…I read about spraying a solution of milk and water in a 1:4 ratio, and have used that instead.
    I love the idea of keeping things blooming to provide for the bees. I have fruit trees currently, which the bees love!

  15. Micah
    May 11, 2013 | 11:28 pm
  16. Kevin
    May 13, 2013 | 10:35 am

    Great article, and I’ll echo what most others have already said: Very scary indeed.

    With how big of an issue this really is, I don’t understand how there isn’t more media attention being generated from this. I know I’ve been seeing more and more about it, but not nearly enough from the mainstream media considering the potential problems.

  17. Scott @ The Healthy Eating Guide
    May 13, 2013 | 11:54 am

    Very important article, Kristen…thanks for sharing. Here is a list of products I found that use neonicotinoids…please, guys, take this list with you to Home Depot or wherever you shop and DO NOT buy these products:

    -Bonide Systemic: Insect Spray, Insect Granules, Houseplant Insect Control
    -Bayer Season Long Grub Control
    -Bayer Advanced: 3 in 1 Insect Disease & Mite Control; 2 in 1 Systemic Rose & Flower Care; 12 Month Tree & Shrub Protect & Feed; Tree & Shrub Insect Control 12 month; Dual Action Rose & Flower
    Insect Killer; Lawn Season Long Grub Control; Lawn Complete Insect Killer for Soil & Turf; Fruit, Citrus & Vegetable Insect Control
    -Bayer Termite Control
    -Bayer All in One Rose and Flower Care
    -Ortho Max: Tree & Shrub Insect Control; Flower, Fruit, & Vegetable Insect Killer
    -Ortho Rose Pride Insect Killer
    -Green Light: Tree & Shrub Systemic Insect Killer; Systemic Rose & Flower Care

  18. Sam
    May 13, 2013 | 12:38 pm

    Here is the truth.. Hard to digest but true neverthless.

    http://naturalsociety.com/monsanto-bee-collapse-buys-bee-research-firm/

  19. Carolyn Nadeau
    May 13, 2013 | 9:05 pm

    March Against Monsanto! May 25th, EVERYWHERE!

  20. Carol
    May 14, 2013 | 8:12 am

    There is power in numbers. Everyone who cares about this topic should contact their local government officials and pressure them to act against the big gov. I am appalled by the EPA’s nonchalance. Why not err on the side of caution…oh, that’s right. Because you are selfish and money is all that matters. I’m sure Monsanto is right there with them. I can just here them…”Our pesticide ridden GMO seeds aren’t the problem, so we’re going to keep making them and you can’t stop us.”
    Sick.

  21. Leah G
    May 14, 2013 | 9:27 am

    WE are the informed people unfortunately the masses will not realize this until the shelves are empty. We garden naturally. Nothing is waste. I asked my husband to build a hive for my birthday. I pray that those of us who have the knowledge can and will be able to do something as all of this is becoming so overwhelming.

  22. Julie
    May 14, 2013 | 11:09 am

    We joined the Nashville Bee Club last year, and our first hive made it through the winter. We just added two more. Our club leaders state emphatically that we should NEVER use any pesticides in our yard or put chemical medications/treatments purported to help bees in the hives. Instead, the experienced beekeepers recommend pure cane sugar syrups for supplemental feed and the addition of essential oils if needed for stimulant. I find it very telling that these local beekeepers in Tennessee do not hesitate to publicly blame pesticides for bee die-offs. Some of them have been keeping bees for 50 years, and one of the leaders has the largest commercial honey business in the area. I trust their accumulated knowledge.

  23. Mahatma Muhjesbude
    May 14, 2013 | 8:03 pm

    So how can we develop an immediate solution? I’m willing to buy an initial set up and propagate upon my fairly pristine organic land, free of pesticides, etc.??

  24. Heather
    May 17, 2013 | 5:24 pm

    I’ve been watching this issue for some time. The EU ban of those pesticides, while a good move, those pesticides had been voluntarily banned by various EU countries for some time.
    What will happen? The price of food will go up. People will moan, but still buy it, not thinking or wanting to know. It requires too much change. An example is Monstanto’s gmo potatoes with insecticide to deter potato beetles. The government approved them as an insecticide, but FDA never tested the potatoes as a food. So given Monsanto and others’ hold on much of the agriculture of North America, how much insecticides in plants are killing all matter of insects and birds? And will it be financial doable to hand pollinate?
    I cannot even afford to have a beehive right now(would have top bar hives if I could), but do encourage anyone who can to keep honeybees as a conservation measure. Do not take their honey at least for the first year or so, if ever.

  25. Kerry
    May 19, 2013 | 8:19 am

    I heard that here in the EU they had refused to ban those pesticides unless it proved *economically* necessary. No concern for the bees at all. But I guess it did prove economically necessary if they’ve done it, so that’s a good thing. It’s so clear without even studying it, there are not nearly so many bees now as there were just 5 or 10 years ago.

  26. Walter Jeffries
    May 21, 2013 | 7:02 pm

    There is a statistical mapping technique that is used to help solve crimes, especially of serial killers and burglars who have many ‘hits’. Do you know if anyone has applied this technique to the bee death problem?

    I ask because we have no problem with the bee deaths where I am. I’m sure there are many other places that also have no problem. What do those places have in common. For example, in our case we are an isolated valley with a ring of mountains, little car traffic, no cell phone reception, no pesticide or herbicide use…

    Likewise, of the places having problems what is common there?

    This contrast compared with things like GMO plantings, pesticide use, etc could indicate possible sources of the problem. I’ve heard of many reports in the media of this or that being the answer but it still sounds like they’re grasping at ideas. There may be multiple factors and statistical mapping might help.

  27. Karen Wood via Facebook
    July 13, 2014 | 7:38 pm

    I’ve always wanted to keep bees because they are so fascinating. I have to move before I would be able to keep them now though.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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