The Buzz On Bees: Why Many Colonies Are Collapsing

Bees have been dying off in increasing numbers over the past few years. Experts say that habitat loss and disease are the biggest culprits, and some believe that pesticides are to blame. NPR science correspondent Dan Charles explains the possible causes and what is being done to stop this trend.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Back in 2005, we started hearing about a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. Unusual numbers of honeybees were dying off and nobody understood quite why. The problem never went away. This year, it seems much, much worse. And why there are lots of theories, from habitat loss to pesticides, we still don't know for sure what's to blame. We do know that these pollinate cherries, apples, almonds, onions and many other crops, an estimated one quarter of the American diet.

If you're a beekeeper, how are your hives doing? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. He's reporting on this trend and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

CONAN: So just how bad is it?

CHARLES: Well, you know, the reports are - the - what happens is the honeybees, you know, they go through the winter, and they come out in the spring, and that's when sort of some of the big commercial pollination events happen. And that's when you really sort of figure out, OK, did they get through the winter OK? And apparently, this year may have been the worst ever. The big - the really big pollination event is the almond pollination that happens in February. You know, something like half of all the honeybees in the entire country go to California to...

CONAN: On trucks. They don't...

CHARLES: On trucks. You know, they box up the hives. They send them on big, big trucks out to California, and they had a shortage. You know, a lot of people opened up the hives, a lot of beekeepers, and found that they had, you know, a big lost rates this year.

CONAN: And, obviously, that is a problem. You need X many hives per acre to achieve the pollination.

CHARLES: Two hives per acre, they say, in the almond groves of California. Yeah, that's right. And - I mean, they got through it. They, you know, some people were paying high prices to try to get some extra hives in and so forth. But this is a long-term problem, and they're still trying to figure out what of the, you know, the various suspects in this mystery, you know, this mystery story. You know, is it the mites? You know, there - clearly, there is a mite problem that's infected - these parasites that infect the hives. Is it, you know, diseases? There have been, you know, some viruses that were implicated. Is it simply loss of good habitat? You know, bees need flowers through the summer, lots and lots of different kinds of flowers to, you know, be healthy. Is it, you know, all this, like, transportation across the country that's stressing them out too much? Or is it, you know, the increase in use of some pesticides on some of the major crops in the country?

CONAN: And Neonics, as I understand, are getting a lot of the blame.

This is kind of the new - for some people, prime suspect. So there's a class of pesticides - you've mentioned the name, neonicotinoids or...

You mentioned the name. I mentioned the nickname.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLES: Neonics for short. They became widely used in the 1990s. They're typically applied to the seeds of the crop and the biggest crop is corn, but there are other crops, too - canola, sunflower. I mentioned those because those are crops that produce flowers that bees like. Although corn, you know, pollen also bees feed on. So, you know, the pesticide is applied to the seed which goes into the ground. So you would, think, OK, no problem. Bees aren't exposed to it. They aren't insecticides and bees are insects, right? So bees are very, very sensitive to these pesticides.

The thing is there's two - there are sort of different ways in which bees actually could be exposed to these. One, is at planting time, you know, there can be dust that goes off the plant or, you know, from these seeds, these pesticide-coated seeds. That's one way in which bees, you know, can actually be exposed to, you know, high amounts, enough to kill them, in isolated cases. But the pesticide actually goes with the growing plant, from the seed. As the plant grows, the pesticide - small amounts - go with the plant, and that's what makes them effective. Insects, like, you know, feed on the plant and die. Bees feed on the pollen, and could also be exposed to very low amounts.

CONAN: And it could build up over time and cause - as the name suggests, these are derived from tobacco. These are nicotine.

CHARLES: You know, the chemistry of them is similar. Yeah. Yeah. And they have - so, you know, here's the thing. It's not enough to kill a bee, right? And that's - the toxicology is fairly clear. The bees survive these low amounts of exposure. But last summer, there were some scientific studies that came out that indicated that it might actually change their behavior in subtle ways. So there was a study done with bumblebees, where the bumblebees stop making queens. And there was a study with honeybees, where they seem to lose direction. They seem to get lost more. Now, these were sort of controlled, almost laboratory-type studies. And, you know, these are not proof, but they seem to demonstrate that there might be subtle effects on bees.

CONAN: And there seem to be researchers in Europe who are more convinced that these pesticides are to blame.

CHARLES: The researchers - there was a move by the European commission to ban neonics in Europe. That actually got slapped down by the larger kind of European governing body. So, you know, we'll see where this goes. I mean, there's clearly a lot more research that's going to be done on neonics.

CONAN: We're talking about the collapse of so many beehives over this past winter, especially 40, maybe even 50 percent. We want to hear from beekeepers. 800-989-8255. How are your hives doing? Email: talk@npr.org. Michelle is on the line with us from the Black Hills of South Dakota.

MICHELLE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Michelle. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MICHELLE: Oh, thank you. I'm really excited to get through. I'm a hobby beekeeper. We have a hobbyist bee club in Rapid City, South Dakota called the Wannabees. You can find us online. But I'm calling because I - about four, five years ago, I had met one of the biggest beekeepers in our state. And he said that we know very well what's causing colony collapse disorder, and it's systemics. And kind of like your guest was explaining, this beekeeper, a commercial beekeeper, he told me that the analogy would be like that it gets in the blood of the plants. So it's in the seed and all throughout the growing process - in the stem, the leaves, the flowers, the pollen.

And they tried to sue, and they had a group, a collective of beekeepers that tried to sue this particular company, I won't mention. And their attorneys eventually just walked away from it. They couldn't do anything about it.

CONAN: Dan Charles, as I understand it, some have also tried to sue the - or at least appeal to the Environmental Protection Agency, saying, we need help here.

CHARLES: A group of beekeepers and environmental groups have, in fact, sued the EPA, saying the law requires you to take some action against neonics. So we'll see what happens with that lawsuit. Since, you know, the caller is from South Dakota, I should mention, people may not know this, but the Dakotas, you know, the - and Montana and parts of Minnesota, this is where - when you're talking about honeybees, this is where a huge proportion of the honeybees in the country spend their summer. And there's an issue there with changing land use, changing habitat. As corn has become more profitable, as soy beans have become more profitable, much more land has been devoted to those crops, as opposed to, say, range land or crops like sunflowers, you know, which are much better habitat for bees.

CONAN: How are you hives doing, Michelle?

MICHELLE: Well, I lost what I had. As a hobby beekeeper, I don't have very much. And quite a few of the people in our club lost bees last year due to the drought. But we don't have corn in western South Dakota. It's mostly range land, pasture, and there's really nothing for bees to eat on pasture, either. You know, it's grass and wheat. So we depend on the clover. And when the drought came, the clover just died off. It was looking like a really good year for us last year, and the drought came and a lot of bees starved.

CONAN: Sorry to hear that, Michelle.

MICHELLE: Thank you so much for addressing this topic.

CONAN: Thank you for the call. Let's see if we can go next to Mansah(ph), Mansah with us from Menomonie in Wisconsin.

MARSAH: Yes. It's actually Marsah(ph).

CONAN: Marsah, excuse me.

MARSAH: That's OK.

CONAN: I got Menomonie right.

MARSAH: Yeah, you sure did. Very good. Well done. Interesting, I love this topic. I've been following it. We have bees. We had them for years at our horse farm in Minnesota and never had a problem. That was alfalfa country, so - where there was a lot of food for the bees. Now we're in western Wisconsin, dairy land, a lot of corn and alfalfa crops. And two years ago, we went out to check the bees and - in the spring, and they were just gone. It was eerie. It was strange. They had been doing OK, and we'd been real concerned about them. And there wasn't a bee body, dead carcass anywhere. They were just gone, completely wiped out. And no sign of where they went, no sign of trauma, just spooky, spooky, strange. So we just don't know.

We're keeping - we keep ordering queens every year and trying again. And this year, it doesn't look good. My husband just went out this morning, and they're all dead. So we don't know what to think.

CONAN: I'm sorry to hear that, Marsah. Dan, let me ask you. If these commercial - big commercial companies where they are eating, feeding on crops that have are - been with these pesticides and, again, traveling and going through that kind of stress, what about wild bees? Are they suffering the same kind of fate?

CHARLES: Well, it's good that you bring that up, actually, because we focus a lot on the honeybees, because they're the ones we know and they make the honey for us, and these are the ones that are easily managed and that get, you know, sort of transported around and provide commercial, what they call pollination services. But honeybees, you know, they are - they're foreign to this continent. They were brought here from Europe, originated, probably, you know, in Africa. But they're useful for agriculture. You know, sort of extensive, intensive agriculture requires, in some cases - in the case of almonds, certainly, also - intensive pollination, and you bring in lots and lots of hives of honeybees to do that.

But there are native pollinators, native bees here: bumblebees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees. And, you know, there's been some interesting research lately on their sort of health. And there's sort of two things to keep in mind. One is that they are also very affected by the things that we're talking about - for instance, the changing use of land and the declining sort of prevalence of flowers in the landscape.

But the other side is people didn't realize how important they were also for pollination of crops. And there was some research done, and if there are lots of native bees around, no matter how many honeybees you put into your orchard, the native bees actually make a better crop for you, for unknown reasons. Maybe they just sort of are attracted to different kinds of flowers in a different way. But the native bees that you don't manage, that just are there because of the landscape, are contributing significantly to agricultural production.

CONAN: So, again, are the natural bees suffering the same colony collapse?

CHARLES: Well, not colony collapse, as such, but their numbers certainly are down - maybe not for the same reasons, except for the important reason of habitat change. They may also be affected if they - you know, if the honeybees are being affected by the pesticides, the native bees probably are, as well. They may not be afflicted so much by the mites in the hives that are affecting honeybees. I'm not sure about that, actually. I'm not a big bee expert. But they certainly are affected by sort of the declining habitat.

CONAN: And we've just heard that there will be more corn planted this year than ever before in our history. Dan Charles, thank you very much, and we'll hope for the recovery of the bees.

CHARLES: Thank you.

CONAN: Dan Charles, NPR food and agriculture correspondent, joined us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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