Insecticides used in Boulder County and elsewhere are threatening bees’ survival—and ours with it
Bees are essential to local agriculture and beyond, but insecticides used here and elsewhere are threatening their survival—and ours with it.
By Sarah Warner
Bees around the world are dying at unprecedented rates from an alarming phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Beekeepers worldwide—and in Boulder County—have lost between 30 to 60 percent of their hives each year. The colony doesn’t leave the hive; it just dies from within.
“In the past six years, we’ve lost somewhere between 4.5 and 12 million colonies of bees,” says Boulder County beekeeper Tom Theobald. “I’ve seen it in my own operation. I’ve seen a significant decline in the number of colonies that I’m able to keep alive. My honey crop this past season was the lowest in 36 years. Two years ago, we had the lowest honey crop ever recorded since records have ever been kept.”
So, two years ago Theobald began to pull research documents from the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. He discovered that the EPA knew a new breed of systemic pesticides was harmful to bees. (Systemic pesticides become one with the plant for the life of the plant; anything that chews or sucks on the plant is affected, as is the soil the plant grows in.) Yet, the agency did nothing to actively restrict these products from infiltrating the marketplace. In fact, they can be purchased at Home Depot, McGuckin, Lowe’s, etc.
Neonicotinoid insecticides, which are part of the systemic pesticide family, are derived from nicotine and developed by Bayer CropScience. Two that are particularly toxic to honeybees are clothianidin and imidacloprid. Some commercial composts actually contain imidacloprid, often described on the label as “vine weevil protection.” These have been allowed out onto the marketplace, unrestricted, for more than eight years.
Plants Bees Love
Plant the following on your property, tend to them organically, and your bees will love you:
Clover, agastache, aster, bee balm, blue mist spirea, fennel, larkspur, lavender, sage, trumpet vine, sunflower, sedum, coriander, catnip, mint, parsley, marigold, phlox, bachelor’s button, zinnia, cosmos, salvia, shasta daisy, iris, coneflower, lobelia, delphinium, dogwood, blueberry, giant hyssop, linden, cherry, plum and willow.
Also, bees need a reliable source of shallow, clean water. Put rocks or sticks in the water container so they won’t drown.
Theobald’s published writing on his discoveries has since spurred the EPA to revise some policies. However, the agency continues to allow untested chemicals, including a new one called sulfoxaflor, to be released with the knowledge that it’s highly toxic to pollinators.
Last September, in an exposé by journalist Dan Rather, Theobald, along with academic researchers and other beekeepers, publicly discussed this new class of systemic pesticides. Some countries are responding quickly. In July, the French Ministry of Agriculture issued a ban on the use of another neonicotinoid insecticide, thiamethoxam, produced by Swiss chemical giant Syngenta. But other countries, including the U.S., continue to use systemic pesticides. Farmers like them because crops require fewer sprays. In addition, systemic pesticides have the least direct impact on mammals, including humans.
Since September 2012 more definitive studies by Jeff Pettis of the Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., have shown that these pesticides weaken bees’ immune systems, development, learning capacity and memory. Dr. Jim Frazier at Penn State University also conducted studies of bees from hives across the United States and found an average of six, and in some cases as many as 39, pesticides in these bees. Some of these were systemic.
“I think no one had any idea that it could be this large of a residue problem,” Frazier says. “And because the residue consists of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and miticides that differ in different places across the country—combinations of five, six or seven of these materials—there is no toxicological literature that exists for the consequences of these combinations when they are ingested by honeybees or any other insects.” He explains that short-term toxicological consequences are easier to test than long-term effects, which are more complicated to track.
If you want to help bees, ask county, state and federal legislators, the EPA, and chemical companies to restrict or ban systemic pesticides, and only buy gardening products devoid of these pesticides (read the fine print).
You can also become a beekeeper, but it takes a while to develop the appropriate skills. “There’s no such thing as laissez-faire beekeeping,” says Tim Brod of Highland Honey Bees. “It takes three to five years before you really know what you’re doing.” Miles McGaughey, president of the Boulder County Beekeepers’ Association, recommends new beekeepers start with two hive boxes, rather than one, to provide a comparative situation.
A healthy hive of one box will produce about 8 pounds of honey a day. But bees need to eat before they can produce honey, so don’t stack supers on top of your hive until the bees fill the first super. (A super is the little upper-level box that’s placed on top of the main hive that the bees fill with honey.) The queen can live for years, whereas worker bees live only six weeks. It takes 12 bees their entire six-week life to make one drop of honey.
New beekeepers of all ages can gain valuable support and mentorship at monthly meetings in Niwot of the Boulder County Beekeepers’ Association. Beekeepers ages 9 and older are welcome. “All you really need is an insatiable curiosity about these insects,” McGaughey says. Other resources include the CSU Extension and Beekeeping for Dummies.
Don’t Push When They’re Down
Local beekeepers are learning how to mitigate these pervasive systemic insecticides and carefully rebuild their hives by being ever more vigilant about beefing up the helpful environmental factors they can control.
Raffaele Malferrari and Thea Tenenbaum live on Nelson Road and have been keeping bees for many years. “I think it’s important to keep bees because they’re endangered, but more than anything because it’s such joy to see them around the farm,” Malferrari says. Each August the pair harvests jars and jars of honey from a handful of hives. One year, a swarm landed on a tree branch near their house. They got another box and carefully shook the mass of bees from the tree branch into the box; that year they were one hive ahead. “It’s a very good feeling to know they are around,” Malferrari says of their bees. “I try to plant flowers as much as I can for their food source. The bees keep me more than I keep them.
Miles McGaughey, president of the Boulder County Beekeepers’ Association, says he has opted for bee survival over honey production to maintain the health of his hives. “I don’t try to push them [the bees] when they’re down,” he says.
He also feeds his bees with uncontaminated pollen during certain times of the year, and frequently moves his hives to uncontaminated foraging areas. Consider that the average foraging area of a honeybee is 28,000 acres. “I look for areas that are not contaminated with commercial agriculture, particularly corn, which is the highest user of systemic pesticides,” he says. “Does it help the bees? Who knows, but I think it maybe mitigates it.” McGaughey points out that bees forage farther afield as different plants come into bloom, but if the pollen source is close to their hives the bees won’t forage far away.
Armed with new information and proactive measures, honeybee keepers are slowly stabilizing Boulder County’s honeybee health, but there’s plenty of room to do more.
Here’s the equipment (and approximate price) you’ll need to get started in beekeeping:
01. A box ($30). There are two main types of boxes: Langstroth and Top-bar. Langstroths are stacked boxes with “supers” on top, recommended for beginners. Top-bar hives are typically harder for the beginner to navigate because they only allow the bees to store honey laterally.
02. A bee suit ($55) with gloves ($10).
03. A bee brush ($3) used to literally move bees to one side or another.
04. A smoker ($15).
05. A comb scratcher ($3) used to open up the seals the bees put over each cone.
06. A 5-gallon bucket ($6) and paint strainer mesh bag ($6) from your local paint store to separate the wax and the honey.
07. A hive tool ($5) used for prying and scraping apart hive components, and cleaning frames.
08. Only in April, buy a 3-pound package of bees ($95), which includes a queen; it contains approximately 12,000 to 15,000 bees, which by August, if you’re doing things right, will contain upwards of 60,000 to 80,000 bees. See “Resources” on page 44 for a list of local bee suppliers..
The following businesses and associations can help you get started in beekeeping:
Miles McGaughey, president of the Boulder County Beekeepers’ Association, Mountain Warrior Honey, 936 Alta, Longmont, CO 80501, 720-771-4304, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tim Brod, Highland Honey Bees, 303-514-9257, email@example.com
Boulder County Beekeepers Association, www.bouldercountybeekeepers.org (Check out “Tom’s Corner,” the site’s beekeeping blog by local beekeeper Tom Theobald.)
Growing Gardens Greenhouse offers beekeeping classes, 1630 Hawthorn Ave., Boulder, CO 80304, www.growinggardens.org/beekeeping.