EPA funds studies as honeybee numbers shrink
27th January 2014 · 0 Comments
By Susan Buchanan
Honey bees are dying off in Louisiana and across the nation at rates that have alarmed their keepers and affected food cultivation. Bees pollinate fruits, vegetables, nuts and other crops that provide a third of the food we eat. Bees are so scarce in some spots that growers rent them. Scientists are trying to understand Colony Collapse Disorder, a disease that strikes hives and has killed over 30 percent of U.S. honeybees in recent years.
Pesticides are one of the culprits. In early January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced three grants totally $459,264 to learn more about pesticide impacts on honeybees. The agency gave LSU AgCenter $167,874, Pennsylvania State University $159,632 and the University of Vermont $131,758.
“Our research is a collaborative project between LSU, Louisiana beekeepers and East Baton Rouge Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control,” LSU assistant entomology professor Kristin Healy said last week. “EBRMARC has a longstanding relationship with beekeepers and was eager to address their interests by looking at any effects of mosquito adulticides on bees.” LSU AgCenter’s research will evaluate products and methods that target adult mosquitoes.
Community and county mosquito controls tend to be aimed mainly at larvae, which can be kept in check with biological methods or low-impact pesticides. The public is most aware of ground-based or aerial spraying of adult mosquitos, however, because those activities are often announced beforehand.
“A large percentage of mosquito control targets the larvae, using very specific products,” Healy said. “But adult control products, such as organophosphates and pyrethroids, are also used.” LSU’s study will create best management guidelines for mosquito control and beekeepers. “We’ll conduct much of the research this summer, with some additional evaluations the following year,” she said. “And we’ll provide quarterly reports to the EPA, as well as an annual report and a final report.”
Two faculty members from LSU’s entomology department, two postdoctoral students, one or two grad students, two undergrads, EBRMARC and local beekeepers will participate in the AgCenter’s study.
Nationally and locally, mosquito control efforts try to respect beekeepers by spraying at night when bees are in their hives, by using products that break down within hours and by creating no-spray zones around beekeepers who desire them, Healy said.
At Hollygrove Market and Farm on Olive St. in New Orleans, mentor farmer and kids’ educator Amber Dawn said in addition to pesticides, threats to bees include Varroa mites, viruses and starvation. Bees don’t have enough food during the course of the year if they’re located within a monoculture where only one crop is grown, she said.
Genetically modified plants are another threat. “GMO corn plants produce pesticides in their own tissues,” Dawn said. “These corn plants are chemical factories, and while they’re supposedly safe for human consumption, they appear to be harming bees.” Corn is pollinated by wind not bees. But bees gather corn pollen, which they feed to larva. When bees take a bite from a GMO corn plant, its built-in insecticide can split their stomachs.
Beekeeper Justin Taylor at Bee Natural Farm in Fairhope, Alabama, said growers in California and other states need honeybees so badly that they truck them in from afar or rent them from keepers. Florida honeybees travel by semi-trailer to pollinate California’s huge almond crop. “Many of those bees are in poor health or dead by the time they arrive,” he said.”While they’re being moved around, the bees are force-fed high fructose corn syrup.” In a study released in 2009, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture researchers found that in the heat of the summer HFCS forms toxins that are potentially dangerous if consumed by honeybees.
Taylor said at Bee Natural, which grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, he typically maintains five to ten hives. The farm is surrounded by “Do Not Spray” signs to keep mosquito-control operators at bay. The signs are posted in coordination with the county. Growers and residents in much of the nation can place their properties on no-spray lists, he said.
Under its EPA grant, Penn State University researchers are studying crop production without the use of neonicotinoid pesticide seed treatments or neonics, which are linked to honeybee deaths. When farmers use neonics, plants absorb insecticides as they grow. The European Union responded to declining bee populations by banning the use of three neonics for two years, starting last December.
With their recent EPA grant, University of Vermont researchers will focus on reducing pesticide use on hops, which are used in brewing beer.
To help bees and protect the food supply, companies producing pesticides and genetically modified crops should do more research and share the research they have, Dawn said. Agrochemical companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer, generally attribute bee die-offs to mites, diseases and other factors that they say are unrelated to their products.
A USDA funded survey, released last May and conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership and Apiary Inspectors of America, found that 31 percent of the nation’s managed honeybee colonies had died the previous winter. That was in line with an average 30.5 percent loss in the six preceding years.
Hollygrove Farm in New Orleans, however, has enough bees for now. “Some of them fly here from City Park four miles away,” Dawn said.
In 2005, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned of a looming pollination crisis, concerning bees, butterflies, other insects, birds and mammals involved in producing over two-thirds of the world’s food. In North America and Europe, honeybee colonies had plummeted and most wild bee colonies had already been lost, the FAO said then.
Among Louisiana’s top field crops, corn and sugarcane are wind-pollinated, soybeans and rice are self-pollinated, while cotton can self-pollinate or pollinate with the help of bees.
This article originally published in the January 27, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.