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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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The mystery of dying bees: Madison beekeepers, UW researchers look for answers
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Enjoy a nice crisp apple recently? Chances are you can thank a honeybee for that. Like to snack on almonds or perhaps sip a glass of orange juice in the morning? Those foods were also made possible by bees.

Bees pollinate much of the food we eat, but they're dying in huge numbers. This year was worse than most, a new low in a trend that's only getting worse. What will this mean for us and our food supply?

Every year, the United States Department of Agriculture counts the number of beehives tended by beekeepers across the country. The new numbers are in, and they're not pretty. Nearly a third of all honeybees died nationwide.

For beekeepers like Mary Celley in Dane County, that number would have been good news. Celley estimates she lost 85% of her bees this winter. She keeps 120 bee colonies on local farms in southern Dane and Rock counties, each of which contain tens of thousands of bees that pollinate the fruits and vegetables on the farm. She produces honey to sell at the Dane County Farmers' Market, under her "Bee Charmer" label.

"It's costing me thousands of dollars just to stay in business," says Celley, noting she has to buy whole new colonies of bees this year that are imported from out of state.

What's at stake with the widespread death of pollinators is not just the livelihood of America's beekeepers, but the American diet.

"Without these animals, ecosystems would collapse," says Scott Hoffman Black, the executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit group fighting to save pollinators. "Our food system would collapse. We wouldn't eat our most nutritious foods -- the fruits, the vegetables, many of the nuts that really make up a diverse diet. We cannot live on this planet without taking care of the bottom of the food chain. We just will not have the quality of life that we do now."

A global trend

Some beekeepers find their bees missing or dead and blame themselves. But the trend is a global one, and the idea that individual beekeepers are to blame worldwide doesn't sit well with Celley.

"I just can't believe we're all idiots," she says. "I've been doing this for 35 years. I am a mindful beekeeper."

That rings true for Derald Kettlewell, too. He's the president of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association and runs the Badger State Apiaries in Greenfield in southwestern Milwaukee County. He has 100 hives in Milwaukee and Racine counties and sells his honey wholesale. This winter was not kind to his bees, either.

"We probably lost in the neighborhood of 80%," says Kettlewell. "I would say this is just about the worst I've experienced."

Most bee die-offs occur in the winter, when there are no blooming flowers from which to gather pollen and the colony has to rely on the honey stored away in its hives to survive the bitter cold months. The population as a whole has to be large enough and strong enough to survive until April or May, when dandelions bloom, providing them with one of their first spring snacks.

"Over the last couple decades, there's just been more and more problems for the beekeepers in trying to keep their hives alive over the winter," says Kettlewell. "There are different strains of viruses. There are different strains of nosema [a fungus]. There are different types of mites. There's the hive beetle. All of those factors enter into the scenario when the hive gets weakened. And when the hive gets weakened, it doesn't survive through the winter."

And it's not just rural bees that are subject to stress. Nathan Clarke of Mad Urban Bees in Madison says he lost the majority of his bees this winter, too. It's his first year of commercial honey production after years of experimenting as a hobbyist, so he expected some losses. He chalks some of it up to a learning curve. He also thinks last year's drought stressed his bees. But still, the emotional and financial impact of all those dead bees can take its toll.

"One bad year can really set you back. That's what the American beekeepers are up against. We're not favored right now."

Beekeepers across the nation have come to expect these losses. Bee populations have been in decline since the 1950s, though with a more precipitous drop over the past decade, and now bees are dying in greater numbers than ever before.

"Unfortunately, over 30% is the new norm," says Dr. Jeff Pettis, a scientist at the USDA's Bee Research Lab outside of Washington, D.C., and one of the country's leading experts on bees.

That's been true in Wisconsin, where beekeepers have lost at least that many bees in six of the past seven years. In some years it's been worse, with 60% of honeybees dying in one winter. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection offers voluntary inspections to local beekeepers to help them identify pests and diseases. It also requires inspections for any commercial beekeeper bringing bees in or out of the state. Due to the unusually long winter and cold spring, state apiarist Liz Meils says this year's inspections got off to a late start and are still under way.

What's killing bees?

The term "colony collapse disorder" has been used to describe situations where large numbers of bees mysteriously disappear, leaving their beehive home a ghost town. Beekeepers tell of going to check on their hives only to find them quiet; the large number of worker bees that usually keep the colonies humming are gone. This phenomenon was first widely reported in the United States in 2006 by large-scale commercial beekeepers whose bees were pollinating almond crops in California.

But colony collapse does not account for all that's wrong with the bees. Many more bees are not just disappearing, but dying.

The growing consensus among beekeepers, scientists and government officials is that several factors are conspiring against bees. In a newly released report (PDF), the USDA and EPA have attempted to compile the latest research and expertise on bee health across the country.

One problem is habitat loss. Bees need to have ample food: a constant supply of flowering plants all season long. As more and more country acres are planted with crops that bees can't eat, they must travel further and further, or settle for less nutritious food. You can see this close to home, as the pastoral Wisconsin countryside known for its small, family-scale farms has given way to more large commodity farms and dairies in recent decades.

"Now you drive around Dane County and all you see is corn and soybeans, soybeans and corn," says Gene Woller of Mount Horeb's Gentle Breeze Honey. "The bees don't get any juice from that."

Woller plans on moving his bees into the Driftless Area of the state, west of Dane County, where he can still find small dairy farms with diverse sources of food.

Parasites and pesticides

A bloodsucking parasite called Varroa destructor is also causing problems for bees. The tiny red mite can infect a hive and wipe out the population. To give us a human-sized perspective, Scott Black of the Xerces Society says, "Think of you having a housecat-sized parasite sucking your blood. That's what these varroa mites are. They're not very nice."

But a growing body of research has fingered one culprit: a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Derived from nicotine, they were developed to be less harmful to mammals than DDT and other forms of pesticides. They were introduced in the United States in the 1990s, and their use has since skyrocketed. Today, they're found in common backyard insect sprays as well as coated on seeds planted in millions of acres of corn and soy fields across the country. The idea is that the plants absorb the chemicals and poison the insects that come looking for a free lunch. The problem is that the pesticide shows up in the pollen of the plants, too. Which happens to be food for bees.

A new round of studies published last year in the prestigious scientific journals Science and Nature found these pesticides harmful to bees, though pesticide manufacturers continue to say otherwise. Bayer CropScience, a leading producer of insecticide sprays and seed treatments, says it "remains convinced that neonicotinoids are safe for bees" when used as directed. The company implies that farmers are applying the chemicals at too high of a dose.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which approved these insecticides for sale, has been slow to acknowledge them as a threat to bees. The agency says research is needed before it will be ready to recommend action.

When the pesticides were approved, the thinking was that the amount of the chemical it takes to kill bees was much higher than bees would actually encounter. But the problem has been trickier than scientists thought, because it doesn't take a lethal dose to affect the bee colony. The effects may be far subtler and more pervasive than a swarm simply flying into a fog of bug spray and dropping dead, like those comical cartoon advertisements for Raid insecticide.

So EPA officials say they now need to identify the actual "field-relevant" doses of pesticides that bees may be getting -- the amounts they encounter day after day on their journeys in search of food.

Bees from a single hive can cover an area of more than 8,000 acres, which leaves ample opportunity to sample numerous pesticides. The EPA also wants to know how multiple pesticides combine to affect bees, as most studies to date have only looked at the effects of any one pesticide at a time.

And that's where scientists like Dr. Christopher Connolly come in.

Brain damage

Connolly, a neuroscientist at the University of Dundee in Scotland, showed in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Communications earlier this spring that bees exposed to these pesticides became brain damaged.

"What we've done is taken the field-relevant doses, agreed by Bayer and everyone else, that bees are really exposed to: 1 to 5 parts per billion.... [And] we applied these to the brains," he says.

Yes, that means Connolly and his colleagues really did strap electrodes to tiny bee heads in order to study their brain activity. They fed them pesticide-tainted pollen and watched what happened.

"When exposed to this pesticide, bees will initially become very hyperactive and then quickly become very dumb," he says.

Without any activity in this part of the brain, bees cannot learn. This has huge implications for their survival.

"They have to organize to bring food back, to store food for the winter. They need to tell other bees, 'I found some good food. Everybody come here and check it out!'" he says. "You need to learn by experience. You need to learn by communication and working together. All of these things require higher cognitive function and learning."

Connolly's team also found that when bees are exposed to multiple chemical compounds, they can add up to prove more toxic to the bees.

"So there is no argument here," he says. "This is field-relevant doses of these compounds that bees do see, and it does stop their brains from working so they cannot learn anymore."

Multiple battles

Research like this led the European Food Safety Authority, the European Union's regulators, to call for restrictions on the use of these pesticides. Just over a month ago, the European Union announced that it will phase out the widespread use of the chemicals across all member nations, beginning in December. These products will no longer be used on major farm crops that bees pollinate, or be available to home gardeners for casual backyard use.

But here in the United States, regulators have gone a different route. The EPA is considering reauthorizing several neonicotinoid pesticides over the next few years. In March, a number of beekeepers and conservation groups sued the EPA, hoping to halt the reapproval of these pesticides, saying its studies failed to take into account the pesticides' effect on bees. Center for Food Safety attorney Peter Jenkins, who represents the beekeepers, says they hope to see an outcome similar to Europe's.

Beekeeper Nathan Clarke, whose business involves placing hives in backyards around Madison, thinks having bees in the city gives more people a reason to get to know these tiny creatures, lose their fear of being stung, and care about the fate of some of nature's littlest agricultural workers.

Many people have childhood memories of painful bee stings, and some experience life-threatening allergic reactions, while others just mistake bees for wasps or other more aggressive stinging insects. All of this can fuel the desire to kill bees rather than appreciate them. Clarke sees public awareness growing with each new backyard beekeeper. And the rise of the urban beekeeping movement in Madison is leading to more concerned citizens. Madison residents can now legally keep bees in the city if they apply for a license, thanks to an ordinance enacted last year.

"It's an attitude shift," Clarke says. "And I think that, more than anything, will help save the pollinators."

Looking for solutions

What can be done to save the pollinators is the subject of much debate and little action so far in the United States. But Daniel Kleinman has an idea.

Kleinman is a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Armed with a new National Science Foundation grant, he is setting his sights on the mystery of the dying bees.

Kleinman teamed up with Sainath Suryanarayanan, an entomologist and postdoctoral researcher at the UW, to learn what science has to say about the widespread bee deaths. Since 2009, the duo have been poring over government studies, reviewing industry literature on bee health, interviewing beekeepers and quizzing scientists for the chemical companies. And they've found a disconnect. While regulators decry a lack of field research that could accurately mimic real-life conditions that bees encounter, beekeepers are producing that data year after year.

"We found that beekeepers are essentially, every day, practicing scientists," says Kleinman. "They are doing research in their fields with their hives, looking at the conditions of their hives. And they are doing it relatively systematically."

Yet this wealth of data has not been captured systematically by regulators, nor is it a crucial factor in determining the approval of pesticides. Suryanarayanan says this is due to the way the fields of entomology and toxicology, which provide the foundation of knowledge for pesticide regulations, evolved as a science.

"They developed in the context where scientists, the agrichemical industry and the government were really interested in finding out the best ways to kill bugs. Insects were thought of as something that needed to be killed."

So the idea that insects threaten agriculture and need to be killed has been around for more than a century. The idea that insects can be beneficial to humans, and thus worthy of protection, is new by comparison, says Suryanarayanan.

If that could change, the world might take a huge leap forward in finding a solution to the mystery of millions of dead bees.

Moving forward, says Kleinman, beekeepers need to be at the table with regulators to create new evidence on which policies are made.

"The problem is not just colony collapse disorder or the demise of honeybees," he says. "The problem is also how to get different kinds of stakeholders to engage with one another."

Kleinman and Suryanarayanan's new project, located at the UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, will bring together EPA regulators, chemical company representatives, farmers and a variety of beekeepers in a series of facilitated discussions and hands-on research trials to study honeybees in new ways. With this multidisciplinary approach, the group hopes to produce robust new research and creative solutions to save the bees.

The project, which is estimated to take two years to complete, is scheduled to begin in the Madison area this fall. Kleinman and Suryanarayanan will be recruiting project participants this summer.

An ominous sign

Beekeeper Mary Celley hopes answers will be forthcoming on what ails honeybees, and not just because her livelihood depends on it. Celley worries that dying bees are a sign that something much greater is wrong in the world.

"They're like the canary in the coal mine," she says. "They tell you if something's out of balance."

Meanwhile Derald Kettlewell plans to soldier on, despite the high number of bees he's lost in recent years.

"You pretty much got two choices. You can either get out of the business or replace 'em."

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