The War On Bees?

One of the problems with policy positions is that, well, sometimes the knowledge that you need to figure out what the heck is really going on is kind of obscure.  Case in point: a lawsuit going on right now involving the EPA over a particular kind of pesticide, and its effect on bees (which recently had the equivalent of a deadly pandemic).  Cue the New York Times:

Last year, researchers identified a virus as a major cause of the die-off; the latest suspect is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are used to protect common agricultural seeds, including corn. The insecticides are systemic, which means they persist throughout the life of the plant. Scientists have demonstrated that exposure to these chemicals damages bees’ brain function, including their ability to home in on the hive.

In mid-March, environmental groups and beekeepers sued the Environmental Protection Agency to persuade it to withdraw its approval of two of the most widely used neonicotinoids. The manufacturers of these chemicals — notably Syngenta and Bayer CropScience — have claimed again and again that they are safe. And it is true that bees face other stresses. Even so, beekeepers managed to keep their hives relatively healthy before the increased use of neonicotinoids began in 2005.

Note that the NYT didn’t actually say that the virus was caused by neonicotinoids (which is good, because it’s not*): but they are kind of implying it.

But, anyway: not so fast, says the Wall Street Journal.

And what about the bees? In recent years there appears to have been increased bee “die-offs” and disappearances of whole hives in the United States and EU countries. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety principally blame neonicotinoids, which have been used widely around the world for at least a decade.

But bee die-offs are not new. Bee colonies were also reported disappearing in the early part of the 20th century, long before modern insecticides. If neonicotinoids were causing die-offs, there should be more of them with the higher use of these insecticides—yet there aren’t.

The WSJ used Australia and (and to a lesser extent, Canada) as examples of neonicotinoid-using countries that have apparently lacked die-offs, and Switzerland as a neonicotinoid-banning country that has had a bee die-off.  The actual culprit for the bee die-offs is probably (as implicitly suggested in the NYT, and explicitly in the WSJ) the varroa mite:

Varroa mites are ectoparasites that feed on the hemolymph of immature and adult honey bees. Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee, is not the mite’s natural host. In fact, the mite is native to Asia where it parasitizes another cavity-dwelling honey bee, A. cerana (the eastern or Asian honey bee). Apis cerana is believed to have some natural defenses against the mite and consequently rarely is affected negatively by the mite. Only when colonies of A. mellifera were brought to Asia did people begin to realize how devastating the mites could be. Varroa’s host shift did not occur instantly, as evidence suggests that it may have taken 50-100 years (Webster and Delaplane 2001). Since that time, the mite has spread around the world and has become nearly-cosmopolitan in distribution.

Virgin field epidemic, in other words: which also handily explains why the pandemic.  The good news is that western honey bees will eventually become resistant to the mites; the bad news is, that will take some time.

Now this is where it becomes interesting.  The NYT (read: the environmental movement) thinks that banning neonicotinoids will be a good idea on its own merits; the WSJ (read: the agricultural industry) thinks that banning neonicotinoids will require that farmers will have to go back to organophosphates, which has their own bad press (to give you an idea of how that stuff needs to be treated with caution: sarin is an organophosphate).  And, of course, the entire dispute is being fought out in public by people who mostly couldn’t draw any of the chemical diagrams of any of the substances at issue, and I am not excluding myself from this assessment.

But then, this isn’t really about biology or chemistry; it’s about politics and finance.  Do you believe that the agricultural industry is indifferent at best and downright malevolent at worst in their adoption of and pesticides?  Then you’re probably for this ban.  Do you think that the green activism industry is more concerned with getting donations and funding than it is in, say, increasing the average caloric intake of Third World nations**?  Then you’re probably against this ban.  Are you a beekeeper trying to keep your hives alive? …Don’t know what to tell you, sir or madam; except that maybe somebody should try to figure out how to reliably kill off those danged mites.

Moe Lane

*Spontaneous generation of life has been debunked as a scientific theory for centuries.

**For the record: this is what I think is Big Green’s primary motivation.  In fact, I’m not really sure whether the average Greenie really sees Third World residents as real.


  • Crawford says:

    Even “Beekeeping for Dummies” (no, not kidding) talks about verroa mites. They’re not new enough for North America to qualify as a “green field”, but perhaps there was a change in the practices of beekeeping that led to them being less controlled. I can sympathize — one of the recommended treatments is to get a bunch of your bees in a coffee can with a lid, toss in some powdered sugar, and shake the can. The powdered sugar coats the bees, they groom each other, and knock off the mites. But shaking a can of bees strikes me as a classic Bad Idea…
    At least it isn’t a new strain of the disease called “American foulbrood”. The recommended treatment for that is:
    o Dig a hole larger than the hive
    o Collect every tool that touched the infected hive
    o Place the hive and the tools in the hole
    o Pour kerosene into the hole
    o Light the kerosene
    o Repeat until there is no recognizable part left
    o Fill the hole
    o Mark the hole so it’s never excavated
    o Inform the local county extension office
    o Hope they don’t find American foulbrood in any of your remaining hives

    • Moe_Lane says:

      Sounds in spirit like the recommended procedures for a chlorine trifluoride spill – which is to say, RUN. That stuff ignites water.

      • UtahMan says:

        Of course, I had to look that up.

        To quote John D. Clark, author of Ignition!:

        “It [chlorine triflouride] is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of the problem. It is hypergolic [spontaneously ignites upon contact] with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water — with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals — steel, copper, aluminum, etc. — because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminum keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.”

        • sicsemperstolidissimum says:

          Derek Lowe’s ‘Things I Won’t Work With’ is generally enjoyable.
          I also strongly recommend Clark’s Ignition!. Copies of which can be found on the internet.
          I remember something to the effect that clean metal(only certain kinds) shavings can be used to deal with CF3 spills.

        • Moe_Lane says:

          Yeah. Lots of things will kill you, of course – but flourine? Flourine likes to kill things. It looks for ways to be deadly. Mix it with chlorine and you’re pretty much creating the chemical compound equivalent of a serial killer.

          • tnfriendofcoal101368 says:

            Kind of reminds me when Chuck Norris was asked the best way to escape a rear naked choke. His answer: “don’t get caught in one”. Flourine is something, you just don’t fool with.

  • qixlqatl says:

    What does it matter if third world residents are real? The important thing is to get those donations, because if you’re getting donations, you must be doing the right thing and making a positive impact on the world. Then it’s okay to drive a gas guzzling SUV and live in a McMansion designed for maximum energy consumption while berating all those bad people in flyover country…

  • jbird says:

    Only science deniers don’t know that the bees were disappearing because of the Medusa Cascade.

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