The pesticide and the honey bee

We’ve got several pear trees on the farm and the two oldest have very heavy fruit set this year. We had a peach tree that was similarly prolific and collapsed under its own weight. The ripening pears shown here are covered with what looks like a bit of rust, fungus; our apples are gnarly and nearly all sport one or a few holes, evidence of insect oviposition to provide newly hatched larvae a ready supply of nutrients. We could easily spray our trees with any of a variety of fungicides and pesticides but we do not, for a couple of reasons. First, we worry about chemical residues on the fruit that we eat and preserve. And second, although the matter has yet to be settled incontrovertibly, there is increasing evidence that fungicides and especially pesticides, most notably those called neonicotinoids, may contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which effects honey bees across the country and around the world. Honey bees are critically important pollinators of fruit and nut crops and it has been estimated that they are responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year here in the United States. That number increases by an order-of-magnitude when one considers potential global declines in crop productivity due to losses from CCD. The primary symptom of CCD is the nearly complete abandonment of hives by adult bees. What’s been so puzzling about this is that symptomatic hives have a live queen, plenty of capped brood (developing young), and lots of honey and pollen. Workers simply disappear. Where they go, nobody knows. Research to discover the cause or synergistic causes of CCD has been intensive. Possible primary culprits are fungal infection, mite parasitism, viral infection, immunosupression, and the toxic influences of both fungicides and pesticides. Several recent studies have shed light on the relationship between exposure to neonicotinoids (neuro-active insecticides like Imidacloprid and Clothianidin) and declines in managed bee populations. Based upon the strength of such studies the Canadian government announced a partial two-year ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in 2014. The year before the European Union adopted a two-year restriction on the use of neonicotinoids. There is a petition at which calls upon the Canadian government to ban these substances, outright. Here in the states beekeepers have allied with the Pesticide Action Network to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to suspend registration of neonicotinoids. To distill yet another of my very lengthy preambles, we have never sprayed our fruit trees, ever. Nearly all of our apples are scabby, the pears are scaly, and the peaches never, ever, look like anything you would want to pick from a supermarket shelf. If any particular piece of fruit is too-far-gone, we simply toss it for the deer and other visitors to the farm. Anything with a blemish or two, or three, finds its way to the kitchen where we have lots of very sharp knives. There are few imperfections which cannot be removed with a quick flick of the wrist. We do not care to produce pretty fruit, but we do care about the potential effects of toxins which would be released into the environment if we were to spray. In particular we worry about honey bees and the relationship between environmental toxins and CCD. We really do, and so should you. Is the cosmetic appeal of the fruits you purchase and consume really worth it?


29 thoughts on “The pesticide and the honey bee

  1. This post revived a long-standing conversation in our house. My husband had been reading about a farmer in Australia who had poisoned a neighbour’s bee colony, out of competition and jealousy. He said he had encountered a similar story from Manitoba, Canada a little while prior.

  2. Ugly is indeed beautiful, and this post brought back some very sad memories for me. We lost our hive of bees in the garden to CCD … someone had sprayed near us … all the mature adults vanished overnight and only very young immature workers were left. Usually they do hive duty until they mature properly, but they had to take on foraging and defending the hive. Then the weakened hive was attacked by another colony and all were lost. There was a pool of dead bees littering the ground made up of the remnants of my hive and the invading colony. I wept, and now the hive sits empty and silent at the foot of my garden 😦 All so that fruit might be less blemished and crops a little bigger.

    • Oh I’m sorry Seonaid that my post brought back this sad memory. But, you have highlighted the reality of this situation. It’s pretty bad. Maurice has suggested that the only way this problem can be overcome is to educate the consumer about choices made at the market. He points out that assigning social stigma to the purchase of ‘beautiful’ fruit would have, in the long run, the effect of reducing the need for pesticides. If farmers knew that folks would purchase slightly blemished fruit … allowing them to make a living, while using fewer pesticides and fungicides … we’d all be better off … especially the honey bees. The bees are in trouble now … but if this should continue much longer, they’ll REALLY be in trouble. And then folks will say, ‘We didn’t know.’ And they’ll want someone to bring the bees back … which, by that time, may not be possible. Sorry to end on yet another sad note. And, I’ll keep eating those wormy apples, if you will! D

  3. Thanks for that interesting summary! Actually, that topic was a big thing in Austrian politics last year, before elections – as the Austrian Minister of Agriculture and Environment was among those in the EU who voted against banning pesticides. It had been attributed to him being a lobbyist of the Austrian Farmers’ Association – which rather supports the practices used in ‘industrial farming’. He was not a minister anymore after elections.

    • Interesting. I know that farmers often operate on the knife-edge of ruin but I’m convinced that, in the long run, reductions in the rate of pesticide use would certainly be better for the bee population and that can only be good for the growers. Those working with vegetable crops need to understand that if the spraying continues there will, eventually be NO bees and NO vegetables (at least those requiring bee pollination will cease to exist). As Maurice pointed out, the only reasonable way to reverse this behavior is to convince the consumer that less-than-pristine fruit is just as desirable are beautiful fruit … if not more so (for the benefits conferred to the bees). D

      • I was thinking of your post now when I stumbled on this article – about heirloom apple varieties:

        Decription of one of those varieties: “Goodband [a guy you might like, I guess] compares these Knobbed Russets to shrunken heads. Others say potatoes or toads. They’re all gnarled and warty and brown, but don’t be intimidated: They taste great when ripe. They originated in Sussex, England, in 1819.”

        I like those little apples that are not very sweet, actually, rather sour. There are not beautiful, also a bit “warty” and that’s probably the reason you can hardly find them in supermarkets.

        • Absolutely … that is the conclusion that Maurice drew, immediately. If we all could only learn to ‘eat ugly’ we’d all be better off … and so would the honey bee! D

        • Oh … forgot … and thanks for the NPR piece … very interesting. I wish I could grow a beard like Mr. Goodband. And, you are correct, he looks like someone I could get to know, and like very well. D

  4. You are the sort of idealists that help to improve and preserve our world. It is because of people like you and Joanna that good things happen. You have my respect for doing what is right.

  5. The last several years, our various “crops” have had their ups and downs as far as fruit production (vegetables are fruit as far as I am concerned … at least non-root veggies). Last year was quite good, but this year … not so much. There are a few other factors such as blights, but for the most part it has been the absence … partial or total … of honey bees. Plenty of bumbles and wasps visiting the flowers but few if any honeys. Our blueberry crop, which we count on to help us dine on them through the year, was almost non-existent. While not a scientist, I would place the blame squarely on that absence. We use no chemicals … save a little Roundup used sparingly on Poison Ivy. Blighted tomatoes get tossed into the weed and twig piles in our little half acre woods. But our neighbor is visited monthly by the lawn spray folks. Grrrr … I have little hope that what we do makes much of a difference. We’ll continue, but the massive doses of chemicals used in food production seems to rise yearly rather than diminish. We are in a society that relies on easy fixes and worships a quick buck. And now we have GMO’s to wonder and worry about. I think I’ve muttered and rambled enough, but the whole thing is quite depressing.

    • I hear ya Steve, and agree, entirely. Maurice makes an excellent point in his comment below. I believe he is correct when he observes that big business isn’t going to fix this and our government won’t either. He suggests that we need to somehow attach social stigma to ‘beautiful fruit’ choices at the grocer’s. There is now stigma attached to public smoking and this has motivated many who would not have otherwise quit, to do so. If folks begin to feel poorly about choices they make, like demanding only pristine, blemish-free, apples from growers, then perhaps they will turn from those choices to others. If growers know that they can still sell their apples even with a few worm holes, if pears will sell with a bit of rust, and if peaches move from the shelves complete with bruises … then perhaps growers will respond by cutting back on the chemicals. It is depressing to think that our choices as consumers, and choices made in the best interest of making more money have done this to the honey bee. But, you know, the honey bee is only one example of a species in decline as a direct result of our decisions and actions. And, anyway, did anyone ask the honey bee? I do not think so. Hang in there. D

  6. I’m with Maurice. Let’s start an “ugly is beautiful” campaign. Change people’s expectations – and you create real change. Great post. Thank you.

    • Hey Ogee … I too am grateful of and in agreement with Maurice. “Ugly is beautiful,” tremendous. I can see the bumper stickers and t-shirts now! You are correct in that there is really only one way we can motivate change of this sort, by changing expectations. Why is this so clear to us and so unclear to others? Markets are crazy things, aren’t they? And to think that markets and choices have caused this problem? I wish it were otherwise. D

  7. No it isn’t worth it, over here as you say we are in the middle of a two year ban on neonicotinoids. What happens at the end of the ban? There is intensive lobbying from rich chemical producers. Expendable farmed bees are imported over here, to do the work of native bees in decline. I am not comfortable eating honey, as I do not feel that sugar substitute is helpful. Intensive farming, money and the race to feed humans as cheaply as possible are root causes. We garden organically at home but I also recognise the huge food poverty in the world and that there must at some point be a balance between feeding the world and the finite natural resources, including Bees. I hope and pray there can be some resolution. And that research is fair and not biased.

    • It’s interesting that you mention the sugar substitutes. Some research indicates that the high-fructose corn syrups that are being used as feed supplements are somehow involved in all of this! Thanks very much Julie for your informed comments and observations. I think that Maurice has made a good point, in that neither the chemical companies nor our governments can motivate positive change here. What has to happen is that the attitudes and choices of and made by ‘regular’ folks have to change. In the same way that attaching stigma to smoking has changed our habits … perhaps attaching the same to our selection of ‘beautiful’ fruit will motivate a sea of change away from such choices? What do you think? D

      • Yes I agree, the positive power of the consumer is underestimated by the chemical lobbyists. If we shipped less around the world, then the issue of slightly damaged fruit and vegetables would be less important as stock would not go off so quickly in transit. Buying locally would help. Over here any fruits that come in out of season always taste bland and sterile.

  8. I am tempted to note that the worker bees must have joined the workers from Newfoundland Labrador and have gone off to Alberta where the pay is so very much better. But I know that really the whole thing is not funny at all. You raised some very important points and I am right now reassessing my own position. Unfortunately I am one of those who goes for the pretty fruit at the supermarket. Worse still I’m aware of the issue and do nothing about it. That, of course, makes me the worst kind of hypocrite. Starting now I will try to do better. I’ll at least get my own items from places where I know people are trying to do the same. What really needs to happen is so very difficult. The big commercial farms on which we all depend exist in an environment in which the production of imperfect items will lead to bankruptcy. As such, by themselves, the industry members are mostly powerless to effect change. I also think that downloading the issue to government is just a cop out or a political game. They, too, are mostly powerless or disinterested. Nope. In the same way that attaching a social stigma to drinking and driving has greatly curbed it, the same thing can lead to positive change in eating habits. We’ll stop buying “perfect” fruit when doing so becomes socially unacceptable. Then, and only then can farms safely stop producing it. Now, how to get that done? Lots of time will be needed, to be sure. I must say I’m intrigued that a more coordinated effort is not underway to specifically watch producing hives, perhaps using electronic surveillance (finally – a useful application) to try and dig down a little further.

    • Yes indeed … do you know where this quote comes from, “You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both ___ and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement. And that’s what it is, the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacre Movement, and all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it come’s around on the guitar!” So, your point is well taken … if we all can simply change our behavior, we’ll have it made. Now, as you say, how we do that is another issue. It’s one of those things that’ll take generational shifts in opinions. OK … I’m waiting for your identification of the quote. D

  9. Given my recent run-in with the yellow jackets, I am agreeable to letting the honeybees thrive to do their job. As long as the flesh of the fruit is sweet and tasty, and pesticide free, I suppose the outside doesn’t matter much. But people tend to judge books by their covers … so not sure everyone will agree! We have a pear tree in our backyard. It used to produce a few pears but hasn’t in years. You need male and female versions, right?

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