Bees under siege

The West’s unsung pollen ranchers struggle against mites, economics and an old killer from the sky

  • Honeybees across the nation were dying in droves

    National Honey Board
  • Illustration of honeybee

    Diane Sylvain
  • Insecticides such as Penncap-M are sprayed on crops - Arizon

    onora Museum
  • Checking pollen

    Western Colorado Honey photo
  • Dead bees blanket the ground around hives

    Nebraska Department of Agriculture photo

When beekeeper Miles County braved cold prairie winds last winter to visit his hives in Lincoln County, Colo., he thought it would be a routine check-up.

Even as he hefted the frames of the first hive, he didn't suspect anything was wrong. The frames felt heavy with the honey and pollen his bees had collected the previous summer from corn and alfalfa, flowering weeds and wildflowers. Bees needed these to survive the long, harsh northeastern Colorado winter.

County found the bees, all right, clustered in a mass of 10,000 or so in the bottom frames. He'd expected them to be there, "holding hands and feet and vibrating" to keep the air temperature at a livable 50 degrees.

But the bees were stone-cold dead.

Frantically, County opened up several more hives. Each held nothing but dead bees.

"After going through seven yards (a yard can contain dozens of hives) of dead bees, I was so sick that I just quit," recalls County, 61. "I called my son and asked him to check on the other yards, and he found only two or three colonies barely alive." County lost 298 of his 320 hives in Lincoln County during the winter of 1995 and 1996. His honey business ground to a halt.

Though County must have felt alone out there on the prairie with his dead bees, he was not. He was part of a fellowship of beekeepers who'd been similarly devastated. Honey bees across the nation were dying in droves, and scientists were calling it a pollination crisis that threatened not only beekeepers but agriculture itself.

The crisis came into focus in the early 1990s, when farmers and gardeners in locales from coast to coast began noticing that fewer bees were flying and fruit trees and vegetables were setting far less fruit than they had in the past. Beekeepers had begun reporting heavy losses in their managed honey bee colonies.

When researchers and scientists pulled the data together, they found a full-blown disaster. Some 25 percent of the farmer-managed bee hives in the country were lost between 1990 and 1995, according to the Department of Agriculture, and by 1996, some scientists believed more than 90 percent of the wild honey bee colonies, which set up hives in places such as barns and the hollows of old trees, had been wiped out.

It was in the agricultural news everywhere: Another Silent Spring. Experts predicted devastating effects on agriculture; honey bees and a host of other insects pollinate 3.5 million acres of crops in the United States. Without bees transferring pollen from male stamens to female stigmas, fewer rivulets of watermelon juice would drip down faces on the Fourth of July, apple juice would sell for the price of champagne, and ranchers and farmers could forget about alfalfa as feed for their herds.

For some in the know, the losses seemed ironic, for the honey bee is a European import, and its suspected assassins were two species of exotic parasitic mites that 10 years ago had found their way to America from Asia and Europe. The exotic mites were literally sucking the life out of the exotic bees. Conservationists pressed for the protection of the nation's long-overlooked native bees, which pollinate crops and native plants alike (see story next page).

Miles County might have become another statistic in the honey bee story of decline, except for this: He didn't believe mites were the problem. He had inoculated his hives with pesticide strips that kill mites without killing bees.

County turned to Lyle Johnston of Rocky Ford, Colo., the state's biggest beekeeper and president of the Colorado Beekeepers Association. Johnston told County he suspected local farmers of using pesticides that kill bees, in particular an encapsulated form of the insecticide methyl parathion.

Registered under the trademark name Penncap-M, the insecticide had regained popularity with sprayers and farmers in recent years to control corn rootworm. Corn rootworm is the larval form of a beetle that attacks the roots of corn plants, weakening them to the point of toppling.

Penncap has a reputation as the worst bee-killer on the market; beekeepers blame it for millions of dollars in losses each year. But the powerful insecticide has been largely overlooked as a factor in the current bee crisis.

County called the pesticides office within the Colorado Department of Agriculture to report his losses and to talk about Penncap-M. The department, too, had a reputation: Beekeepers felt it took the side of farmers when losses to pesticides were discovered.

The investigator at first told him, "Mites killed these bees," says County, who has raised bees for 25 years. "I told him, "I'm no rookie. I've taken all the precautions to prevent mites. And anyway, mites might kill 20, 30 or even 40 percent of a hive, but not 95 percent." "

County finally persuaded the investigator to take a half-dozen samples from the hives for lab analysis.

"He kept asking me, 'Who you gonna sue?' I told him, 'I just need to know what killed my bees.' "

Now, almost a year later, County says he still hasn't heard from the state agriculture department. It was Lyle Johnston who finally received the test results on the samples taken from County's hives: Two tested positive for methyl parathion.

A powerless subculture

County and the other beekeepers might be better off if mites were the problem. Then they could work harmoniously with chemical companies to find a better mite-fighting insecticide. But when a pesticide is the problem, the politically weak and unorganized beekeepers are pitted against both farmers and the chem-ag industries.

Though 25 years old, the battle between beekeepers and Penncap-M is not well-known to the public. Yet it stirs the blood of beekeepers and farmers like nothing else. A window into the beekeeper's world, it reveals how a subculture has struggled to survive within agriculture.

Despite agriculture's dependence on bees, beekeepers lack clout with most farmers and regulators - and they're considered a nuisance by chemical companies and aerial sprayers. First, not all farmers depend on bees; some crops, such as corn, are wind-pollinated. Second, beekeepers don't own the land on which their "livestock" feed. They are most often "squatters' on the corners of farmers' fields, providing honey to the farmer in return.

There are other reasons, too, ranging from small numbers (there're just 1,600 commercial beekeepers in the country) to worldwide economic forces, to the cussedly independent nature of the beekeepers themselves. Their powerlessness shows in many ways, but nowhere is it more apparent than in their efforts to control the use of the deadly Penncap-M.

A bee killer is born

Penncap-M was supposed to be a wonder drug for both beekeepers and farm workers. The insecticide's active ingredient is methyl parathion, a product of World War II nerve gas research. Unlike the banned DDT, which is moderately toxic but persists for decades in the environment, methyl parathion is potent and short-lived. An applicator can spray a field before sunrise and a few hours later, when the bees become active, the field will be safe again.

Methyl parathion is so short-lived, in fact, that chemical companies sought to extend its life in the fields. In the late 1960s, the Pennwalt Corp. seized on the newly developed ink-cartridge technology to develop a technique for encapsulating methyl parathion. Known as Penncap-M, the tiny capsules, almost invisible at just 30 microns in size, were safe to handle and could be sprayed from an airplane like dust onto fields. There, they would slowly disintegrate over a period of days, releasing a drop of water that upon drying emits the insecticide in a gaseous state.

Penncap's longer life in the field posed a major problem for foraging bees. They cannot be contained in hives for more than a few hours during the warm months. But beekeepers soon found that an even graver threat was involved.

The capsules look and act much like grains of pollen. They readily adhere to bee hairs and are packed along with pollen into the bees' "saddle bags." Under the right conditions, the capsules are carried by foraging "fielder bees' back to the hives where they are stored with pollen reserves. Packed in with the pollen, the capsules stay moist, retaining their potency.

The stored Penncap-M turned hives into concentrated time bombs. Researchers believe they go off in the late winter when worker bees tap into their contaminated pollen reserves and begin feeding newly hatched larvae. It's a meal that poisons them both.

When Penncap-M first hit the market in the early 1970s, beekeepers almost immediately began to find dead bees. One of the most spectacular losses occurred in 1976, when a commercial beekeeper in Lewiston, Idaho, reportedly lost 1,000 honey colonies because of aerially applied Penncap-M that drifted over blooming alfalfa fields. Other Penncap-M-related kills were reported in orchards in Washington state and in alfalfa and corn fields in Iowa, California and Colorado.

Retired Washington State University entomologist Carl Johansen, who performed some of the early research, says Penncap-M's effects on bees caught most people by surprise.

"The first formulations looked pretty benign; in fact we thought encapsulation would be less dangerous, but we found out very differently later," says Johansen. "Penncap is the worst thing we've had to deal with for bees in terms of pesticides."

Johansen says Penncap-M is most dangerous when applied to blooming crops or when blooming weeds are present in or near the fields being sprayed, since that's when bees are out gathering food. "If it's applied at the right time, it's not a problem for bees," he says. "But it's very easily misused."

Though beekeepers made enough noise about Penncap-M to get Johansen and others to do some basic research, they lacked the political heft to get the EPA to ban the formulation. The agency instead beefed up the warning on the instructions provided to users. Meanwhile, Pennwalt successfully registered Penncap for use on a whole variety of crops, including corn, beans, cotton and fruit trees.

During the 1980s, Penncap use dropped as growers turned to a newer generation of pesticides. Government money for research on its effects dried up. Today, while a few scientists in the country study the effects of pesticides on bees, they often get money from the chemical companies, and the rest have headed to where the bee action is: parasitic mites and the highly publicized Africanized bees.

When the French multinational corporation Elf Aquataine bought out Pennwalt in 1989 and formed a new subsidiary called Elf Atochem North America Inc., based in Philadelphia, Atochem began marketing Penncap-M in new areas, including fruit orchards and corn.

Beekeepers say another wave of bee deaths has followed, and there is evidence to back them up. The Washington State Department of Agriculture reported that approximately 12,500 colonies of honey bees were poisoned by insecticides in 1992, half by Penncap-M. The Central Washington Beekeepers Association estimated the cost at more than $1 million in lost honey production and hives. Fruitgrowers may have taken a hit, too, from inadequate pollination. Though those losses are not calculated, the value of crops pollinated by bees in the state exceeded $1 billion in 1991.

King corn

Penncap's resurgence has perhaps hit hardest in the corn-growing regions of Nebraska, a place where beekeepers are the weakest. Corn is pollinated by wind, not bees, so beekeepers are viewed like the fish which survive on the underbellies of sharks: They are tolerated so long as they don't cause trouble.

Trouble arrived in the early 1990s when Penncap-M became the insecticide of choice for killing corn rootworm, says Geir Friisoe, who heads the state's pesticides program. Farmers began spraying Penncap several times a year, including late summer when the adult corn rootworm beetles are feeding on the pollen-shedding corn tassels and about to lay their eggs for next year's generation of hungry larvae.

Unfortunately, Friisoe says, this is also the only time of year bees are attracted to the crop.

Beekeepers reported that pesticides killed some 400 hives in 1994, says Friisoe. In response, the state told Atochem that it might not renew its annual registration for Penncap-M. The company quickly volunteered to help fund and develop an education program for growers, applicators and beekeepers on how to use their product safely. The state backed down and renewed Penncap's registration.

Corngrowers and aerial applicators, however, were still angry. They saw the state's threat as an attempt to take away one of their most effective and cheap insecticides: An aerial application of Penncap effectively killed both corn rootworm beetles and earworm borers, a clear advantage over insecticides applied to the soil. And bees, of course, were unnecessary.

Some farmers kicked bee hives off their property, and agriculture interests tried to push a bill through the 1995 legislature to tightly regulate beekeepers. Though it didn't become law, beekeepers saw the bill as a direct retaliation for their complaints.

Bad feelings persist.

"None of us likes to hear of losses," wrote Nebraska Corn Grower's Association president Ron Ochsner in the August 1996 newsletter. "But once again the issue seems to be that someone wants to tell me ... what I can't do on my own property."

Though the honey bee is Nebraska's state insect, chemically grown corn is king. George Bunnell, past president of the Nebraska Beekeepers Assocation, estimates that the number of hives in the state has dropped from 150,00 to 75,000 in the last decade. Penncap provided a final reason for many beekeepers to move on to less lethal pastures.

Meanwhile, the state pesticides division says it has yet to find a case where Penncap-M has been misapplied.

The beekeepers' reluctance to take on the powerful agricultural interests in Nebraska is not limited to that state. Even in states where the beekeepers' pollination services are essential for the farmer's success, such as Colorado, California and Washington, they try to keep a low profile.

"There're thousands of hives being lost in our state to Penncap," says Colorado beekeeper Lyle Johnston, "but most beekeepers just brush it under the rug."

Jerry Stroope, a Texas beekeeper who is president of the American Honey Producers, is more blunt. "If you have beekeepers raising cain about Penncap and it gives trouble to the landowners applying it, well, they just tell the beekeepers to get off their land," he says. "The beekeepers are silenced by intimidation."

Even Colorado's Miles County, who estimates he had to destroy about $60,000 worth of hives and other equipment last winter for fear it was contaminated with Penncap-M, says that he isn't looking for a fight. "I've known the (local) applicator all my life," says County. "If he'd just say he's sorry and that his insurance could cover some of my losses ... But no."

Leonard Felix, who sprays crops on Colorado's Western Slope, says he tries to inform beekeepers about his flights. "But they don't want anyone to know where they put their hives because they're competing against each other for the best locations. Sometimes we can't even find the owners," he says. "Meanwhile, a farmer is about to lose his crop from an infestation. We're caught between a rock and a hard place."

Adventures in labeling

Beekeepers say their passivity is reinforced by state regulators who are allied with growers and rarely take their side in pesticide-kill cases.

It's not that regulators lack tools. The primary one is an EPA-approved label which reads: "This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment or residues on crops or blooming weeds. Do not apply this product or allow it to drift to blooming crops or weeds if bees are visiting areas to be treated."

For Tom Theobald, a beekeeper near Niwot, Colo., the warning is plain and simple: "If an applicator sprays Penncap-M and bees die, then the applicator is liable." But as in Nebraska, pesticide officials in Colorado have never found an applicator or farmer in violation of the label. For one thing, they say, it is almost impossible to prove that a certain applicator is responsible for the death of bees, especially when the kills occur months after pesticides are sprayed.

That angers Theobald, who has tried unsuccessfully to convince regulators that Penncap-M is responsible for his high winter kills over the past few years.

"We're expected to be out there exposed to the hazard, but when the damage is done all we get is, "Oops, we'll do better next time," or "It must have been the mites' or "We didn't think bees would fly that far," " says Theobald. "Well, that's not good enough."

Beekeepers have more clout with regulators in other states. Following the heavy bee losses of 1992, the state of Washington went beyond the EPA level and developed a more restrictive set of rules guiding Penncap's application. The new regulations prohibit the application of the insecticide on "blossoming plants and on pollen-shedding corn," and also prohibit its use in orchards until 30 days after most fruit trees have bloomed.

Orchardists complained that the new regulations were too restrictive, says Cliff Weed, program manager for the state's pesticides division. But the number of bee-kill complaints has dropped from nearly 100 during 1992 to just a few last year.

"We feel that it is a good balance between protecting bees and still allowing the product to be used," Weed says.

Varying state regulations make an uneven playing field: California also has stricter rules for the use of Penncap around its valuable fruit and nut orchards, but Nebraska and Colorado rely solely on the federal label. While the farmer in Washington can't spray Penncap-M on corn shedding pollen, a Nebraska farmer can, as long as the applicator says he checked and didn't find any bees using the fields before the spraying.

"I've hated to watch beekeepers in every state having to fight their own battle against Penncap," says Jim Bach, the apiarist for Washington state. "I think the product is so tough on bees that it just shouldn't be used unless there are absolutely no blooms of any kind around."

Bach says he believes the national label should keep Penncap out of fields with blooms, but regulators, applicators and Atochem have pushed for a more liberal interpretation.

The liability potential scares farmers and applicators, says Jim Downing of the Environmental Protection Agency. "You could see how if you took the warning literally you could drive every applicator out of business," says Downing. One single bee flying over the field at the wrong time could make the applicator liable, he says.

In an attempt to "improve" the label for Penncap-M and other pesticides, Downing recently convened a group of farmers, applicators, state regulators and beekeepers. The group will come up with new bee-warning language within the next few months, says Downing.

One of the members of the EPA's States Labeling Issues Panel (SLIP) is Gene Brandi, president of the American Beekeepers Association. Brandi says he will present to the group some language that would strengthen protections for bees, but he recognizes that farmers and applicators will probably find it too restrictive.

Brandi, who says he has seen the killing effects of Penncap several times in his 19-year beekeeping career, asks, "Am I naive to think that the EPA is really interested in protecting bees? Probably."

Brandi says even in California, where regulators have restricted Penncap-M to protect the pollination of orchards worth hundreds of million of dollars, beekeepers have to maintain constant vigilance. He recently received a notice from the state that Atochem wants to register Penncap-M for California's cotton crop.

"Cotton blooms are incredibly attractive to bees," says Brandi. "What state that realizes how important bees are would propose that we use Penncap in cotton?"

An industry in transition

Some people think beekeepers are a bunch of whiners. Colorado applicator Leonard Felix says beekeepers blame Penncap for losses caused by mites and weather.

"The beekeepers say, 'It's gotta be somebody, so it must be those stinkin' airplanes,' " he says. "They've just got it in their heads that this is a bad product."

Atochem's Nebraska representative, Bill Smith, agrees. "There's 180 chemicals that have been found to kill bees," says Smith. "If we sprayed the same amount of another pesticide, such as Furadan, we'd still have bee kills."

Smith says there have been incidents in Nebraska where an applicator has directly sprayed bee colonies because he didn't know they were there. "That's not a Penncap problem, that's a communication problem," he says. "What we have is two groups - the applicators and the beekeepers - who are independent businessmen. Some work together and a few just don't want to cooperate."

Washington bee inspector Jim Bach agrees that beekeepers are good at grousing.

He says beekeepers also have plenty of things to worry about besides Penncap, including the "queen" problem. Beekeepers have reported that a higher percentage of egg-laying queen bees seem to be dying off soon after introduction into a hive. Researchers speculate that inbreeding may be producing queens that don't give off the right pheromones, says Bach. Those odors direct the hive's behavior, including the essential task of feeding the queen.

But beyond biology there are complex economic forces at work in the beekeeper's world.

Most beekeepers are undercapitalized and part time, existing on the fringes of agriculture. In an industry that has become more and more competitive and complex, most beekeepers lack economic sophistication; they charge growers too little for the use of their hives and they undercut each other's prices to get into the fields, says Bach.

When hard times hit, they may cut back on providing their hives with extra food, usually sugar water and protein, to get through the winter, or on buying pesticide strips to protect hives from mites. The industry was also hurt by the dumping of cheap Chinese and Mexican honey, which drove some beekeepers out of business, as well as the loss of federal honey price supports.

Of the 211,600 beekeepers in the country, some 200,000 are hobbyists with less than 25 hives; another 10,000 are part-timers with less than 300 hives; just 1,600 are commercial keepers with more than 300 hives. Nationwide, the number of managed hives has dropped from a high of 5.9 million in 1947 to 1.9 million by the end of 1996.

On the commercial side of the industry, it may be that beekeeping is following that old agricultural rule: Get big or die.

Coloradan Lyle Johnston, who is a third generation beekeeper, represents the most sophisticated level of beekeeping. Not only is he big - he owns nearly 10,000 hives in Colorado and California - but he is mobile. Every year, he loads 3,000 of his Colorado hives on 25 semi-trucks and hauls them to California to pollinate almond orchards in the Central Valley. There, almond growers hire nearly 1 million bee hives to pollinate their trees, and nearly two-thirds of the hives now come from places as far away as Florida.

Johnston's operation has other strengths. He is diversified, with half of his business in pollination and the other half in honey production. He also provides a safe home in Colorado for his bees, since local growers and sprayers in Colorado's Arkansas Valley don't use Penncap. It doesn't hurt, he admits, that the farmers primarily grow cantaloupe and watermelons, two bee-dependent crops.

Still, Johnston worries about his bees getting hit by Penncap. Lately, Washington orchard growers have been enticing beekeepers north from California after the almond season to pollinate their early fruit trees. But, he says, "I won't touch that place, because they still use a lot of Penncap up there."

Johnston realizes that most small-time beekeepers don't have his location or mobility. "Those are the guys that can get completely wiped out by Penncap," he says.

Into the future

Most beekeepers are resigned to living with tough economic conditions, mites and Penncap-M. "It's a labor of love," says Theobald. "No one in their right mind would get into this as a business venture."

Almost everyone who is touched by the Penncap issue says better education and communication will help beekeepers cope with the insecticide.

Atochem officials say their company is sincere in its desires to protect bees from Penncap, noting they have a research project underway looking into a bee repellent that might keep bees out of fields sprayed with Penncap. The company is also working on a new pesticide that will help beekeepers fight mites, says Atochem's Colorado representative, Scott Enman. "Hopefully, that will give us more of an understanding of their world, and them more an understanding of ours," he says.

But beekeepers have little faith in Atochem or the regulators. Nebraska beekeeper George Bunnell says he sees hope for beekeepers in the long run - but not because of new regulations, education or cooperation. Eventually, corn growers will turn to another chemical, he says, because the pests will develop a resistance to Penncap. Or maybe researchers will develop a new strain of corn resistant to rootworm. "Technology got us into this mess," he says, "and it's going to take technology to get us out of it."

Other beekeepers continue to push hard for a quicker solution. The Rocky Mountain Ranchers and Farmers Union of Colorado, which represents 11,000 members, recently came out in support of a nationwide ban on Penncap-M.

"There are a lot less dangerous alternatives out there," says Paul Limbach, a beekeeper from Silt, Colo. "They might cost a little more at first, but the price would drop as they become more widely used."

Johnston, whose grandfather first started raising bees in 1908, says, "If coyotes or birds were being baited like our bees are, there would be a large outcry. But bees are just like the air we breathe: They're taken for granted."

And so, Johnston might add, are beekeepers.

Paul Larmer is HCN's associate editor.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Natives emerge from the shadows

- Leonard Felix (defends the pesticides he uses)

- Miles County (explains why he thinks pesticides are killing his hives)

- When dead bees don't make a case

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