When dead bees don't make a case

  • Tom Theobald

    Cindy Wehling

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

If most beekeepers are the proverbial shy and retiring types, Tom Theobald isn't one of them. From his beeyards in Niwot, just northeast of Boulder, Colo., he has pushed state and federal officials hard to address bee kills he believes have been caused by Penncap-M.

Theobald's outspokenness grew from personal experience.

In the winter of 1992-1993, he discovered that 30 percent of his 300 hives were dead - far above his expected 2-5 percent. Theobald checked the spray records kept by applicators for the state and found that a neighboring farmer had sprayed Penncap on the cornfields near his hives that summer. When he lost more bees the following winter, Theobald checked the records again. Once again, Penncap was used, this time on 12 cornfields within bee-foraging distance.

"That's when I decided to make a formal complaint," says Theobald. "This was more than a coincidence."

A state investigator came and took seven samples from the hives. Six of them tested positive for methyl parathion, the active ingredient in Penncap-M. State officials agreed that the insecticide had probably killed the bees, yet they wrote Theobald a letter telling him they would not pursue any action against the farmer or sprayer. They said they could not be sure where the insecticide came from or whether it was Penncap-M.

Theobald says the evidence pointing to Penncap-M is incontrovertible. There was no spraying of methyl parathion in neighboring fields other than the Penncap-M formulation, he says. Additional testing showed that one 20-acre field of corn, which was shedding pollen and attracting bees, tested positive for methyl parathion even though it wasn't supposed to be sprayed. He estimates that an area many times bigger than the targeted fields was accidentally sprayed.

"Will your tests of the evidence require the crash of a spray plane within the confines of a beeyard to establish any connection between bee kills and Penncap-M?" an exasperated Theobald wrote in response to the state's refusal to pursue his case.

It's extremely difficult to prove summer spraying killed bees in the winter, says John Gerhardt, a Colorado agriculture department staffer.

"Our investigators arrive on the scene months after the spraying takes place," says Gerhardt. "And even if we find methyl parathion, it doesn't mean it was Penncap. In criminal court, you have to prove beyond a doubt that the insecticide has been misapplied."

Gerhardt says the department is hobbled in its investigations by a budget that can't afford an electron microscope needed to identify Penncap capsules in the hive, and that pays the salaries for just 10 investigators statewide. The investigators spend only a small portion of their time looking into bee kills.

Still, Gerhardt says his department is paying more attention to bees because of the complaints of people such as Theobald. The department currently has five bee-kill cases under investigation, including Miles County's case. It also recently held a series of meetings co-sponsored by Penncap's manufacturer, Atochem, to bring growers, applicators and beekeepers together to discuss the issue. Gerhardt says the department is also working with Colorado State University on a study that will determine how much bees use corn pollen.

"Beekeepers say, "You guys haven't done anything for us in 20 years," " says Gerhardt. "Well, I say, let's move into the future instead of dwelling on the past."

To Colorado beekeepers, the state's efforts are window dressing. Many say they were not informed of the meetings with Atochem. The research, they add, is redundant.

"We've known for years that bees use corn," says Theobald. "The Department of Agriculture wants to recreate the science. It's fiddling while Rome burns."

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