HONEY BEE HEALTH had the entomologists buzzing and the grad students searching for answers at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in San Diego. For several years now specialists have been spinning speculative theories as to why the pollinating honey bees of commerce, mostly the species known as Apis mellifera, have been in such sad shape. Isaac Newton had the proverbial apple bonk him awake to gravity. Bee entomologists have not yet had that magical bee sting in the butt “Aha” moment.
But there seems no getting away from the problem, as keepers of bee hives an ocean away from the USA are also getting stung with big losses, from what is dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD). What has entomologists scurrying to their Petri dishes and bee hives and firing up surveillance cameras, chromatographs and mass spectrometers is a study titled “High Levels of Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries: Implications for Honey Bee Health.” Christopher Mullin of The Pennsylvania State University, a self-described connoisseur of how poisons work, and several colleagues “found 121 different pesticides and metabolites within 887 wax, pollen, bee and associated hive samples” from 23 states and one Canadian province. Enough to induce sleep-loss and second thoughts about the health and sleep-inducing effects of commercial honey products.
Surveillance cameras, 24-hours a day, are the best way to monitor and gather numerical data on how pesticides affect honeybees, Cornhusker grad student Bethany Teeters told the ESA in her prize-winning poster, “Bees under surveillance.” Being more video than even an insomniac can sanely watch, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln entomology lab delegates the task to “state-of-the-art detection” software: namely EthoVision XT, which Noldus Information Technology calls “the most widely applied video tracking software that tracks and analyses the behavior, movement, and activity of any animal” from “lab animals in mazes to farm animals in stables.” No doubt what Geoge Orwell would have used in his Animal Farm novel, had he written it in 2011 rarther than 1946.
“Honey bees are exposed to sublethal doses of pesticides on a regular, often chronic, basis,” Teeters told the ESA. “For instance, the pyrethroid tau-fluvalinate (Apistan(R)) is one of many pesticides applied directly into the hive to control the parasitic mite Varroa destructor. Although tau-fluvalinate is considered safe for honey bees, potential effects of sublethal intoxication remain unexplored.” Same goes for coumaphos, also used to treat for Varroa mites.
“Honey bees may also encounter sublethal doses of pesticides while foraging,” said Teeters. “Systemic pesticides, including the neonicotinoid imidacloprid, have become prominent in U.S. crop pest management. This raises concerns about the consequences of sublethal exposure to systemic pesticides in nectar and pollen that honey bees visit in addition to chronic exposure to residues in the hive. Decline in colony health has been associated with ppm (parts per million) pesticide residues in hive products, and the neonicotinoid can impair honey bee health at ppb (parts per billion) levels.”
Teeters surveillance videos of bees exposed to sublethal pesticide doses in Petri dishes revealed that bees exposed to tiny traces of tau-fluvalinate spend more time socially interacting. Bees exposed to imidacloprid spend less time socially interacting and more time eating. Next step is studies to see if this is true in actual honey bee hives, and whether colony health is impacted.
Natalie Boyle, a graduate student at Washington State University in Pullman, studied the effects of Varroa mite pesticides on honey bee hives in Moscow, Idaho. Honey bee adults stressed by miticide residues died sooner and did less reproductive swarming. But they compensated with increased brood production. “While our results are preliminary, if we find that pesticide residues in brood comb adversely affect colony health, it would suggest that regular brood comb replacement in beekeeping operations might be a suitable management strategy,” said Boyle. “Similarly, approaches to reduce miticide applications in beehives and pesticide exposure in agricultural field settings would be highly beneficial.”
Back at The Pennsylvania State University, graduate student Daniel Schmehl noted that the Varroa mite-killing chemicals coumaphos and tau-fluvalinate were found in almost every honey bee hive sampled in North America. Furthermore, these two chemicals were “associated with reduced queen weight and reduced ovary development.” After six days chronic exposure to tau-fluvalinate in cage studies, worker bees were less attracted to queen bees. This was possibly “due to changes in pheromone production from the queen or pheromone recognition by the workers.”
On the West Coast, at the University of California, San Diego, graduate student Daren Eiri explored how sublethal doses of the pesticide imidacloprid can subtly alter foraging habits in ways that weaken honey bee colonies. A common lab assay used to assess foraging is stimulating the honey bee antenna with sucrose, which elicits the proboscis (tongue) extension reflex (PER). PER is the lab equivalent of natural honey bee behavior in the field when foragers are stimulated by nectar. The pesticide seemed to make the bees “become pickier when foraging for nectar sources, possibly limiting the colony intake and storage of their only carbohydrate.” Pollen foraging may also be reduced, and “the colony would therefore suffer a protein deficit, resulting in lessened brood production and a dwindling population.”
Though the mystery of colony collapse disorder (CCD) is far from solved, current agriculture practices do not seem to be making honey bee colonies healthier, to say the least. But the collapse of the imported honey bee may have a silver lining: It is spurring agriculture to turn to previously neglected native pollinators. But the rise of the native pollinators is another story, for another time.