June 9, 2013

Pollinators in peril

Peter Hagar, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County

---- — You may have heard that honey bees have been disappearing and that the Department of Agriculture still doesn’t quite know why. The conclusions of a recent USDA report pointed to a multitude of causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) including the Verroa Mite, pesticide residues, several viruses and a bacterial disease called foulbrood.

Since CCD is a combination of symptoms, it is difficult to put the blame on any one cause. One of the problems with determining a cause is that the main symptom of CCD is finding few or no adult honey bees present in the hive. There is often a live queen, honey in the combs and immature bees in the hive, but no dead honey bee bodies to be found. Varroa mites, a virus-transmitting parasite of honey bees, have frequently been found in hives hit by CCD.

Why is this of such concern? Honey bees and other pollinators are essential to farmers for the production of agricultural crops from apples to zucchini. The USDA estimates that honey bees help pollinate crops worth more than $200 billion per year. Just honey alone had a value of $261 million in 2011.

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2011 New York had about 49,000 colonies that produced 56 pounds of honey each with a value of $5.378 million. Honey prices climbed to record highs in 2012 making for an even bigger impact.

Even with such a demand for bees as pollinators and record-high honey prices, CCD has made it extremely difficult for commercial beekeepers to stay in business. Before CCD was first noticed in 2006, beekeepers experienced normal annual losses of 10 to 15 percent of their hives, but in recent years that number has been 28 percent to 38 percent of all commercial hives. On average, US beekeepers lost 45 percent of their colonies this past year with local reports of losses of up to 65 percent of all colonies being affected by CCD.

With an average value of $200 per hive, these losses are adding up into the millions of dollars.

While the USDA’s report was careful not to jump to conclusions, some environmental groups believe that pesticides, particularly a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, are suspected as a contributor to colony collapse disorder. These nicotine-like insecticides are particularly problematic because they are “systemic” pesticides that get into all tissues of the plant — including the nectar and pollen that bees collect.

So far there has been no clear evidence that any pesticide is causing colony collapse disorder, but it is possible that pesticide exposure combined with diseases or other factors is contributing to the collapse of colonies.

Farmers dependent upon bees for pollination are always careful about pesticide use during critical blossom periods. To become certified to apply pesticides, farmers must attend a 30-hour course, pass a test and continue to take refresher classes to maintain their permit.

One of the biggest concerns of local beekeepers is that pesticide use around lawns and gardens is far less regulated. Common garden pesticides such as Sevin are extremely toxic to honeybees and are often used at times when the bees are actively pollinating.

What can we do to help?

If you have a home garden, try to limit the pesticides used to control insects, especially when they begin to flower. Bees and other pollinators can be killed outright by many common garden insecticides right along with pest insects. Plant a bee garden or allow bee-friendly lawn weeds to flower before mowing. While dandelions and clover are often seen as unwanted weeds in a lawn, they are some of the best flowers for bees to harvest nectar and pollen. 

Another great way to help bees locally is to support local beekeepers by buying your honey direct from a local producer or farmers market. Many roadside vegetable stands and orchards will sell honey from a beekeeper with hives on the farm. With beekeepers struggling to cope with the losses of their bees from CCD, you will be supporting your local bees and the local agricultural economy.

For more information and the latest research about CCD and bee health, visit

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901. Call 561-7450.