City Paper is not for tourists
Jay Jones lives in a moneyed subdivision in Centreville. The houses are set well back from the road, newish and rambling in a style best described as Late Century Upper Management. Like his neighbors, Jones has a pool in back and a selection of hulking, high-end vehicles in front. Unlike his neighbors, he also has half a million bees in his backyard. The 20 hives are set way back in the timber, surrounded by a tall wooden fence, which is in turn hidden by 7-foot-tall hedges. The hives don’t look like much, but Jones harvested well over a ton of honey from them last year. Though he’s had the bees for six years, none of his neighbors had any idea until this spring, when Jones’ “girls,” as he calls them, went inexplicably feral and swarmed a nearby house.
Jack Passante, the unlucky neighbor, says that back in early April he woke up one day to find his house, yard, and swimming pool covered with bees. “I couldn’t even go outside,” says Passante, still clearly irritated. He shows me several photos he took of his covered pool, dozens of bees clustered on the tarp. “You could see them all over the yard, hovering above the grass. One night we came around the bend in the road that leads to our house, and there was just a fog of bees in the middle of the road, you could barely see.”
Passante has a daughter who’s allergic to bees—a single sting could send her into anaphylactic shock, so she was essentially under house arrest until the bees decamped, which they did a few days later. But they didn’t return to their hive. They simply disappeared and are presumed dead. This troubles Jones, but it doesn’t surprise him. He’s lost more than half his bees since mid-March.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Jones, absent-mindedly brushing bees off his shirt. “Swarming Jack’s house is just weird. I opened my hives this spring and out of 20, 10 were just empty. No dead bees or anything; the bees had just left. I have no idea why. I bought five packages of bees to replace them [a package contains approximately 10,000 bees] and right away, half of those bees disappeared.”
He shows me an abandoned hive. A frenzy of bees erupts from the two adjacent hives, but this one is completely empty. Bees will usually plunder what’s left when other bees leave, but this honey is untouched, except for a few dozen ants swollen freakishly large from the rich diet. Jones also indicates a cone of wax mushrooming from the top of the hive, something he says he’s never seen before and is convinced is connected to the die-offs of his bees. When Jones removes the top of the box, a few bees, attracted by the scent of honey, land on the hive but are immediately repelled by some unseen force.
“Something’s wrong,” says Jones, rubbing his freckled pate.
You’ve probably heard that something—no one knows what—is killing bees. From D.C. to California, and as far away as Europe, beekeepers opened their hives this spring and collectively soiled their pristine white suits. It wasn’t that the hives were filled with dead bees; they were just empty. It seemed as if the bees had flown away and decided not to come back. Out of the 2.6 million hives in the United States, experts estimate that more than 600,000 disappeared during this past winter; at a conservative estimate of 50,000 bees per hive, that’s 30 billion bees that have vanished since last fall. This statistic might seem rather abstract. But a third of all the food we eat in this country is directly dependent on pollination by honeybees—the very same bees that are dropping faster than real-estate prices in Baghdad.
Experts have coined this spring’s mysterious bee plague Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Theories as to its cause have proliferated like cockroaches. You’ve got your GM-crop haters who blame artificial genes gone berserk. You’ve got your cell-phone conspiracy theorists citing a recently debunked German study that seemed to indicate emissions from certain types of phones interfere with bees’ ability to navigate their way back to the hive. Some people think CCD is caused by a new virus, a kind of honeybee AIDS. Still others point to high-voltage power lines—which, over the years, have been suspected of causing everything from cancer to autism. And finally, there are those who think that bees might be a “sentinel species” and that CCD is the opening note of a catastrophic environmental meltdown, Mother Nature’s final payback for centuries of bad behavior.
In the meantime, a group of scientists and apiarists have formed the CCD Working Group, devoted to discovering the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. The group testified to Congress about CCD in March. But in the rush to find a culprit, researchers and beekeepers alike have overlooked a rather obvious possibility: Perhaps the beekeepers themselves are killing the bees.
The summer meeting of the Virginia State Beekeepers Association was held the last weekend in April in Sandston, Va., in a recreational center across from a Little League baseball field. Most of the conversation centers around queen management, maximizing profits, “those darn mites,” and creative winter feeding solutions. (Did you know you can get a 50-pound block of Oreo filling for 35 bucks?) Surprisingly, very few of the beekeepers in attendance had seen the kind of drastic reduction in numbers associated with Colony Collapse Disorder. Brenda Kiessling of Vienna lost only two out of 16 hives this year, “a normal number,” and Billy Davis of Loudoun lost only 12 out of 100. In contrast to the near panic depicted by the news media, Colony Collapse was regarded with amused skepticism, the latest in a long line of big city/big government/big business/big media–manufactured hysterias, à la Y2K, mutually assured destruction, and color-coded terror alerts.
During the raffle—first prize is a queen bee, “shipping and handling not included”—I wander over to talk to Jerry Hayes, the Chief Apiary Inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture (Florida is a major state in the bee industry, as large-scale apiarists often winter their hives in warmer Southern climes). He’s on the special CCD Working Group, and all of the people I talked to at the meeting referred me to Hayes as “the CCD expert.”
Hayes’ theory is that CCD is being caused by “a combination of chemical toxins—pesticides for example—and other pathogens. Immune system suppression is also probably a factor.” But what’s causing the immune system of bees to crap out? “Stress,” he says. When I share my observation that the vast majority of the smaller beekeepers in attendance haven’t had Jones’ experience of massive losses and haunted hives, Hayes nods, unsurprised. “It’s worst [with] big, commercial beekeepers.”
This is a common sentiment in the CCD debate. Compared to the bucolic trappings of small-scale beekeeping, with its stationary hives and natural feeding practices, commercial beekeeping operations are like entomological concentration camps. Large-scale apiarists maintain hundreds or thousands of hives, gorging the bees on high-fructose corn syrup in the winter, then dousing them in pesticides in the spring to kill mites (“They usually hire Mexicans to do that,” one beekeeper told me.) They then take them on the road in 18-wheelers, all the way across the country. Once the bees have reached their destination, they’re unleashed to pollinate fields and groves, then packed up and trucked back home. Transporting bees long distances is SOP for modern industrial beekeeping—but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the bees. A significant percentage of the increase in dead bees seems directly related to moving the hives.
Dean Burroughs is a bald, compact man with large, stony-looking hands, kind of a cross between Elmer Fudd and Jack Dempsey. Burroughs used to coach tennis at Salisbury University in Maryland, but nowadays he’s a full-time beekeeper. He keeps 200 hives secreted in glades and hidden clearings around Salisbury, close to the Delaware border. Every spring he takes 150 of his hives to area farms—none of them more than 10 miles away—to pollinate apples and strawberries. The other 50 hives he leaves in one place all year, for honey production.
“The hives I don’t move, they see losses of about 25 percent a year,” Burroughs says. “But the ones I move, even just a couple miles down the road, 60 percent of them die, easy.”
A lot of beekeepers will swear up and down that driving bees around is not bad for them at all. Burroughs’ setup is a small one in the commercial beekeeping world, but with its control group of stationary bees and an experimental group that travels, all other factors being identical, it provides near-unassailable proof that moving bees around kills them.
C.O. Smith of Boonesboro, a sleepy town between Frederick and Hagerstown, is also familiar with the perils of taking bees on the road. A 56-year veteran of the beekeeping business, he rents 1,000 to 1,500 hives a year to a middleman who drives them to California on the lucrative pollination circuit. Smith says that on the return trip at the end of the summer, the bees are particularly tired of the road. “Nowadays we use a rotation of several drivers who go straight through from the West Coast to Maryland.…When one guy gets tired, another one takes the wheel, so there’s never any stopping at all,” he says. “Before, we had just one driver, who had to stop to eat and sleep. The trip took five or six days then, but even just the couple additional days doubled or more the percentage of bees we’d lose.”
Anyone who’s ever taken a cat to the vet, much less cross-country, knows that most animals do not like car rides. Now imagine taking a flying insect across the country in the back of a truck, where it’s unable to fly and stays in complete darkness. Bees, which function almost entirely by smell, spend days on end inundated with car exhaust and diesel fumes. In this context, it’s surprising any survive. Even before CCD, these industrial beekeepers routinely saw losses of 30 to 40 percent, basically from working malnourished, stressed-out bees to death.
Even though large-scale beekeepers know that moving hives is bad for the bees, the pollination circuit is so profitable that many of them feel they have no choice, especially with cheap honey flooding in from overseas depressing what people will pay for the homegrown stuff. Many of these commercial pollinators make most, if not all, of their yearly income in the months between May and September. So if they have to choose between feeding their kids and working their bees to death, well, a package of new bees is only $50.
Once the bees get to where they’re going, they’re forced to subsist on a single pollen source—whatever crop they’ve been leased to pollinate. This unbalanced diet is as bad for them as it is for us: Imagine what would happen to your body if you ate nothing but, say, pancakes for a month.
One day in May, Burroughs takes me to a farm close to his home in Salisbury where his bees have been leased to pollinate a cantaloupe patch. From a distance, the fields look barren. When we get closer, we see the baby cantaloupe vines just sprouting from the ground, maybe 6 or 8 inches high with small blossoms here and there. Nearby a dozen hives sit against a windbreak, inactive in the midafternoon lull. (Like people in more civilized countries, bees nap in the afternoon.) Home base for Burroughs’ bees is in the middle of the forest, surrounded by thickets of deliriously blossoming trees, wildflowers, and clover, compared to which the cantaloupe field seems like a desert. When I remark on this, Burroughs is sheepish.
“Well, that’s why we have to feed them the corn syrup,” he says.
In the back of Burroughs’ truck is a huge tank filled with a viscous amber-colored liquid—high-fructose corn syrup 55. “The same thing they put in Coke and Pepsi!” says Burroughs. He dispenses the syrup into feeding buckets he’s rigged to emit a trickle and sets them on top of his hives. Many commercial crops—vine crops like watermelon and cantaloupe, for example—don’t yield enough nectar for bees to accumulate stores, so when winter or early spring rolls around, the bees are out of food. Normally they’d fall back on honey, but that’s long since been harvested by the beekeeper and shipped to grocery stores and farmers’ markets. So beekeepers cover this shortfall by feeding bees high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS—the same substance manufacturers add to everything from soda to ketchup and the stuff many nutritionists believe is turning Americans into obese, wheezing, diabetic, cancer-ridden couch manatees.
When CCD first broke last fall—before it was even called Colony Collapse—a lot of people pointed the finger at high-fructose corn syrup. Some suspected contamination from genetically modified corn; others just surmised that this shit was no better for bees than it is for us. A lot of beekeepers stopped using HFCS, joining a small number of purists who’d always shunned it, preferring instead to feed the bees honey. This costs the beekeepers money, since honey still fetches a decent price on the market, but it pays off in other ways. C.O. Smith scoffs at HFCS, using it only when he absolutely has to—and then only on his most disposable bees. He’s convinced that as a result, his bees are stronger; even on the bees he moves, he kept his losses this past year in single-digit percentages, while his colleagues lost more than half and sometimes up to 90 percent.
So is hauling bees around the countryside in the back of a truck and feeding them soda sweetener what is making them weak? As Jerry Hayes, the CCD top man, puts it, “What would happen to you if I made you run marathons, sleep every night in the back of a moving car, and only fed you chocolate bars?”
Laszlo Pentek is a beekeeper based in Arlington. His day job is as a government actuary, and his interest in population dynamics led him naturally to bees. Now he is a bona fide bee expert, with the obsessive, encyclopedic knowledge of the autodidact. When a swarm of bees invades a house or yard and the city refuses to do anything, Pentek is the go-to among area beekeepers. He often responds on his lunch hour, and during the spring he’ll check out two or three hives a week that have migrated to someone’s attic or tool shed.
On a Thursday afternoon in early May, I watched Pentek delight a small crowd of office workers at 16th and P Streets NW. After emerging from his Prius, he put on a full beekeeper suit and—using nothing but a broom, a box, and a cheese knife—proceeded to subdue a couple thousand bees that had covered a fire hydrant. As he worked, a steady stream of people took pictures on their cell phones and reporters from the Washington Post and NBC-4 circled the incident. One bystander took several hundred pictures, went home, downloaded the pictures from his camera, came back, and took more pictures. Although impressed with his skills, everyone seemed vaguely disappointed Pentek was not stung to death.
Pentek maintains hundreds of hives around D.C. (he keeps the locations and number secret) and, what’s more significant, experienced only a 5 percent loss this spring. Like most of the other smaller beekeepers I encountered, he was a CCD skeptic.
“I don’t think CCD is made up, per se,” Pentek says. “But I don’t think it’s anything new, either. It’s a matter of miscategorized facts. A PR campaign.”
Pentek also doesn’t buy claims that CCD is a new pathogen or the first wave of mass extinctions; it’s merely weakened bees falling prey to known pathogens and infections, a consequence of unsustainable commercial beekeeping practices. But if that’s the case, I ask, why not just admit it and devise new methods?
“Money,” says Pentek. “The beekeeping establishment thinks that if they declare a state of emergency, they’ll get all this publicity and then Congress will give them money for research—research that should have been done a long, long time ago.”
For most of the 20th century, the federal government maintained four laboratories dedicated to honeybee research. But in the last seven or eight years, funding has fluctuated and the feds have threatened to shutter some labs entirely, even as threats to bee health and demand for pollination have increased. Solutions to so many of the problems plaguing the bee industry seem tantalizingly close—the bee genome was just sequenced, for instance, and anecdotal evidence suggests that a hardier, more industrious bee could be produced by controlled cross-breeding domestic bees with Africanized “killer” bees—but the resources to produce these breakthroughs just aren’t there.
The last time the beekeeping industry was threatened was in the late ’80s, by the varroa mite. Back then, bees were raised primarily for their honey, profit margins were small, and bees traveling to the coast on pollination trips was basically unheard-of. Alarms were raised, but nothing much was done, and 20 years later, beekeepers are still battling varroa. But in the last 10 years, fees for pollination have increased by 600 percent—from $20 to $25 per hive in the late ’90s to more than $150 per hive now. Even taking into account the rising costs of maintaining bees, that’s staggering. This growth was stimulated by expansion of the almond market (among others), and the simultaneous winnowing of natural pollinators by mites and the destruction of their natural habitats. All this new money created a small elite of relatively wealthy, bottom-line über-beekeepers. These people already have significant capital invested in equipment; they’re unable or disinclined to reform their practices, they know how to use the system to their advantage, and they are determined not to let this become another chronic problem to be managed by more hang-ups in time and money, à la varroa. Enter: Colony Collapse Disorder?
One would be hard-pressed to come up with something more topical, more media-friendly, more sexy than CCD. Colony Collapse Disorder, with its undertones of apocalypse and extinction, is intensely appealing to our collective sense of guilt about shitting all over the environment and our expectation of (and perhaps even desire for) some kind of divine punishment. Almost all the beekeepers I talked to, even the obscure hobbyists, were already sick and tired of talking to reporters, such has been the blitz. “The bees are dying, and you could be next” is the new “we’ve got to take out Saddam or he’ll drop the A-bomb on us!” But in the end, perhaps Colony Collapse isn’t much of a mystery at all. Bees are dying because they eat too much sugar, work too much, spend too much time in a truck rather than outside, and are being poisoned by pollutants. The same things that are killing us are killing the bees.
But while it’s clear that commercial practices are weakening bees, rendering them susceptible to all kinds of opportunistic pathogens, there’s still a major missing piece of the puzzle. The sudden onset of CCD this past year leads one to suspect that there was something that set off the die-offs, some new pathogen or environmental pressure that tipped the scale. But what?
About to give up, I remember a major beekeeper in Maryland who’d mentioned he’d heard from some colleagues that high-fructose corn syrup tainted with genetically modified organisms could be the culprit. I get a number for a corn syrup dealer in Pennsylvania (he prefers to stay anonymous, for reasons which will soon become clear). I ask him right off the bat if he has any guesses as to what’s causing CCD.
“I don’t need to guess,” he says, chuckling. He sounds as if he’d been waiting for someone to call for quite a while. “I know what’s causing CCD.”
“I don’t know if I should talk about this,” the source says. “I’m connected with a lot of people very close to this CCD investigation, and I know that there are researchers who are very careful about what they say—they’re almost afraid for their lives.”
After some coaxing, this guy tells me his fantastical story. CCD was triggered, he says, by a class of pesticides widely used to treat seeds. The plants that grow from these treated seeds incorporate the pesticide into their entire systems, from roots to leaves to stems to pollen and nectar. When pests (or bees) feed on treated plants, the chemical destroys their nervous system. The people in charge know that this particular type of pesticide is causing CCD, but he claims they’re keeping it quiet—and spending millions to make sure others keep it that way. At the end of his story—it takes an hour to tell and includes other nefarious and high-level government conspiracies—he instructs me to look up a list of pesticides, spelling the names out laboriously as I write them down.
When the phone call ends, it seems obvious that the guy is paranoid, if not outright delusional. Except a lot of his story checks out. The pesticides he cited, marketed under the names Poncho, Admire, and Calypso, belong to a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids, “systemic” pesticides which, when applied to seeds, manifest themselves throughout the mature plant. When an insect ingests any part of the plant—leaf, seed, stem, or, in the case of bees, pollen or nectar, it gets a dose of a neurotoxin that can cause a swift and lethal breakdown of an insect’s nervous and immune system. For growers, this pesticide is efficient and limits their own exposure to nasty chemicals sprayed directly on their crops. Introduced in the early ’90s, these pesticides were a true revolution in pest control.
But not all insects are pests. In fact, one of these chemicals, imidacloprid, is the very same pesticide—marketed here as Admire and overseas as Gaucho—that was banned in France in 1999 as a suspected culprit in drastic and mysterious die-offs in honeybees. Bayer, the German pharmaceutical and chemical company better known for aspirin, has a crop science division that manufactures and sells Gaucho and many other pesticides. The company protested the ban in France, citing studies that found no correlation between imidacloprid and bee die-offs; beekeepers countered with their own studies that found the opposite result. The French government sided with the beekeepers, and the ban stayed in place and was expanded in 2004. Imidacloprid/Gaucho/Admire is used on a wide selection of fruits and vegetables in the United States, including apples, strawberries, and melons—all crops routinely pollinated by bees—and countless others.
I thought back to Jay Jones’ bees in Centreville, which seemed like a textbook case of CCD. Could his bees have been exposed to this particular type of pesticide? I consulted a map of Centreville, which wasn’t encouraging; bees have a flight radius of only three miles in each direction from their hive, and there didn’t seem to be any cultivated farmland near Jones’ house. But when I call Jones and ask if he knows of any crops nearby, he says yes immediately. “There’s a huge farm less than a mile away!” Jones says. “They sell melons, cucumbers, everything.”
Cox Farms’ marketing director, Bob Richard, says that, yes, Cox does use pesticides. “We use about four different ones depending on which pests we have at [the] time,” he says, but he wouldn’t reveal the brand names or the specific chemicals the farms use to kill bugs. “We try not to use any [pesticides].…When we do need to, we use some of the generic ones that are out there and some targeted ones.”
Even if Cox Farms isn’t using imidacloprid, it’s entirely possible that there’s someone else in a three-mile radius who is. Imidacloprid is also approved for uses ranging from flea control on dogs and cats (for which it’s sold as Advantage, over the counter) to breaking up termite colonies, with little or no restrictions. If you find a termite mound in your backyard, you can simply go on eBay or down to the local hardware store, get a big ol’ vat of imidacloprid, and dump it on the ground. And so it’s nearly impossible to keep track of who’s using imidacloprid where, and for what purpose.
“You can buy it at Wal-Mart!” says Dave Hackenburg. Hackenburg, a beekeeper in Pennsylvania with decades of experience, was one of the first people, if not the first, to identify CCD. He has absolutely no doubt that imidacloprid is behind CCD. “And you know what Joe Consumer is like. He thinks a little is good so a lot is better. He’s not following the directions on the bottle!”
“The last three years,” he says, “They’ve just been pouring this chemical on crops. It’s approved for everything.…All I’m saying is, you go buy this stuff to use on aphids or whatnot, and the little insert from the chemical company says straight out that it, one, makes bugs quit eating, two, induces memory loss and confusion, and, three, gives them a nervous system disorder. And that’s exactly what’s happening to bees. But then I’m just a dumb beekeeper who’s been beekeeping for 45 years. What do I know?”
Well surely, knowing that bees are such an important part of the ecosystem, not to mention the economy, chemical companies and farmers alike wouldn’t just indiscriminately soak the countryside with a chemical that turns both bees and pests into convulsing, gibbering zombies, would they? There must be a fail-safe in there to prevent killing all the bees.
No, says Jerry Hayes, of the CCD Working Group. “Imidacloprid kills bad bugs and good bugs alike. It works on bees in the exact same way it works on all other insects.”
So did someone drop the ball?
Hayes pauses, weighing his words. He is too nice a guy to put it just so. “Someone didn’t look closely enough,” he says.
That’s not as surprising as it initially seems, considering the process by which a pesticide comes to market. The EPA often doesn’t even test a pesticide before it goes on the shelf; it entrusts the chemical companies themselves to oversee safety testing on their own products, almost always rubber-stamping the results without verifying them independently, says Laura Hepting of the D.C.-based nonprofit Beyond Pesticides, which monitors the pesticide industry. “The large majority of the data is provided by the companies themselves,” she says. “The EPA has a panel that reviews this information, but they only do their own tests if a red flag pops up. But this data can be—and often is—skewed. Not only results, but the procedures that produce those results, can be tweaked. There are loopholes.”
The studies the chemical industry had to submit to gain approval for imidacloprid merely required demonstration that the levels of the chemical found in the nectar and pollen of treated plants were “sublethal” to bees. Strictly speaking, this is true. For instance, imidacloprid can make bees stop grooming themselves, which allows lethal fungal infections to thrive in bee colonies—in this case one could truthfully, if disingenuously, say that the fungus killed the bees, not imidacloprid. You could say the same in cases when impaired bees can’t find their way home and die of exposure, that it was the elements that killed them, not the pesticide. We’re wasting our time picking on poor li’l chemical companies when we should be out there lobbying for a ban on fungi and weather!
So why not just ban imidacloprid? Because Big Chemical (due to corporate consolidation, six corporations—Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto, DuPont, BASF, and Dow—control almost the entire global market for crop protection) is, well, big. According to Bayer’s 2006 Annual Report, Bayer CropScience sales of imidacloprid pesticides topped â‚¬560 million (about $746 million). That’s about 10 percent of Bayer CropScience’s approximately $7.5 billion in total sales, making imidacloprid products, according to the company, the world’s No. 1 best-selling pesticide.
With so much money at stake, any ban on imidacloprid would be an uphill battle. Even after France’s government shut down use of the pesticide, Bayer insisted it was harmless to bees and went so far as to file a lawsuit against a French beekeeper for derogatory remarks he made in the media about Gaucho. (The suit was dismissed by a judge in 2003.)
Bayer’s position on imidacloprid had not changed when I contacted them last week for comment. “When used according to label instructions, imidacloprid does not kill bees,” Greg Coffey, a Bayer spokesperson tells me when I ask him flat out if his company’s product is causing CCD. Sounding somewhat hopeful, he adds, “in fact, current research indicates a number of nonchemical causes may be to blame.”
But respected experts in the bee industry I’ve talked to say that imidacloprid does kill bees, and the way it works—disrupting a neural receptor in the insect nervous system —suggests that it has the same effect on all insects, bees or otherwise.
Coffey sighs. “When used according to label instructions, imidacloprid does not kill bees,” he says again, slower this time.
That’s not how Henri Clement, the president of the National Union of French Apiculture who was instrumental in getting Gaucho outlawed, sees it. Although the ban went into place in 1999, he wrote in an e-mail, “we still saw effects in 2005 and 2006, as it remains in the ground for a very long time.” (Some studies have found that imidacloprid can have a half-life of up to three years in soil and can still be present a decade later.) He also reported that Bayer is trying to get other neonicotinoid pesticides, which work in the very same manner as Gaucho and would be equally as potentially lethal to bees, approved for use in France. At the same time, a recent Bayer presentation claims studies have found that imidacloprid “even in the absence of infestation with insects, exerts a supportive, stress-reducing, protective effect” on plants. A cynic might suspect the company is trying to position imidacloprid as less of a poison and more of a supplement or vitamin for crops—a subtle redefinition that would make it infinitely harder to ban.
When I contacted EPA for its response, a spokesperson forwarded me a copy of its standard statement on CCD:
EPA is coordinating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, academia, professional organizations, and beekeepers to identify the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, a massive die-off of adult bees in established honeybee colonies. Though agricultural records indicate that sudden honeybee colony collapse is not a new phenomenon, it is imperative that we learn the cause and do what we can to prevent it. The current scientific consensus is that the cause of CCD is unknown. EPA and USDA have met with insect scientists and beekeeping professionals to discuss leading theories. A report of the results of that meeting is being prepared by USDA, and scientists around the nation and the globe are moving forward with research to test the various theories. EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment and will continue to work with USDA and others to assess this potential threat. If there are actions identified that EPA can take to prevent CCD, EPA stands ready to take the appropriate steps.
When I point out that this statement doesn’t specifically address any part of my source’s story, Enesta Jones, the EPA press officer, has no further response.
Whether or not my source’s conspiracy theories hold water, if imidacloprid really is killing bees, we’re left with at least two equally discomfiting possibilities. One: Big Chemical failed to adequately test imidacloprid and unknowingly released a pesticide that’s killing the only natural pollinators we have left. Or, two: Big Chemical knew imidacloprid would kill off our primary pollinators and released it anyway. If the latter seems puzzling, consider this question: If all the bees died out, how much would Big Chemical, the global leaders in genetically modified crops, stand to gain from a sudden demand for self-pollinating crops?
Don’t ask Laszlo Pentek. He’s still trying to figure out the bees in D.C. There’s a particular feral hive he’s been monitoring for years in Northeast, near Bladensburg Road and Neal Street. Residents have continuously complained about the hive, but the city is restrained by laws prohibiting the extermination of honeybees. I’m curious to see if these bees, completely unmanaged and wild, have been affected by CCD. Pentek agrees to take me there. The hive is located about 30 feet off the ground in a hollowed-out tree limb. June Bradshaw, who’s lived next to the hive since it appeared three or four years ago, shows me some digital pictures she took of the bees last summer. The photos show a manhole-size mass of bees covering the entire elbow of the limb; today there are only two or three bees desultorily flitting in and out of the hole.
“That’s normal,” says Pentek. “These kind of bees generally don’t peak until the summer.” Bradshaw looks skeptical.
“Last summer all of a sudden, the bees went crazy,” she says. “They started swarming all around in a huge cloud. I was afraid to even come out on the porch.”
Bees are sensitive creatures. They’re easily irritated, says Pentek, pointing to an apartment building across the street, where a boombox protrudes from an unscreened window, blasting Klymaxx. “They hate noise and vibration. And bananas—it smells like their alarm pheromone. I once ate a banana right before I went to check on my hives—never again.”
But it’s not bananas making bees crazy on a global scale. The heart of the question seems to be: Is CCD something correctable—if we stop trucking bees cross-country and feeding them Oreo filling and having them pollinate crops chocked full of pesticides, will they stop dying? Or have we set something larger in motion that doesn’t just affect the bees directly under human stewardship, but bees everywhere? And who’s next? Other insects, mammals, and eventually humans?
Keith Tignor, the state apiarist for Virginia, says research on whether there have been parallel die-offs in other insect populations has just now started. The early signs are not good. In the D.C. region alone, naturalists and researchers have observed an increasing number of fish die-offs within the past several years—tens of thousands of dead fish washing up onshore, some killed by dead water or pollution, but others with no discernible cause of death except a mysterious weakening of the immune system. The same symptoms have also been observed in snails, butterflies, birds, and trees across the nation. If these phenomena are related to CCD and continue to spread across other species, well, that’s quite probably all she wrote for the human race. Judging by the wild hive on Neal Street on this particular day, it’s hard to say one way or another.
As Pentek conjectures on where these bees’ main food source might be, a navy blue van screeches to a halt across the street, and seven or eight Kevlar-clad U.S. Marshals disembark. The music cuts out immediately and an unseen hand pulls the stereo inside. Two marshals drag a small battering ram out of the van, and the group trots to the front door of the building. As they’re arranging themselves into formation, the door opens and the tenant, apparently expecting them, shuffles out sheepishly, carrying several suitcases and the boombox.
“They’re evicting him,” says Bradshaw.
Pentek nods approvingly. “That’s good for the bees.”