Can Snake Oil Save Honeybees?


84-year-old beekeeper, Tate Poarch, constructs a brood frame in his shop.

84-year-old beekeeper, Tate Poarch, constructs a brood frame in his shop.

On Easter Sunday, guests of Heirloom Restaurant, in Charlotte’s Coulwood community, witnessed an interesting phenomenon when the restaurant’s rooftop honeybees swarmed and thousands of bees settled on a planter near Heirloom’s front door.  When a manager informed him about the incident, Chef Owner and resident beekeeper Clark Barlowe stepped away from the line, donned his bee suit and captured the swarm, using his hands to scoop bees and place workers and their queen in a new home while brunch guests crowded in the restaurant foyer, eager to watch the unexpected show.

During Easter brunch service, Heirloom Restaurant's chef owner and beekeeper, Clark Barlowe, scoops bees into a new home.

During Easter brunch service, Heirloom Restaurant’s chef owner and beekeeper, Clark Barlowe, scoops bees into a new home.

Although Heirloom’s rooftop hives and those housed at Charlotte’s Ritz-Carlton hotel may be a novelty for urban residents, the European honeybee is arguably one of the most popular and important immigrant species in the United States and is designated as official insect in seventeen US states, including North Carolina.  First imported from England to Virginia, probably around 1622, it was not until the mid-1800s that honeybee colonies reached California.  Today, honeybees impact more than 14 billion dollars’ worth of agricultural crops in the US, a tremendous responsibility for a creature whose lifespan is about a month.

View video here: Heirloom’s Urban Beekeeper

In addition to honey, which is over a quarter of a billion dollar US product, honeybees produce beeswax, pollen, propolis, a sticky resin bees mix with wax, and royal jelly, a substance worker bees feed to queen larvae.  Both propolis and royal jelly are widely marketed as medicinal and cosmetic products, but biodynamic honeybee experts abstain from collecting royal jelly, due to the fact that robbing hives of this substance can kill developing queens.  Formic acid, the venom honeybees inject when stinging, is used to treat a variety of human medical issues such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and arthritis.  Many US crops depend upon honeybee pollination and California almonds, the top specialty export crop in the nation, creates the largest demand upon honeybees, along with one of the most negative impacts on bee health.  Because the almond crop must be pollinated while trees are in bloom, growers employ migratory beekeepers to transport thousands of colonies to the groves and the bees often travel for many hours before they are released from their confines, stressing the health of the colony.  According to a report published by Gordon Wardell, on the USDA’s website, over 80,000 honeybee colonies were negatively affected during the 2014 almond pollination season, with most damage attributed to herbicide sprays.  With a conservative estimate of 10,000 resident honeybees in an average hive, that figure translates to more than 800 million lost lives.   Such statistics, along with a syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a term applied to dead hives where adult worker bees mysteriously disappear, spurred honeybee activists to press for practices and legislation that will protect honeybee health and at no time in US history has this impetus been more public or its proponents more vocal.

Since 2006, US honeybee colony numbers show an annual decrease, spurring many of the estimated 200,000 beekeepers, pollinator experts, governmental agencies, corporate manufacturers and individuals to seek causes for honeybee deaths and solutions to prevent future losses.  Experts offer a variety of factors as possible bee killers.  Disease, stress, parasites, particularly the Varroa mite, a parasitic pest that can destroy honeybees, harsh winters and lack of available food are all negative forces that may harm colonies.  Perhaps the most controversial honeybee adversary comes from chemical factories that produce agricultural pesticides and herbicides, particularly a class of collective pesticides, neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” as they are commonly called.

Introduced to farmers over twenty years ago, neonicotinoid pesticides are chemically similar to nicotine and they attack the central nervous system, causing insect paralysis and death.  Touted by production companies, like Bayer and Syngenta, as being systemic seed treatments that protect plants from insects in early growing stages, pollinator proponents are increasingly concerned about the collateral damage neonics cause to non-target insects, particularly honeybees.  In North Carolina, neonicotinoid pesticides are primarily used by farmers who plant large corn and soybean crops.  According to a USDA 2014 Annual Crop Summary Report, NC farmers planted 840,000 acres of corn for grain, primarily using genetically modified (GMO) seed treated with a neonicotinoid.  With an average yield of 132 bushels per acre, these statistics reflect a decrease in 2013’s 930,000 acres planted, but corn remains an important crop for North Carolina.  When farmers use machinery to place seeds in the field, they add lubricating agents, like talc and graphite, to help seeds pass through the machine and the equipment’s exhaust system releases dust particles from the seed and lubricant, creating a “fog” of corn dust that contains pesticides.  The corn dust settles not only on the field that is planted with the treated seed, but in adjacent areas that grow plants honeybees use for food.  Because neonicotinoid pesticides are a genetic component of GMO corn seed, traces of the insecticide are also released when the plant pollen travels with wind currents.  When pollen from these treated crops settles on other plants that honeybees use for forage, pollinators are exposed to the insecticide. 

A 2013 report published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) raised alarms about neonicotinoids’ harmful effects on honeybees.  According to EFSA’s Media Relations Officer, Jan Op Gen Oorth, EFSA scientists “identified a number of risks posed to bees by three neonicotinoid insecticides, which are clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam.”  A Bayer company employee confirms the pesticide used in treated corn seed commonly planted in North Carolina is clothianidin.   

Not that Bayer is completely ignoring the purported ill effects of clothianidin.  In a February, 2014, press release, Bayer CropScience announced a new seed lubricant “Fluency Agent” to be available to US farmers.  As stated in the release, the “Fluency Agent is a seed lubricant for corn and soybean seeds, which is designed to replace standard talc and graphite seed lubricants. In lab tests, the product was shown to help reduce the amount of total dust released in treated seeds by 90 percent versus talc and 60 percent versus graphite, thus reducing the potential risk of exposure to pollinators, if they come in direct contact with the dust during the planting process.”  Although Bayer stops short of taking responsibility for contributing to honeybee deaths, marketing Bayer Fluency Agent (BFA) indicates a certain corporate culpability.

Of course, BFA is only effective if farmers are informed about the product and choose to purchase it when buying GMO seed and agricultural chemicals.  Sixth generation farmer Brent Barbee, of Barbee Farms, in Concord, NC, joined a national trend several years ago when his farm replaced GMO corn with hybrid sweet corn.  For Barbee, owner of a designated North Carolina Century Farm that has produced fruits and vegetables for over one hundred years, the switch was made to satisfy customer demand and to better fit his growing principles.  Barbee “advocates for the best products.  We never use broad spectrum anything.  We always target one or two pests because chemicals are like antibiotics: too much of a good thing is a bad thing.”  When Barbee heard about Bayer’s Fluency Agent, he was reminded of a story his grandfather told him about a traveling salesman who sold a product called “snake oil.”  The salesman claimed the product could cure any ill, but was actually almost worthless.  BFA, according to Barbee, “sounds a lot like snake oil.” 

In 2013, San Francisco-based Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit organization devoted to pollinator species’ health and protection, formed the Corn Dust Research Consortium (CDRC) “to explore potential exposure routes of honey bees to seed treatment dust as well as potential options to mitigate exposure.”  Executive Director Laurie Davies Adams states that “Nearly a dozen stakeholder groups that comprise the CDRC invested their time and resources to ensure that the research was conducted and presented in the most un-biased, open, and useful form.”  Including representatives from the National Corn Growers Association, the American Beekeeping Federation, the American Seed Trade Association, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and other organizations, the CDRC report includes research findings that show BFA, compared to standard lubricants, such as talc and graphite, reduced total dust emissions, but there was a higher concentration of pesticides in the dust.  In contrast to figures reported by Bayer, Adams states, “The amount of dust produced decreased by 67% compared to conventional lubricants, and the quantity of neonicotinoid active ingredient detected in the dust decreased by 28% compared to conventional lubricants. The overall amount of dust produced when using BFA decreased, as did the amount of pesticide in the dust, but if the decrease in dust is greater than the decrease in pesticide in the dust, then the pesticide concentration will actually increase.”  Adams cautions that while “there is clear scientific evidence suggesting that exposure at acute levels to most insecticides, including neonicotinoids like Clothianidin, is harmful to bees . . . . It is important to avoid narrowing our focus to one single factor affecting pollinator health. The public is often tempted to look for the “smoking gun” and demonize what seems like an obvious answer to the question of why bees and other pollinators are declining.”  Adams, along with other experts, stresses that “further research like the CDRC will be necessary to fully understand the different avenues by which pollinators are exposed to pesticides like neonicotinoids and to implement mitigating best management practices and forward-thinking regulations.”

With over four thousand North Carolina members, the National Corn Growers Association aims to “create and increase opportunities for corn growers,” according to the organization’s website, “while increasing corn farmers’ environmental and economic sustainability.”  According to an organization spokesperson, the Corn Growers Association of North Carolina “works directly with Extension Specialists at NC State University and agronomists at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop recommendation about the use and performance of agricultural chemicals, seeds and equipment.  The Association provides financial support for projects that compare new products, seeds, and equipment for their efficacy in increasing yield, reducing chemical use, improving soil properties and reducing grower costs.”  When asked if the Corn Growers Association of NC provides information about BFA to member farmers, the spokesperson stated that fluency agents are not discussed with farmers because “there is a lack of research proving that corn dust is harmful to off target species and on how effective these fluency agents are in reducing corn dust.  Before we ask growers to accept the increase cost there needs to be good evidence that these fluency agents are needed and are effective.” 

Outside the US, measures are in place to ban or limit neonicotinoid insecticides.  Concerned about neonicotinoid use, the European Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to “assess the risks associated with the use of these neonics as seed treatment or as granules, with particular regard to: their acute and chronic effects of bee colony survival and development; their effects of bee larvae and bee behavior; and the risks posed by sub-lethal doses of the three substances.”   In December, 2013, after examining the EFSA report, the European Union (EU) banned the use of neonicotinoids for two years.  The EFSA’s press release, dated January, 2013, includes the following statements: “Given the importance of bees in the ecosystem and the food chain and given the multiple services they provide to humans, their protection is essential.  With its mandate to improve EU food safety and to ensure a high level of consumer protection, EFSA has an important role to play in ensuring their survival.  The Authority’s review of neonicotinoids is one element in a range of activities it is undertaking on bee health.” 

Adding to concerns about neonicotinoid pesticide use, recent studies, like one published in the science periodical, Nature, indicate honey bees and other wild pollinators, such as bumblebees, prefer food that contains neonics, even though the poison-laced forage food tastes bitter, suggesting that bees, like humans, may become addicted to nicotine.  Chemically similar to nicotine, neonicotinoids may be especially damaging to wild bees, report scientists from Newcastle University.

In the United States, neonicicotinoid opponents appear to be gaining ground.  In August, 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife service announced neonicotinoid pesticides will be completely banned on wildlife refuges by January, 2016.  Recently, Lowe’s Home Improvement’s annual corporate responsibility report included plans, over the next four years, to phase out selling products that contain neonicotinoids.  After environmental protection group, Friends of the Earth, released a June, 2014 study that reported over fifty percent of sampled “bee friendly” plants sold by major retailers in eighteen cities in the United States and Canada contained neonicotinoid pesticides, some companies, including Home Depot and BJ’s Wholesale Club, required wholesalers to label neonicotinoid-treated plants. 

Identifying the presence of neonicotinoids, this label is included in flowering plants bees use as forage.

Identifying the presence of neonicotinoids, this label is included in flowering plants bees use as forage.

In June of 2014, faced with reports of an annual thirty percent colony loss of honeybees, every year since 2006, more than two times earlier recorded losses, President Obama announced representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) would lead a Pollinator Health Task Force, a group whose mission is to develop an action plan to protect pollinators and create healthy habitats to restore their numbers. In early March, a group of concerned environmental and food safety advocates, along with honeybee activists, rallied in Washington, D.C., urging the Obama administration to protect pollinators and presenting over 4 million petition signatures in support of their cause. Recently, Portland, Oregon, elected officials passed a pesticide ban that prohibits insecticide use on any public municipal property and on March 19th, HF 2029, a bill authored by three members of Minnesota’s House of Representatives, was presented to that governing body for consideration.  HF 2029 calls for a five year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids and fipronil, pesticides identified as harmful to honeybees.

In North Carolina, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist of Entomology at NCSU, Dr. Dominic Reisig, is currently researching to see “how effective neonicotinoids are in corn for various soil insect pests compared to granular and liquid-in furrow non-neonicotinoid insecticides” while NC Farm Bureau’s Director of Specialty Crops, Debbie Hamrick, is serving as “the point person for an interagency working group that is facilitating discussions between farmers and beekeepers in North Carolina.”  Comprised of representatives from various agencies and groups, including commodity growers, NC Department of Agriculture, Farm Bureau and others, the group is looking at successful endeavors like Mississippi’s “Bee Aware” flag program.  A component of the state’s Cooperative Standards for row crop farmers and beekeepers, 8 foot tall poles and flags are presented to beekeepers to locate hives, thereby alerting farmers to sensitive areas before pesticides are used.  Ultimately, Hamrick hopes the group, working with no allocated funds, will help encourage North Carolina to develop a Pollinator Protection Plan, a document currently discussed by the North Carolina Beekeepers Association, the largest organization of its kind in the US, according to Hamrick.

A honeybee pollinates a squash blossom.

A honeybee pollinates a squash blossom.

Gunther Hauk, author of the 2002 book, Toward Saving the Honeybee, and co-founder (with his wife, Vivian) of the Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary, in Floyd, Virginia, is one of the most visible biodynamic beekeepers in the United States.  Both at Spikenard, a non-profit education and research center, and throughout the world, Hauk offers instruction in sustainable and biodynamic beekeeping practices and he is in demand as a public speaker.  Featured in two documentary films, Vanishing of the Bees (2009) and Queen of the Sun (2010), Hauk states that, unlike wild bees, “honeybees are excellent pollinators because they overwinter as a colony,” and they are prepared for late winter work, while other bee pollinator species are emerging from hibernation and slowly building a functional colony, often too late to pollinate early blooming crops.  Hauk also says, “aside from their “usefulness,” the honeybees are probably the most important single animal species, seen from a spiritual point of view.”

Hauk believes pollinating practices employed by almond and other fruit growers are detrimental to honeybees.  Faced with what he believes to be an imminent crisis in honeybee health, as Hauk gazes in the future’s crystal ball, he predicts “growers relying on migratory beekeepers will have to keep their own bees with sustainable methods, diversify their monocultures to give forage for the bees throughout the season and greatly reduce poisons.”  Convinced these practices will bring positive change to pollinator health, Hauk sees growers, beekeepers and other vested entities “accepting a new paradigm: Care for nature and her beings instead of exploiting with short-term monetary gains.”

While professional beekeepers employ sustainable, healthy practices, what can individuals do to support honeybee health?  As we celebrate Pollinator Partnership and US Department of Agriculture’s designated National Pollinator Week, June 15-21, 2015, consider one or all of the following suggestions:

*Before purchasing plants for backyard gardens, check to be sure the plants are not treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.  If there is no label to indicate such, ask the seller.  Better yet, grow flowering plants from heirloom seed and enjoy the gardening process as you provide healthy, chemical-free forage for pollinators. 

*Give up that 1950s perfectly-manicured, weed and bug free lawn dream and allow your yard to provide a bee forage habitat, complete with blooming clover and dandelions.

*Support local beekeepers by purchasing honey from them.  Prepare to be awed by the variety of flavors, like blackberry, wild cherry and clover, bees produce during blossom season for these plants.  Consider joining a beekeepers association and following this link to complete a survey that will help NC beekeepers in the quest to develop a Pollinator Protection Plan:

*Decrease, or try to eliminate, grain corn from your diet.  Purchase non-GMO seed corn when possible.  If you are unsure if corn is non-GMO, buy from a reliable grower and ask about the seed he/she planted.

*Above all, consider the tiny worker bees that pollinate many of the foods you eat and pause to be grateful for their efforts.