Exclusive: EPA Ignores Its Own Science and Approves Bee-Killing Pesticide; Mysterious New Die-Off Unfolds

ExclusiveBreaking news of a mysterious bee death epidemic in SF.

Make a list of the foods you love. Then start crossing out the ones that are pollinated by bees, and imagine never eating them again.

I’d have to say goodbye to avocados, strawberries, squash, almonds, okra, cucumbers, broccoli, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, cantaloupe, beans, peppers, citrus, figs, fennel, and coffee. And it doesn’t stop there. Fully one-third of the foods we eat depend on bees for pollination.

Recent history: Bees are dying all over the place, “colony collapse disorder” enters the national consciousness, a leaked EPA memo points to a particular pesticide, Army researchers enter the fray. In the midst of all of this news, just as it seems scientists might be closer to identifying the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, a new mysterious bee die-off is happening – right now – in San Francisco.

I discovered this entirely by chance when I met a fellow cookbook author named Penni Wisner at a professional gathering. The day we met, she had just learned that the beehive in her Lower Castro San Francisco backyard had collapsed, practically overnight.  As she told the story of how the process unfolded, everyone in the room was swept away by the heartbreaking mystery of the hive’s demise.

Penni’s hive was set up and administered by Robert MacKimmie, whose business, City Bees installs hives in backyards around the city. He’s there to save the bees, but also to market hyper local honey at farmers’ markets around the city. Residents get honey, a vibrant garden full of pollinators, and the distinctive joy of hosting a hive.

When Penni’s bees arrived in June, she was at first a little afraid of being stung. It didn’t take long for her to discover that the bees were gentle good company that greatly improved her quality of life. She described them as a “wonderful, sweet addition to the backyard environment.” Penni found their flight patterns “fascinating” and told us that when she was working in her garden with the bees, she felt “there was something important going on, like I was among an intelligent form of life that I didn’t understand.” Coexisting with the bees gave her a sense of contentment. And the sweet aroma of the brood became a fixture in her life. Turns out that it’s not the scent of honey, but the brood of baby bees that attracts bears.

Penni described the scent as physical, almost primal: “An elixir aroma of sweetness, and intoxication, like a tropical fruit…sexy and floral, but funky, too.”

One day in early December, she noticed an absence of brood aroma coming from the hive. That’s what first tipped her off that there might be a problem with her bees.

It seemed impossible. On November 1st, Robert had harvested four gallons of honey; and the hive had been buzzing with contentment and life. Up through Thanksgiving, there had been plenty of activity and the hive appeared healthy and vibrant. On December 5th, when Penni noticed dead bees outside the hive, she contacted Robert. When the two opened the hive on December 15, there were only about 150 bees out of a probable peak population of 20,000. Stunned, they simply sat down in the yard in shocked silence and grief.

After speaking to Penni, I got in touch with Robert to see if he had any ideas about the cause of the massive die-off. He told me, “it seems like a brand new syndrome because massive bee die-offs at the hive are normally explained by parasitic tracheal mite infestations, not normally a problem in this area, or more often, from a pesticide kill based on agricultural exposure. This current combination of symptoms doesn’t fit what beekeepers have experienced before. These were all strong, robust hives that completely collapsed within weeks or a month. The reported losses are citywide, so pesticide exposure doesn’t seem to be a likely culprit, especially in November.”

He’s just put the word out to other beekeepers in the city and has confirmed that at least six beekeepers have collectively experienced 10 hives with this type of collapse during recent months. Other collapses where the bees completely disappear have also become more numerous in recent years. The circumstances of these specific collapses are entirely different from what is typically seen in a Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which all of the bees disappear, leaving only a queen and a few workers.

“There are new, greater challenges to beekeeping in general, and the ability to keep bees alive has been getting worse during recent years. The past month, it’s just plain bad, though other hives have been completely unaffected,” Robert told me.

Researchers from Davis, UCSF, and San Francisco State are currently analyzing the bee DNA to try to pinpoint the cause of this new die-off, though, because the collapsed bees haven’t been continuously monitored, there can be no indicator of what influences may have changed. For now, it’s too soon to tell how widespread it is. It will probably be at least a month before information is available.

In the meantime, outside of this San Francisco crisis, the media has been abuzz (sorry!) with bee news over the past few months. In October, the New York Times reported that a probable cause of CCD was uncovered by entomologists and army researchers working together. The collaborative team used a military-developed software system to uncover a new DNA-based bee virus, which was then linked to a previously known fungus. Tests on hives that had collapsed found both the fungus and virus present in all cases.

Previously, scientists had thought that a pesticide, specifically one called clothianidin, which is manufactured by Bayer’s Crop Science division, was the likeliest cause of CCD. So this new research looked to be a surprise break-through. Nowhere in the research was Bayer’s pesticide clothianidin mentioned. Shortly after the New York Times story was published, Fortune Magazine revealed that the main scientist involved in the army study had received a funding grant from Bayer. Oops!

Even discounting that appearance of conflict of interest, the army study was hardly conclusive. The virus/fungus combo being present in all collapsed hives doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the only cause of the die off. Another substance could be weakening the bees and making them more susceptible to both. In fact, neonicotinoids, the class of pesticides to which clothianidin belongs, can have cumulative effects on insects that include immune system disruptions and neurobehavioral problems.

On the heels of this news, a leaked EPA memo emerged showing that the core scientific study upon which EPA granted Bayer the conditional registration of clothianidin was deeply flawed, and EPA knew it.

The Bayer-designed study had three major problems: It was conducted on the wrong crop, it was conducted for an insufficient amount of time, and the test fields and control fields were not properly separated. According to this article in Fast Company, the pesticide, though used on other crops, is most commonly used to pretreat corn seeds. MacKimmie told me that concerned parties view the Bayer trials as lacking credibility because instead of testing in the US with neonicotinoid tainted pollen from corn which actually impacts bees, the approved trials were in Canada and used canola.

Whatever the causes, bees are dying, our food supply is threatened, and we have the EPA knowingly approving the use of the pesticide that has been shown to harm bees. Meanwhile, a new and mysterious collapse disorder is unfolding in San Francisco.

It’s time to pay attention to the bees. They might be trying to tell us something.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Mike Baird via Flickr

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.