Understanding Real Risks to Bees

Have you ever drunk too much coffee and experienced anxiety, irritability or insomnia? Well, those feelings were likely caused by having too much caffeine in your body! Every day, Americans consume products that are toxic enough to be potentially harmful, such as caffeine, table salt or ibuprofen; however, when taken in reasonable amounts, they provide real benefits without cause for concern. Scientists have long known that everything at some level is hazardous (toxic), but risk is mitigated by managing exposure.

Like us, honey bees are also sensitive to certain substances, but when exposed to levels that are lower than what is known to be unhealthy, remain unharmed. When it comes to neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics), this topic has triggered much debate — some people fear that any amount of these insecticides could be harmful to honey bee colony health. After reviewing years of research studies, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that when used under typical field conditions and according to label instructions, neonic uses do not pose a significant risk to honey bee colonies. This is because when used at label rates, the potential exposure to honey bees is far below a level of concern for impacting a bee colony. (Read The Bee Safety of Neonicotinoid Insecticides for more information.)

Risk is a function of toxicity and exposure. Distinguishing toxicity from risk is a routine activity most of us perform daily, even if we are unaware we are doing it. For example, we drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages even though caffeine, in extremely high levels, is more toxic than many pesticides in use today. We can do this without fear because the amount of coffee we drink and the level of exposure to caffeine is low. It’s an example of “the dose makes the poison” adage in action!

Photo credit: asoggetti on Unsplash

Why Use Neonics?

Neonics are one of the most important tools that farmers use to protect their crops (and our food) from destructive insect pests. Two of the many possible examples include:

  • Aphids that transmit citrus tristeza virus, a disease that has led to the death of millions of citrus trees all over the world
  • The glassy-winged sharpshooter, an invasive insect that transmits Pierce’s disease to grapevines – it has no known cure and can kill the vines within one to three years.

Neonics have been widely used by farmers worldwide because of their performance against harmful pests and because of their favorable safety profile, especially when compared to the older products they replaced. These attributes make neonics one of the most important and safest tools used in today’s integrated pest management (IPM) programs. Without these insecticides, farmers would have a difficult time sustainably producing quality, high-yielding food crops.

Protecting Honey Bee Colonies

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the number of honey bee colonies has trended upward in the U.S, reaching 2.8 million in 2018, the highest level in two decades. While this is good news, it’s also true that annual honey bee colony losses are higher than they were over 30 years ago before the introduction of the parasitic bee mite, Varroa destructor. This mite is a constant challenge for all beekeepers to manage in their hives. There are many other reasons why honey bee colonies do not survive, but most experts believe the single biggest cause is the Varroa mite, which feeds on both pupal and adult honey bees and transmits deadly diseases. Fortunately, there is strong support among beekeepers, scientists, companies, agencies and consumers to find solutions to the many factors affecting honey bee health. Honey bees are not going extinct anytime soon, and it is possible to successfully manage honey bees to ensure pollination services and honey production will continue into the future.

honey bee
A honey bee with several mites attached to its back

Continuing our 30-year history of working to support and improve U.S. honey bee colony health, Bayer partnered with Project Apis m. and created a five-year research initiative called Healthy Hives 2020, which aims to bridge the gap between research and industry by identifying tangible solutions that will improve the health of honey bee colonies by the end of 2020. The initiative is exploring major research objectives, ranging from evaluating the use of “smart hive” technologies, to assessing honey bee genetic traits relevant to pest and disease resistance, to exploring better ways to control the infamous Varroa mite. An overview of the research underway through the Healthy Hives 2020 initiative can be found in the program’s digital publication, Research for Tangible Bee Health Solutions.

It’s important to know that improving the health of honey bees, and other bee species (there are 20,000 species globally), isn’t limited to bee experts. One of the biggest challenges facing many bees, as well as other pollinators, is a reduction in diversity of plants that provide the resources they need, and habitat for nesting and shelter. Whether you’re a suburban homeowner or living in an urban apartment, everyone can do their part to help support bees in general by planting a diversity of pollinator-attractant plants that will provide a sequence of bloom around their homes, on their balconies, or in community gardens. To find out more, visit FeedABee.com