Have You Heard the Buzz on Bees? | Commentary

In June, we recognize National Pollinator Week. Some may wonder why.

Seven years ago, the U.S. Senate unanimously designated a week in June highlighting the vital role that pollinator species such as bees play in food production.

The Senate proved prophetic. Bees have been in the news recently with heighted levels of media attention over health concerns and specifically for what is labeled Colony Collapse Disorder, in which bees suddenly abandon their hives. Anti-pesticide activists have seized on this news and worked to lay the blame on the most widely used class of farm pesticides with a goal of banning the use of neonicotinoids (neonics).

Fortunately, there’s recently been positive news for bees.

First and the most importantly, it’s clear now that bee populations world wide have been growing in contradiction to anti-pesticide campaigner’s predictions. Some predicted extinction in Europe and North America but numbers are now actually increasing. Populations grew 11 percent in the U.S. and 15 percent in Canada from 2008 to 2013. Bee numbers grew 11 percent among the European Union’s original 15 members and up 48.4 percent globally between 1960 and 2012. Last month, the Department of Agriculture reported that over-winter, bee losses were at the lowest level in a decade. Moreover, according to University of Maryland Professor Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who collects data for USDA via his Bee Informed Partnership, Colony Collapse Disorder has not been observed in the field for three years.

Second, the supposed “bee crisis” in Europe turned out to be unfounded. Last year, the EU Commission voted to ban neonic pesticides for two years starting December 2013, based on a European Food Safety Agency survey of scientific literature. Unfortunately, European officials reacted emotionally and quickly before taking the time to conduct an actual ground level survey of bee populations. Had EU officialdom awaited a few months for the results of actual population surveys released this April, they would have had access to hard data demonstrating that Europe’s bee population is actually in pretty good health. In 11 of the 17 countries surveyed in the landmark EPILOBEE survey representing 75 percent of Europe’s bee population, over-winter bee losses were found to range from 3.5 - 15.3 percent -- losses that would be considered normal in North America. Over-winter loss rates only exceeded 20 percent in six northern EU countries accounting for just 5 percent of Europe’s bee population and were attributed mainly to the severe 2012-13 winter.

Last but importantly, neonics have been found not to be the source of bee’s health problems. Australia, notably the only continent not infested with the varroa destructor mite, who is to the honeybee what the malarial mosquito is to humans, concluded in a long-awaited APVMA report that “Australian honeybee populations are not in decline, in spite of increased use of [neonicotinoids] in agriculture and horticulture since the mid-1990s.”

Canada’s Association of Professional Apiculturalists concluded that “pesticide use and habitat loss are not the main drivers” of the decline in bee health. And U.S. researchers, reviewing the scientific literature available to EFSA when it justified the EU’s neonic ban, concluded that neonic pesticides, when applied properly, “do not cause acute toxic effects on foraging honeybees or significant health effects to colonies.” Referring to Europe, the same study noted that “The epidemiological evidence from Europe shows no correlation of honeybee losses to pesticide use and indicates the presence of causal factors other than pesticides.”

So does all this mean that bees are ‘out of the woods’ in terms of the dangers they face?

No, there are still unexplained, higher-than-normal levels of over-winter bee die-offs which scientists must research. Globalization and commercial migratory beekeeping for pollination are spreading bee diseases, parasites and bee predators domestically and internationally. Agriculture authorities must learn how to cope with this. The varroa mite remains the single most destructive source of infection that bees face and it develops resistance to treatments as fast as new ones can be invented. Beekeepers need a ‘permanent fix’ for thevarroa scourge. Dust drift from machines planting neonic-treated seeds is the one verified and acknowledged lethal threat to bees from neonics and it must be eliminated. Equipment makers, chemical firms, seed companies, farmers and beekeepers all have roles managing the solution.

Recently, well-meaning Members of Congress introduced legislation for an EU style ban on neonic pesticides with a goal of helping bees. With all the unresolved challenges facing bees and beekeepers, Congress needs to avoid the EU’s mistakes. Legislation can only be effective in helping bees if it takes aim at the right targets based on credible research.

Jerry Weller is a former Republican Congressman from Illinois.