Eric and Sue Olsen from Yakima, Washington, have been in the beekeeping business 32 years. They lost 65 percent of their bees in 2010 in California. Like others in the bees-on-wheels pollinator business, they transport their hives on trucks to different parts of the country when different crops come into flower. After the California die-off, says Sue Olsen, they had to get a $700,000 bank loan to buy new bees, “They were sprayed with something,” she says. “It probably wasn’t the chemical itself. There are nasty little secrets about some chemicals.”
Adjuvants, or spreader-stickers that help active ingredients adhere more readily to leaves, are added to agricultural chemicals, especially fungicides. Some adjuvants “appear to be good enough to move viruses through insect tissue,” says Mussen. “So if they could do that, they could move chemicals through tissues. So the world is continually changing and maybe neonicotinoids are synergizing all the others.”
Most of the adjuvants don’t have to be added in today’s products, Mussen says. “But pesticide applicators can’t make much money on products already in the can. They can’t mark those up much. But a lot of guys work for companies that make adjuvants and so they get them cheap, put them in, and make all their money on adjuvants.”
These inert ingredients historically have not been considered toxic enough to warrant risk assessment. Nonetheless entomologists at Pennsylvania State University have found that they impair bees’ navigation abilities, their ability to smell and can kill larvae in the hive. Many of the adjuvants are said to be proprietary and are not listed on pesticide labels. In 2010, Penn State and ARS scientists found 121 different pesticides and metabolites in honeybee, wax, pollen and hives, with samples coming from 23 states.
Mendes takes his colonies to the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley for almond pollination because there's not a lot of rain and growers don't use fungicides. "One hundred miles farther north, where there is a lot of fungicide use, you bring them back and the bees are sick," he says. "Raising bees today is like raising a child with a lot of health problems."