Plight of the Honeybees—Part Six

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jeff Pettis leads the Bee Research Lab of the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md. “From the beekeepers standpoint, we’re not finding answers fast enough. They’re struggling,” he says. And more attention on the research side is focused on neonicotinoids because “they move through the system of the plant and can concentrate in the pollen. It’s a new route of exposure for pollinators. In general, the jury is out, but pesticide exposure has come up higher and higher on the radar.”

Richard with bees
Bees at the Fairchild Farm

There also are mite-resistant queen bees. “If a beekeeper is willing to purchase queens so those lines can continue in the colonies, it’s one way to keep mite levels low,” said Tucson’s Hoffman. “But it requires an area-wide approach because of the mite migration problem.”

Hoffman believes the problems will be overcome, “but the beekeepers, researchers, growers and chemical companies all have to come together to find solutions that actually are going to work.”

To that end, Jerry Hayes left his job as chief apiary inspector for Florida to go to Monsanto and set up a bee program two years ago. He got a lot of online flack, but stuck with it. Both Hayes and Mendes had been working with a small Israeli company called Beeologics to develop a way to use RNA to silence the gene that causes one of the bee viruses.

“If you could control varroa using a natural process, that would change beekeeping globally,” Hayes says. Monsanto purchased Beeologics, and has the money to fund the research. “Scientists in Israel have gene targets picked out in the mite and viruses that won’t turn off any honeybee genes,” Hayes says. “They say they would have a preliminary report by the end of the year. The actual product is still 3 or 4 years away.”

Hayes put together a bee advisory council for Monsanto and this past June he organized a Honey Bee Health Summit that Monsanto co-sponsored. “It’s a meeting that needed to happen,” says Mendes. It was a meeting of researchers, beekeepers, chemical reps and USDA officials, just what DeGrandi-Hoffman says has to happen.

To the 3 Ps afflicting honeybees – pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition – Mendes says he would add a 4th: politics. “Trying to separate science from politics is messy. It’s not just a scientific issue. Companies involved in the manufacture of pesticides are multi-billion and multinational and making a lot of money from some chemicals beekeepers are concerned about. EPA is in the thick of it because they’re charged with showing that the products are safe. It’s messy.”

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