A Pasco County beekeeper knows why bees are dying and colonies are collapsing

As smoke is pumped into hives to calm the bees, a forklift is used to load the hives onto a truck Thursday in a pasture near Dade City that will take the bees to pollinate apples in Pennsylvania.
As smoke is pumped into hives to calm the bees, a forklift is used to load the hives onto a truck Thursday in a pasture near Dade City that will take the bees to pollinate apples in Pennsylvania.
Published March 31, 2012

A worker in David Hackenberg's crew pumped smoke from hand-held bellows around stacks of bee boxes in a pasture near Dade City on Thursday evening — a bee-calming trick used for centuries.

But there was something else in the air, something besides sluggishly buzzing bees and the smell of smoldering twine, something new:


Hackenberg, 63, in case you don't remember, is the politically wired commercial beekeeper who winters in Trilby and who was the first in his industry to report the now-chronic malady, colony collapse disorder, in late 2006.

The nation listened, fascinated by stories of bees not just dying, but mysteriously abandoning hives — an act as unnatural as human mothers walking away from their babies, and horrified by the devastation the loss of pollinators could bring to fruits and vegetables.

But scientists, farmers and especially chemical companies did not listen when Hackenberg said the disorder might not really be so mysterious, that it was almost certainly caused by a relatively new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.

And now, it seems, people are finally paying attention.

Proof of these pesticides' risks had grown strong enough by last month that beekeepers, environmental groups and more than 1 million citizen signers had petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend use of one of the most common neonicotinoids, clothianidin.

And on Thursday, the journal Science published two new, more damning studies about the pesticides' potential danger.

Farmers using old-line pesticides could hold off on spraying when bees were around. But neonicotinoids are "systemics," often introduced in the seed and forever part of the crops — including the biggest, most heavily subsidized and economically important ones. Clothianidin, for example, is a favorite of the farmers who plant corn on 90 million acres in this country.

So these new chemicals are now part of the landscape. And, as neurotoxins, they could be expected to cause just the kind of symptoms seen in colony collapse, including trouble foraging for food and returning to their hives with it — the behavior the two new articles documented.

Chemicals aren't bees' only problem.

They're attacked by mites and viruses, and subjected to brutal travel schedules by beekeepers such as Hackenberg, who truck their colonies long distances to collect pollination fees.

"It's still a combination of factors," said James Frazier, an entomology professor at Penn State University. "But the position of pesticides on the list of those factors has gone from last to first or maybe second."

Even the once-stubborn EPA has taken notice.

A statement from the agency last week said it has moved neonicotinoids up on its review schedule and has referred the question of their risk to an advisory panel of scientists.

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So what has this meant to Hackenberg's day-to-day life? In many ways, not much.

As always, he spends as much time in the field talking into the headset of his cell phone as he does, say, running a forklift. When someone once suggested that cell phone signals might be killing bees, other beekeepers joked that if that was true, Hackenberg's bees would have died off long ago.

He's speaking at Yale University this weekend at a conference held by the environmental group Beyond Pesticides. But that's not such a big deal for a guy who has been an officer for national beekeeping organizations, who testified before Congress about colony collapse and had a starring role in a 2009 documentary on the subject, Vanishing of the Bees.

The basic patterns of his business are also the same: the winters in Florida where his bees build up the hives by feeding on blossoms of warm-weather plants, including citrus trees, and the subsequent journey up the East Coast, all the way to Maine, chasing blossoming crops. The truck Hackenberg and his helper, Daniel Burt, loaded up on Thursday was on its way to pollinate apples in Pennsylvania, Hackenberg's summer base.

The travel has always been hard on bees, he said, and even a decade ago he might have to replace 35 percent or 40 percent of the 3,000 hives he owns every year, buying queens and feeding bees sugar water to get new colonies started.

Now it's 100 percent, or even more for some beekeepers, depending on the quantity of pesticides their bees are exposed to.

That's one difference. So is the amount he charges farmers. It has almost doubled, he said, because of the added costs of keeping bees and because they are more essential than ever. Chemicals also seem to be killing off native pollinators, the free ones, such as bumblebees.

The biggest change, though, is the standard scientific thinking about a major product of a massive industry.

How difficult has it been for a farmer working his cell phone and the Internet to have a hand in this change? Consider that this industry has to pay researchers and influence the politicians who control the regulatory agencies.

Of course, just knowing about the potential problems with neonicotinoids doesn't change the most important reality in his business. Until the companies are forced to actually alter their use of the stuff, Hackenberg will travel with his bees through a landscape that may very well poison them.