It’s become difficult to keep track of all the controversies involving bees and agricultural chemicals.
Some scientists say neonicoti-noids, a class of insecticides, are poisoning bees.
Other researchers say fungicides are a threat to bees and last November two U.S. environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Sue Bee Honey, a co-operative in Sioux City, Iowa, over glyphosate residue in honey.
Chris Hiatt, American Honey Producers Association vice-president, said the hullabaloo is warranted.
“We (are) experiencing 40 percent national losses, every year, of the bee population,” said Hiatt, who is from Bowman, North Dakota, in the southwest corner of the state.
“Pesticides, it is part of the issue. It is. We just can’t deny it…. If takes suing somebody, it might change something.”
For the last decade or so, American beekeepers have suffered through higher than usual rates of colony losses. In 2014-15 the annual colony losses across the United States, in winter and summer, was around 42 percent.
Most beekeepers and entomologists say a combination of factors is responsible, including habitat loss, varroa mites (a parasite that invades hives) and diseases spread by the mites.
Hiatt agreed that pesticides are only part of the story, but the overuse of agricultural chemicals is affecting beekeepers and the honey industry.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and the most popular herbicide in the world, hasn’t been linked to effects on bee health. But its impact on honey popped up last fall when Beyond Pesticides and the Organic Consumers Association filed a lawsuit against the Sioux Honey Association, the owner of Sue Bee Honey.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing found residues of glyphosate in bottles of Sue Bee Honey at levels as high as 41 parts per billion, the lawsuit stated.
Since the honey contains traces of the herbicide, the “Natural” and “100 percent” pure labels on Sue Bee Honey are deceptive and misleading, the plaintiffs said.
Paul Gregory, a beekeeper from Fisher Branch, Man., said earlier this year that glyphosate and the lawsuit were hot topics at the 2017 North American Beekeeping conference in Texas.
“Something like 80 percent of American honey tested had levels of glyphosate.”
Hiatt said the lawsuit against Sue Bee Honey is absurd because the U.S. government hasn’t established a maximum residue level (MRL) for glyphosate in honey.
Lacking an MRL, it’s impossible to say what level is acceptable or safe.
Nonetheless, he is concerned about the overuse of glyphosate in crop production.
“The Roundup (issue), it’s going to come to a head eventually be-cause it’s been used prophylactically for so many years and it’s showing up everywhere,” he said.
“The bees are flying in the environment and picking it up… and bringing it back to the hive…. It (glyphosate residue) is an issue for us, but I don’t know what we can do (about it).”
Hiatt said glyphosate applied in the spring and summer on Roundup Ready crops, like canola, corn and soybeans, is the most likely source of contamination.
But spraying cereal crops before harvest to aid dry down is also concerning.
“You can’t get away from it,” he said. “There is probably alfalfa and clover blooming right next to the (crop), so they are going to pick it up.”
Hiatt said the overuse of pesticides is particularly bad on soybeans.
Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada research has shown that neonicotinoid seed treatments provide almost no economic benefits for growers because the yield gains are insignificant.
Many U.S. soybean growers continue to use the products despite the findings, Hiatt said.
“This prophylactic use, it’s an insurance, just like crop insurance,” he said. “We’ve got to stop and get away from that.”
On the positive side, there have been cases where controversies around bees and ag chemicals have actually changed practices, he added.
Research has shown that certain fungicides, used to protect almond trees, can be detrimental to bees.
The Almond Board of California developed best management practices to reduce the risk to pollinators, such as spraying the fungicide in the evening and avoiding times of peak bee foraging.
“It has made a difference,” Hiatt said. “There has been less bee kills.”