D. Dowd Muska

 

A Stinging Rebuke to Junk Science

April 23, 2015

The bees are dying, and it’s our fault.

That’s been ecochondriac organizations’ mantra for years, as they scaremonger -- and raise millions -- over colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “sudden and widespread disappearances of adult honey bees from beehives,” CCD is real, and it is disturbing. Bees are vital to the agriculture industry, and as Americans increasingly embrace locally grown produce from small farms, pollination services will matter more than ever.

CCD must be combatted, broadly and aggressively. But peddlers of junk science, always on the prowl to profit from problems they can blame on technology, aren’t contributing to a rational and effective response.

Fortunately, Angela Logomasini is. Her “‘Beepocalypse’ Not: Alarmist Honeybee Claims Collapse Under Scrutiny,” published by the D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, fires a bracing shot of facts and data at CCD hysteria.

To counter the charge that CCD is a result of mankind’s “tampering with nature,” Logomasini notes that “honeybees are not even a ‘natural’ part of the ecosystem in the United States. They were imported from Europe during the 17th century for honey production and crop pollination, although some colonies now live in the wild. Like cattle, they are an agricultural commodity that is farmed and managed by human hands.” In the Western Hemisphere, the newcomers “generally do not survive as well,” in part due to “greater genetic variability that makes them more resistant to disease” in the Old World.

And not all hive wipeouts are due to CCD. America’s honeybees, Logomasini notes, “die and disappear for many reasons,” including parasites, stress from transportation, and inadequate nutrition. Varroa mites have “already nearly eliminated wild honeybee populations in the United States.” Trucking hives from state to state causes aggravation and spreads disease. Crop limitation might be making bees’ “nutritional sources … too one dimensional,” and the practice of supplementing diets with high-fructose corn syrup could prove unwise.

But why bother with complexity and nuance when a scapegoat can be found? Eco-loons have fingered a particular family of chemicals as the source of CCD. Neonicotinoids are defined by Texas A&M University as “a new class of insecticides … related to nicotine” that can “be applied to soil and be taken up by plants,” in order to reduce “the risks for insecticide drift from the target site.”

Neonicotinoids, Logomasini explains, are often applied to seeds “before planting, a practice that avoids broad environmental exposure.” Many of the studies that purport to prove a link between the insecticides and CCD were not conducted in the field, but in laboratories, where bees were subjected to unnaturally high levels. Sometimes the “research” is simply irrelevant. The destruction detailed in a frequently cited Harvard study did “not constitute CCD. While some honeybees abandoned the hive, there were lots of dead bees present and some hives lost queens as well as their brood. This does not resemble CCD, which involves disappearance of nearly all worker bees with few dead bees present, with live queens and brood left behind.”

Another reason to be skeptical: If neonicotinoids impose a death sentence on honeybees, why is the carnage so limited in some regions? In “many places where these chemicals are used widely, such as in Australia, CCD is not a problem.” Canada is another country that uses neonicotinoids, but has experienced minimal hive destruction. And history is more than a little instructive. As Jon Entine of the Center for Health & Risk Communication observed in Forbes last year, “unpredictable bee deaths [have] occurred periodically for more than a century” -- long before the era of neonicotinoids.

What’s the best approach to deal with CCD? First, do the opposite of Europe, which instituted a ban on neonicotinoids in 2013. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that in response, “farmers across the continent applied older chemicals to which many pests had developed a resistance, allowing them to survive. Now, infestations may lead to a 15 percent drop in this year’s European harvest of rapeseed, the region’s primary source of vegetable oil used to make food ingredients and biodiesel.”

Logomasini’s answer to CCD is “collaboration among the parties with an interest in protecting bees -- beekeepers, farmers, conservationists, entomologists and other researchers, consumers, and even chemical companies.” Continue the studies, but make sure to “follow the best available science in beekeeping husbandry.”

Perhaps most importantly, vex the worrywarts -- acknowledge the positive. The good news is that “during 2013-2014 hive losses were lower and at manageable levels after several years of relatively high losses.”

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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