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Nick The Beekeeper

Montecito Bees A Signal of Things to Come?

Household Use of Pesticides Potential Threat to Local Bee Populations


Sunday, February 3, 2013
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— When Santa Barbara Beekeeper’s Association (SBBA) President Paul Cronshaw received a call from one of the local beekeepers that he mentors on October 8, 2012, the news was not good. Carrie Kappel, a marine ecologist at UC Santa Barbara, is one of about 20 backyard beekeepers that Cronshaw mentors as a part of his efforts to support the growth of what he calls the “backyard beekeeper” movement.

“There’s something wrong with my bees,” Kappel told Cronshaw, who quickly rushed over to examine her hive. “It was like the bees were intoxicated,” Cronshaw related. “They were stumbling about and trying to fly but weren’t able to.”

“It was devastating to see the number of dead bees outside the hive, and watch those in their death throes, twitching and stumbling around in front of the hive, unable to fly,” Kappel added. Over the next few weeks she watched as her hive went from a healthy population of almost 70,000 bees to being completely empty in less than a month with dead bodies scattered everywhere.

Then came more reports of die-offs in other local hives — a total that would eventually increase to include sixteen backyard hives. Mysteriously, the die-offs all seemed to be coming from one small part of Montecito bounded by Olive Mill on the west, East Valley Road on the north, Ortega Ridge to the west and the ocean on the south.

At first Cronshaw suspected that a weird little fly, known as the “Zombie” fly might be responsible for the deaths. Earlier in the year northern California scientists had published an article in a science journal titled PLoS ONE that pointed to the tiny parasitic fly as what they labeled “the new threat” to honey bees. About this time, as reported by Independent staff writer Nick Welsh in the October 17 edition of the paper, county agricultural authorities had confirmed the sighting on at least one zombified bee locally.

SBBA President Paul Cronshaw with one of his healthy hives.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Cronshaw

SBBA President Paul Cronshaw with one of his healthy hives.

According to Welsh, the healthy honeybees are zombified when a parasitic fly — the A. borealis — shoots its eggs into the bee’s thorax and abdomen while airborne via a sharp tube known as the ovipositor, which then effectively consume the contents of the host bee’s abdomen and eventually kills the bee.

No Smoking Gun

To learn more about what had caused the die-off, Kappel contacted Brian Cabrera, the County Agricultural Entemologist, and arranged for some of the dead bees to be examined. The results came back negative. The problem wasn’t the Zombies. Perhaps it might be pesticide contamination in the hives.

At this point SBBA turned east for answers. Pennsylvania beekeepers had reported alarming numbers of bee die-offs in 2006 and there was a lot of work being done at Penn State to determine what the cause was. Four of the hive owners agreed to send samples to Penn State Senior Extension Associate, Maryann Frazier for examination.

“Honey bees across the country are being exposed to a great diversity and sometimes high levels of pesticides,” Frazier told SBBA. “While the evidence associated with the Montecito die-off is not conclusive, the symptoms of colony deaths and detections of low levels of pesticides toxic to honey bees are suspicious and cause for concern.”

“Unfortunately,” Cronshaw explained, “by the time we knew it wasn’t the Zombies, the dead bees had been disposed of and all that remained was the hive, the wax and the honey which weren’t as valuable for the study but that’s all we had.”

As SBBA leaders suspected, several commonly used pesticides were discovered in bee food stores, brood cells and wax. These include bifenthrin, found in hundreds of agricultural and household pesticide products, chlorpyrifos, which is used on orchards, golf courses, and crops, and banned from residential use, cyhalothrin (found in household and commercial products like Demand®, Karate®, and Warrior®), and fipronil (used in over 50 products to control ants, termites, fleas and other insects, e.g., Frontline®, Goliath®, Nexa®, and Regent®).

All of these chemicals are known to be highly toxic to bees. Also found at low levels were two legal miticides used by beekeepers to control mites. While this does not prove that pesticides were behind the die-offs, it does point to them as a possible factor.

“We were hoping to find the proverbial ‘smoking gun’” Cronshaw said, “but it certainly pointed to the potential impact that pesticides could have had on the bees.”

Organic Beekeeping

Although a number of the affected hive owners have decided not to continue on with their beekeeping, Kappel and several others are moving on. “Now that we have some baseline information from the studies,” Cronshaw explained, “we plan on spending this year monitoring each of the hives and working with each of the keepers to eliminate any potential sources of chemicals, pesticides or other materials that could harm the bees.”

Typical backyard setup depicting a series of small beehives.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Cronshaw

Typical backyard setup depicting a series of small beehives.

For Cronshaw this is more than a mission to save the Montecito bees. “Honey bees are critical to so much of what we eat and the honey itself has tremendous nutritional properties. They may also serve as an indicator species for the impacts that pesticides may eventually have on us.”

To that end, Cronshaw notes that he is among a growing trend when it comes to raising bees. “We’re what is known as “non-treatment” beekeepers. That means not using chemicals to deal with mites, viruses or other problems that have plagued bee hives in recent years.

“The Penn study also noted the presence of miticides,” he added. “One of these, Apistan®, is embedded in the wax layer that bee keepers typically use as the starter for the combs that the bees construct to store the honey. The problem is that as the mites become resistant to the miticides, even more powerful amounts of the miticide is used in the wax and that is starting to have an impact on the hives.

“We’re now looking at only using a small strip of the wax to minimize the amount of Apistan and to let the bees fill in the rest and that seems to be working really well.”

If not quite what might be termed “organic beekeeping” the focus is on reducing the impact that chemicals, pesticides and other harmful materials play in the local environment. “What we are practicing is the concept that what is good for the bees is good for us too,” Cronshaw explained. “We may not have the smoking gun pointing directly at the use of pesticides but we do have the capability to limit their use around the home.”

Who Regulates Us?

“Anyone who uses pesticides commercially is well regulated,” Cronshaw continued, as we look over a map of the Montecito area affected by the die-offs. He points out the golf course near the upper end of the map, the lemon grove near the bottom, several commercial hot houses in another — all which have to register the chemicals they use with the County Agricultural Commission.

“But what about the large estates? Cronshaw noted. “Even the smaller properties have plenty of grass, ornamental shrubbery and flowers — and gardeners who may use pesticides without knowing impacts they may cause.”

Though SBBA isn’t sure where the epicenter is or exactly why the die-off occurred in this small part of Montecito, the correlation between pesticide use and the bees seems pretty clear. Scientists have labeled this phenomenon as “acute pesticide poisoning.”

“The problem is with pesticides,” Cronshaw said, “no one regulates us when it comes to what we use at home or in our gardens. We’re our own watchdogs. Though honeybees and other pollinators are getting hit hard, there are things we can do to reduce the threats to them.”

Pesticides applied to plants that are in bloom can be transferred to the hive by bees foraging for nectar and pollen, and thus the pesticides can impact the entire colony. SBBA urges Santa Barbara community to refrain from using pesticides whenever possible, especially during the seasons when plants are in blossom and speak with your gardener, pest control company and anyone else that may use these products to make sure that they are being used properly.

SBBA also recommends planting bee-friendly gardens using organic principles. A variety of species that blossom year-round can provide sustainable nectar and pollen sources that can improve bee habitat and hopeful help minimize the potential for another die-off to occur in the future.

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"the die-offs all seemed to be coming from one small part of Montecito bounded by Olive Mill on the west, East Valley Road on the north, Ortega Ridge to the west (east?) and the ocean on the south." That's quite a large area, with two golf courses, the Valley Club and Birnam Wood, and the sprawling, manicured retirement community of Birnam Wood. Inaddition, nearby are gated communities along the ocean, south of the freeway plus hotels, the Biltmore, San Ysidro Ranch, and the Caruso-owned Miramar property. Are these large property owners being contacted?

If dogs and cats were being poisoned, there would be an outcry and seeking of the source with potential lawsuits as a pssible remedy - and deterrent of future harm. Bees are wild animals; don't they also have rights to a healthy life? Certainly, the benefit of bees is well-known!

at_large (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2013 at 5:27 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Correction: should have been the "retirement community of Casa Dorinda" not Birnam Wood.

at_large (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2013 at 5:30 a.m. (Suggest removal)

This is a huge warning sign. I hope that the EPA or whatever agency local or otherwise doesn't cave to the money in the area and goes after the reasons for this happening with vigor. It could be a fungus or parasite also, not just pesticides.

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2013 at 11:19 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The poor bees, we have to do something about this, let's ban assualt rifles, that wil fix it.

AZ2SB (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2013 at 12:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Yeah! It is happening here in NorCAl too! I KNOW one guy sprays my bees.. I lose a hive every year at one site. The bees in my backyard have been getting through the winter really well but this last week I lost 3 hives with the same symptoms. I have dead bees in jars if someone wants to test them!
These pesticides are Neurotoxins, the same kind of chemicals that turn people into Zombies and are in puffer fish. Humans accumulate toxins, the 'safe' amount in the food accumulates in our bodies. Usually, what is GOOD for the bees is good for you & me & vis versa

KO (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2013 at 5:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Bees pollinate 80% of the world’s plants including 90 different food crops.

1 out of every 3 or 4 bites of food you eat is thanks to bees.

The honey bee is responsible for $15 billion in U.S. agricultural crops each year.

http://honeylove.org/bees/

Yep, very true "Usually, what is GOOD for the bees is good for you & me & vis versa",

tabatha (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2013 at 10:42 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Global problem. Here's an example from European review of one class of pesticide
http://www.panna.org/blog/neonics-hur...

water (anonymous profile)
February 5, 2013 at 12:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Aren't we forgetting the most significant factor governing life in our industrial capitalist society? It's the mandate for profit maximization, and to hell with the consequences, as long as the stock holders are happy. The quarterly balance sheet is king. The environment? Awww shucks, that's for those goddamned hippie tree huggers - let the next generation clean up after us, give those lazy youth something useful to do.

bloggulator (anonymous profile)
February 6, 2013 at 9:23 p.m. (Suggest removal)