My Way of Thinking: Seed treatments overblamed for bee deaths

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click image to zoom“And the idea that seed treatment pesticides are causing colony collapse disorder, or whole hives of bees to disappear, is false.” It is hard to ignore consumer media reporting on the activist organizations’ claims that pesticides are killing all the bees in the U.S. and world. The overzealous reporting makes it sound like all the crops grown for food are dependent on bees to be pollinated, which is far from the truth. The 90 percent of consumers that have no idea about farming and crop production are easily coerced into believing most anything.

Yes, bee health should be a concern because bees are needed to pollinate tree and bush crops (fruits and nuts) and some vegetables. But the driver for how many commercial/industrial hives of bees are really needed is the California almond growers. We’ve reported previously how bee hives are trucked from one side of the country to the other.  

About 1.6 million to 1.7 million of the nation’s estimated 2.6 million bee colonies are placed in the 800,000 acres of almonds in California each year, according to Iain Kelly, Bayer CropScience bee health issues manager.

Out of necessity, there is better hive management today than a decade ago by commercial beekeepers, and there also is more cooperation between farmers and ag retailers in making sure that pesticides are applied when bees are less likely to be foraging the crops. As one ag retailer employee told me, in the past when the agronomy department was aware of commercial hives, they would warn the beekeepers, but most of them ignored the warning. Warnings are not ignored as much today.

Today it seems that only the best hive managers can be surviving, and they are highly concerned about bee health. “We saw a loss of beekeepers after 1987. That is when the varroa mite came into this country, and the varroa mite has been the biggest enemy of beekeepers since that period of time,” Kelly contended in speaking to the National Agronomic Environmental, Health and Safety School during the summer. Bees continue to be under attack by varroa mites and associated viruses, bacteria and fungal diseases, but the number of colonies of bees has remained relatively stable since 1995, although winter kill continues to fluctuate drastically from year to year for a number of health and weather reasons. The perceived shortage of bees comes from the expansion of almond production and the need for more commercial pollinators.

Of course, synthetic pesticides, especially seed treatments, are being blamed for decreased populations of honey bees and other pollinators by activists. The numbers and messages being issued by Bayer CropScience seems logical to me. Kelly claims there are only a handful of instances where seed treatments can be blamed for bee kills each year in the U.S. Planter dust that comes from the seed box can be contaminated with pesticides, usually neonicotinoids because they are widely used seed treatment actives.

Research is being done to reduce planter dust and eliminate pesticides from flying free into the environment. Talc mixed with seed in the planter to improve seed flow is one culprit, and Bayer CropScience will be introducing an alternative product to talc. The company is also in conversation with planter manufacturers to see if minor modifications to planters can reduce seed treatment dispersal.

And the idea that seed treatment pesticides are causing colony collapse disorder, or whole hives of bees to disappear, is false. First of all, there is no “disorder” or one specific reason for hives to die off, and investigation of colonies disappearing is usually associated with a variety of health issues related to varroa mites and diseases that weaken the colony.

Bee health research and shared information has increased with all the consumer outcry, which is a good thing, and in my opinion, more third-party research will prove that seed treatments are much less of a problem than currently being blamed.

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