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Feature Story
The Vanishing
Page 2

With the accelerating decline of native bees, honeybees are becoming ever more critical to farmers. American agriculture is addicted to honeybees -- and in the past few years has begun to run short of them. Anderson's spring starts in February, when the almonds in California's Central Valley come into bloom. California has more than 580,000 acres planted in almonds, though commercial beekeepers living full-time in the state hold enough bee colonies to pollinate only about half that acreage.

In the spring of 2005, many of the migratory beekeepers who work the California almond bloom discovered that their colonies had suffered heavy losses during the winter. Across the country, about one-third of all commercial honeybee colonies died out. The result was a pollinator panic in the Central Valley. Fees for renting beehives shot up from about $48 to as much as $140 per colony, a previously unheard-of amount. Beekeepers traveled from as far away as Florida and North Carolina to service California's almond groves. For the first time in 50 years, U.S. borders were opened to honeybees from New Zealand and Australia. The fate of a $1.2 billion crop -- more than half of all almond production worldwide -- rested on the slender back of the embattled honeybee.

Many bee experts assumed varroa mites were a major cause of the severe die-off in the winter of 2005. Yet when researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, traveled to Oakdale, California, where Anderson and a number of his fellow beekeepers spend winter and spring, they could find no correlation between the level of varroa mite infestation and the health of bee colonies. "We couldn't pin the blame for the die-off on any single cause," says Jeff Pettis, a research entomologist at the lab.

Anderson has his own ideas about what caused the almond pollination crisis, and what is most responsible for wiping out honeybees across the United States. "Varroa is a bit of a red herring," he says. "One of the biggest problems is irresponsible use of pesticides and the failure of regulators to enforce the rules meant to protect bees from poisoning."

Over the past few years, Anderson has become a reluctant expert on one particular pesticide, Sevin, and the quirks of the system meant to govern its use. In the summer of 1998, Anderson's hives were stationed on farmland next to hybrid poplar groves managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the International Paper Company. Both sprayed the trees with Sevin to control infestations of the cottonwood leaf beetle, which damages poplars. Soon after, Anderson's bees began to die. He videotaped sick ones as they lay twitching, just outside their hive boxes, in the throes of nerve poisoning from the insecticide. The poisonings would continue long after a Sevin application, he says, because worker bees carried contaminated pollen back to the hive, where it affected the colony for months. More than 50 percent of his bees died.

"I can't comment on the specifics of Anderson's case," says Pettis, "but I do know that Sevin and honeybees do not mix. What he purports could certainly happen. If the bees are storing Sevin in the pollen, when they get to California and feed on it over the winter, it's going to be as toxic as it was when they first picked it up."

In 2001, Anderson and two neighboring beekeepers filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and International Paper seeking $2 million in damages. Anderson has found himself enmeshed in the strange world of pesticide law. He's learned to speak fluent pesticide legalese, committed to memory whole sections of FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), and has become both cynical and stubbornly hopeful about the state of pesticide regulation in the United States. "The law is not broke," he says. "It's the lack of enforcement that's the problem."

A district court judge initially dismissed Anderson's suit. But in January 2005, the Minnesota Supreme Court breathed new hope into the beekeepers' case, noting that by allowing the use of Sevin, Minnesota state policy seemed to conflict with the federally mandated bee caution on the pesticide label, which states that the chemical is highly toxic to bees and warns, "Do not apply this product . . . to blooming crops or weeds if bees are foraging in the treatment area."

The latest court decision makes it possible for the lawsuit to go forward, but Anderson is still hoping for the case to be heard by a jury. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reached an out-of-court settlement with the beekeepers, in which it agreed to stop using Sevin, but International Paper continues to spray its more than 30,000 acres of poplars, which it harvests to manufacture paper pulp and fiberboard.

Unable to keep their hives healthy near the sprayed poplar groves, many beekeepers have moved away from Eagle Bend, Minnesota, where Anderson and his family have summered for decades. After a particularly disastrous series of die-offs in 2002, Anderson moved his hives to fields far from the sprayed poplars, and he now makes a long commute every time he works his bees in the summer. Since the move, the survival rate of his colonies has improved. Even last spring, when many of his colleagues suffered major losses, his colonies did relatively well. He sees this as confirmation that Sevin contamination is finally fading among his hives.

"I'm standing my ground," Anderson says. "If I pick up and move to another state, they'll just blast me with some other pesticide." He's familiar with the chemical disasters that struck beekeepers in Nebraska, Colorado, North Carolina, and Washington in the 1990s, when the insecticide Penncap-M became popular as a defense against corn rootworm, the larval form of a beetle that attacks the roots of corn plants. Penncap-M, a microencapsulated form of methyl parathion, could have been designed as the ultimate bee-killing weapon: a highly toxic, long-lived nerve poison enclosed in tiny, pollen-size beads. Foraging bees packed these pellets into their pollen sacs along with the real thing and carried them home, devastating their colonies.

Corn is easily wind-pollinated, so although bees gather corn pollen, growers don't need them. They see Penncap-M as the cheapest, most efficient answer to their rootworm problem, and its impact on bees has not convinced them to give it up. Significant honeybee die-offs due to Penncap-M are on the wane, but not because of pesticide regulation. Beekeepers who weathered major losses from Penncap-M now keep their hives far from anywhere the pesticide is used. Some beekeepers, however, were driven out of business by massive bee kills, becoming statistics in the long-term decline of commercial honeybees in this country. In the late 1940s, U.S. beekeepers held about 5 million colonies; gradually that number has dropped to about 2.3 million.

At the compound in Oakdale, California, where Anderson and his family spend the winter, his two youngest children, dressed in Confederate gray, are staging a very small-scale reenactment of a Civil War battle beneath tall valley oaks. Anderson walks with me to my car as I get ready to leave. A wry smile creases his face, ruddy from long days out in the weather. "You know," he says, "it's a catch-22. If my bees are nowhere near the poplars anymore, then International Paper can claim it's OK to spray Sevin. So those bee pastures, which we've depended on for so many years, may be lost forever."

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Photos: Dan Winters

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council