Buzz Kill: U.S. Honeybees Suffer Worst Winter on Record

Big chemical companies are trying to put all the blame on the head of one tiny little parasite with a terrifying name: varroa destructor. But what’s the real story?
Winter loss numbers are reported by beekeepers, like the one pictured here.

Have you ever gotten bad news at your own party?

That’s something like what happened in the middle of National Pollinator Week—a seven-day celebration of bugs, birds, bats, and other animals that support our food system and over 75% of the plant life on the face of the planet—when the annual honey bee loss survey came out with some rather bad news. Namely, that U.S. beekeepers last year experienced the largest winter losses ever recorded.

Talk about a buzz kill. But who committed the party foul? As more and more scientific evidence points the finger at neonicotinoid insecticides or “neonics,” and governments like Canada and the European Union move to ban bee-killing neonic uses, big chemical companies try to put all the blame on the head of one tiny little parasite with a terrifying name: varroa destructor, also known as the varroa mite. So what’s the real story?

Neonics Weaken Bees—Often Fatally

Have you ever noticed yourself getting sick after a stressful week at work or maybe (and no judgment here) a little fuzzy or slow after a long night out past your bedtime? In a similar fashion, we’ve known for a while now that neonics weaken bees’ survival systems—their immune system, navigation system, stamina, memory, etc.  And that makes them less able to perform the tasks they need to do to survive—like finding enough pollen and nectar to last the winter.

It also makes bees more vulnerable to the other challenges they already face—like freezing temperatures, disease, and parasites like the varroa mite. Unsurprisingly, new research reports that neonics depress bee behaviors that help bees rid themselves of varroa and other parasites, and also links real-world levels of neonic exposure to higher rates of death for bees battling varroa and greater incidences of disease (specifically, the horrible-sounding “deformed wing virus”).

A close up of a varroa mite on a bee.

Of course, let’s not forget that neonics are designed to exterminate insects generally, so often kill bees directly too.

Varroa Harm Honey Bees, Neonics Harm All Bees … as Well as Birds, Deer, Aquatic Ecosystems, and Maybe You, Too

While varroa mites appear to be only a problem for honey bees, there are more than four thousand species of wild bees in the U.S. alone—like the endangered rusty patched bumble bee—and that doesn’t count butterflies, birds, bats, and other pollinators. Whether directly or indirectly, neonics adversely affect all of them. And because neonics contaminate large swaths of soil and water across the country, it’s not surprising that they’ve been linked to declines of birds and butterflies and considerable harm to aquatic ecosystems. Frighteningly, new research shows that neonics might be causing developmental defects in deer in the real world.

Honey bees are just one bee species in thousands. Bees and other pollinators come in every color of the rainbow, like this blue-banded bee.
Credit: Photo by Chiswick Chap

And in case you missed why that’s frightening: deer are mammals, and so are we. On the human side of things, emerging research also suggests that there may be links between neonic exposures and malformations of the developing heart and brain and a cluster of symptoms including memory loss and finger tremors.

It’s also worrying that, like deer, many of us are likely being exposed to neonics every day. Neonics appear in a number of foods enjoyed by children and adults alike, and they’ve also been commonly found in drinking water in Iowa and Ontario, Canada. Neonic byproducts—up to three hundred times more toxic to humans than the neonic “parent” chemicals—were also detected. And these byproducts could become even more toxic after passing through normal chlorine drinking water treatment.

Neonics Are an Easy Problem to Solve

Fortunately, unlike some other problems facing bees—e.g., climate change or even varroa destructor—the overuse of bee-killing neonics is a problem we can solve easily and quickly. Indeed, while the Trump administration is unlikely to lift a finger, state’s like New York are advancing legislation that will help protect bees and other pollinators from toxic neonics.

We hope that bill and others like it become law by next year’s pollinator week. Then pollinators large and small (and the rest of us too) will have a big reason to celebrate.