Where are the bees?
Published: Thursday, August 23rd, 2012
Local beekeepers are buzzing, but not in the way you would imagine. Many beekeepers are finding their hives down, not only hundreds, but thousands of bees, causing honey and fruit production to rapidly decline.
“My hives are not doing well at all,” said Camille Riner, who owns one hive. “I’m not really sure why it’s not doing well.”
This is Riner’s third year with her hive, which when healthy, houses anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 honeybees during the summer. Riner, who has been successful the past two years with beekeeping, finds herself struggling this year. The number of bees in her hive has significantly dropped, but no bodies are left behind.
“If they were ill there would be a lot of bodies or rotting bees,” Riner said. “It’s obviously not that since there are no bodies. They could have created a new queen, swarmed and left the hive, too. It’s just hard to know for sure.”
Many other beekeepers are in the same shoes as Riner and have begun to question mountain pine beetle spraying efforts.
“I did everything right in the years past and now this year is different,” Riner said. “How can I positively say it’s this one thing that’s killing them?”
There are numerous insecticides that are life threatening to bees, including the chemicals used for sprays against pine beetles: Carbaryl (also known as Sevin SL or XLR), Permethrin and Bifenthrin (sometimes called Onyx). These three insecticides are used to protect trees from the beetles’ infestation by binding one of the three active ingredients to the tree’s bark.
Carbaryl has been known to kill over 100 species of insects, including bees, as well as cause an increase in cancer risks in humans.
Permethrin does not cause much harm to humans and some animals. It, however, is extremely toxic to bees and other beneficial insects if they are present during or within 24 hours of application.
Bifenthrin is extremely toxic when ingested. This is one of the preferred treatments of pine beetle spraying as it does not move in soils with large amounts of organic matter, clay and silt and is not likely to contaminate groundwater. However, just like Permethrin, Bifenthrin is highly toxic if bees are present during spraying or within 24 hours of application.
Many experts suggest putting wet sheets over hives to keep the honeybees in the hives while spraying is going on in nearby areas.
“Many other things can go wrong that I can’t blame one thing,” Riner said. “It’s hard to come to a conclusion since I have such little experience. I just hope next year will be better.”
Brenda Coy, owner of D&C Spraying in Custer, has sprayed roughly 10,000 trees for mountain pine beetles, in addition to spraying noxious weeds, lawns, rights-of-way, pastures and bare ground areas.
“The sprays we use have Permethrin in it, which is known to kill bees,” Coy said. “But we always check surrounding areas where we are spraying in case we have to notify anyone.”
So far, Coy has had no problems with spraying near beehives.
“We just alert the beekeepers when we’ll be spraying and they know to cover the hives to keep them in the hive,” Coy said. “Anything else we use for weeds are herbicides and those do not affect bees whatsoever.”
“All insecticides are very harmful to bees and labels should be followed strictly,” said Bill Kirsch, supervisor for Custer County Weed and Pest Control. “Insecticides should not be applied in windy conditions and I have had one call about sprays being applied in a drift.”
While Kirsch hasn’t heard of entire bee colonies being wiped out from tree spraying, he believes increasing use of insecticides could be a possibility.
“Certainly it could happen, but I hope property owners are following the directions on the bottle,” he said.
However, one local beekeeper had her entire colony killed from overhead spraying, which was done illegally by a man from Pierre. Lila Lytle started beekeeping in the spring of 2010 and had to completely start over this past spring from the repercussions of pesticides.
“One day a plane came over my home and sprayed the entire area with pine beetle spray,” she said. “Well that’s no good. First of all, spraying needs to be done on the trees themselves, not from the air. And second, it completely killed my bees.”
Lytle had over 50,000 bees killed from the aerial spray attack, which she says was wrongfully done since she signed up to be a “no-spray” zone.
“I specifically didn’t want any spraying done since I raise bees,” Lytle said. “I had to buy new bees and wait until this past spring to get my hive started again.”
Lytle had to clean out and detoxify the old hive and throw out all the honey the bees produced.
“The chemicals from the spray taint the honey so it’s no good,” Lytle said. “All that hard work was gone.”
After weeks of investigating, Lytle found out the pilot of the plane was offering his services and equipment for free and was spraying with a self-created insecticide that was not proven effective on infested trees. While the pilot was fired, Lytle never received compensation for her loss.
“I just figured what’s done is done,” she said. “I could have fought it more, but it was just easier to start from the beginning once more.”
Lytle got her hive up and running this spring, which is the only time of the year workable for bees.
“This year hasn’t been so great, either,” she said. “It’s very dry — the driest conditions I can remember since the ’30s! I’m feeding them sugar water since there is hardly any nectar.”
While the link between mountain pine beetle spraying and the decline in local bee populations is still unknown, other suggestions for the decrease in bees could be rapid changes in temperature, swarming and even a mite outbreak.
“Connecting the decline of bees to mountain pine beetle spraying is highly unlikely,” said Dr. John Ball, Forestry specialist at South Dakota State University. “The reason being, the sprays are designed to hold to the trees for the beetles to walk on and die.”
According to Dr. Ball, the only way this would affect bees is if they are near the spray while being applied (or within 24 hours) or if they walk on the trees and bring the substance back to the hive.
“The only reason bees would even be on pine trees is for the pollen it emits, and pine pollen isn’t a typical food source for honeybees,” Ball said. “It’s highly unlikely for a bee to do this.”
Ball and other experts do not know what is causing the decline in bee population in South Dakota.
“I’ve heard many ideas, but it’s probably a lot of small factors put together,” Ball said. “There’ve been many colony collapses across the United States, so that could certainly be a factor here in South Dakota as well.”
“Many areas in the States have been affected by swarming,” said Bill Clements, president of the Wannabee Hobby Beekeepers, a local group that has around 300 members. “I’ve talked in depth with Dr. Ball and I don’t think pine beetle spraying could be attributed to this problem.”
Clements believes swarming has been a problem for many beekeepers. Once colonies swarm, they form new colonies and appoint a new queen bee. A lot of beekeepers on the East have had major problems with swarming because of weird weather patterns and temperatures.
“We could certainly be having the same problem as those in the Eastern part of the country,” Clements said. “When hobby keepers lose their bees it’s either because of swarming or because the bees are not getting enough food during the winter.”
Clements, Ball, Coy and Kirsch encourage all local beekeepers, both hobby and for profit, to register with the state and declare their residence as a “no-spray zone” for insecticides and pesticides.
“Certainly no one wants to see a bad use of pesticides and insecticides and more importantly, we need bees to produce and pollinate our foods. They’re very important,” Ball said.
“If the bees are dying from pine beetle sprays, it’s sad,” Riner said. “I know the chemicals in the spray are doing its job, but it’s a sad repercussion. I don’t think we really know what the repercussions of spraying is until the long term damage is already done.”
Lytle hopes her bee population continues to grow, not only for herself but also for the rest of the community.
“Bees pollinate one third of everything you eat,” she said. “In five years, if we don’t have any bees the grass would be dead, let alone produce. The whole country would suffer because of it.”
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