The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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For the Love of Bees and Beekeeping

Bee Decline: Is This Anything New?

- August 1, 2015 - Keith Delaplane - (excerpt)

This month I’m taking an abrupt pause from my series on honey bee evolution. For my readers who have been following this story I hasten to say I will resume these monthly installations immediately. But something interesting came up this summer in the scene of Georgia agricultural politics, and I think it warrants a wider hearing. It’s an example of how – and to what extent – science-based opinions can make their way into public policy.

Readers may remember that last summer in June 2014 President Obama asked USDA and EPA to create a Pollinator Health Task Force1 and charged it with creating a national pollinator research plan, creating a public education plan on the conservation of pollinators, and fostering public/private partnerships for improving pollinator habitat and forage. The Task Force went about its work and in May 2015 published its report, a “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators,” viewable in its entirety at this endnote.2 As further response to the presidential memorandum, EPA asked each state to produce a pollinator protection plan. These plans are intended to be non-binding documents, tailored to local conditions, giving guidance to farmers, beekeepers, land managers, and homeowners on ways to encourage and protect pollinators.

I served on the committee that produced Georgia’s plan. We were a diverse and amiable group of entomologists representing the University of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Among our ranks were specialists in insect pests of ornamentals, commercial vegetables, cotton, and insecticide registration laws. My able lab manager Jennifer Berry and I represented the pollinators. All of us hashed out a draft over several weeks of back-and-forth emails. From the onset, our chairman’s hope was to produce a document that could rally universal endorsement from all stakeholder sectors in the state. After we had a draft that we liked, we searched our College databases for all relevant commodity boards, conservation groups, and interested stakeholder associations we could find, sent copies of the plan to their leadership, and scheduled a roundtable meeting in central Georgia to discuss the plan face-to-face and invite comments. At this juncture we were surprised when a strong voice of opposition emerged from one of the stakeholder groups. This group had difficulties with language in the plan and wrote a letter to the committee outlining their objections. There were two: (1) a request that we mention that there are numerous records of bee decline in the past, and (2) an insistence that we qualify every mention of pollinator pesticide exposure as “unintentional” pesticide exposure. The endorsement of the group hung upon these changes. In the end my committee refused and lost that group’s endorsement, and here’s why.

Earlier historic instances of honey bee decline
It is true that there are earlier records of enigmatic honey bee epidemics and colony losses. As early as 950 A.D. there are records from Ireland of a “great mortality of bees.3” In this country we have old records of so-called “disappearing disease,” the name applying apparently to the characteristic disappearance of adult bees (Fig. 1) as well as rapid disappearance of symptoms after about two weeks. In 1903 in the Cache Valley of Utah 2000 colonies succumbed to this malady, reportedly after a “hard winter and cold spring.4” My grandfather, William Harvey Delaplane’s 1923 edition of ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture5 reports anecdotal instances of disappearing disease in the 1890s in Florida, in 1915 in the West Indies, in 1915 and again in 1919 in Oregon, and in 1919 in Ventura County, California. This old source further describes adult bees in an agitated terminal phase crawling in front of hives (Fig. 2). The most famous bee epidemic of all, the “Isle of Wight Disease” in southern England6, was occasion for …