When Santa Barbara Beekeeper's Association (SBBA) President Paul Cronshaw received a call from one of the local beekeepers that he mentors on October 8, 2012, the news was not good. Carrie Kappel, a marine ecologist at UC Santa Barbara, is one of about 20 backyard beekeepers that Cronshaw mentors as a part of his efforts to support the growth of what he calls the “backyard beekeeper” movement.
“There’s something wrong with my bees,” Kappel told Cronshaw, who quickly rushed over to examine her hive. “It was like the bees were intoxicated,” Cronshaw related. “They were stumbling about and trying to fly but weren’t able to.”
“It was devastating to see the number of dead bees outside the hive, and watch those in their death throes, twitching and stumbling around in front of the hive, unable to fly,” Kappel added. Over the next few weeks she watched as her hive went from a healthy population of almost 70,000 bees to being completely empty in less than a month with dead bodies scattered everywhere.
Then came more reports of die-offs in other local hives — a total that would eventually increase to include sixteen backyard hives. Mysteriously, the die-offs all seemed to be coming from one small part of Montecito bounded by Olive Mill on the west, East Valley Road on the north, Ortega Ridge to the west and the ocean on the south.
At first Cronshaw suspected that a weird little fly, known as the “Zombie” fly might be responsible for the deaths. Earlier in the year northern California scientists had published an article in a science journal titled PLoS ONE that pointed to the tiny parasitic fly as what they labeled “the new threat” to honey bees. About this time, as reported by Independent staff writer Nick Welsh in the October 17 edition of the paper, county agricultural authorities had confirmed the sighting on at least one zombified bee locally.
According to Welsh, the healthy honeybees are zombified when a parasitic fly — the A. borealis — shoots its eggs into the bee's thorax and abdomen while airborne via a sharp tube known as the ovipositor, which then effectively consume the contents of the host bee's abdomen and eventually kills the bee.
No Smoking Gun
To learn more about what had caused the die-off, Kappel contacted Brian Cabrera, the County Agricultural Entemologist, and arranged for some of the dead bees to be examined. The results came back negative. The problem wasn’t the Zombies. Perhaps it might be pesticide contamination in the hives.
At this point SBBA turned east for answers. Pennsylvania beekeepers had reported alarming numbers of bee die-offs in 2006 and there was a lot of work being done at Penn State to determine what the cause was. Four of the hive owners agreed to send samples to Penn State Senior Extension Associate, Maryann Frazier for examination.
“Honey bees across the country are being exposed to a great diversity and sometimes high levels of pesticides,” Frazier told SBBA. “While the evidence associated with the Montecito die-off is not conclusive, the symptoms of colony deaths and detections of low levels of pesticides toxic to honey bees are suspicious and cause for concern.”
“Unfortunately,” Cronshaw explained, “by the time we knew it wasn’t the Zombies, the dead bees had been disposed of and all that remained was the hive, the wax and the honey which weren’t as valuable for the study but that’s all we had.”
As SBBA leaders suspected, several commonly used pesticides were discovered in bee food stores, brood cells and wax. These include bifenthrin, found in hundreds of agricultural and household pesticide products, chlorpyrifos, which is used on orchards, golf courses, and crops, and banned from residential use, cyhalothrin (found in household and commercial products like Demand®, Karate®, and Warrior®), and fipronil (used in over 50 products to control ants, termites, fleas and other insects, e.g., Frontline®, Goliath®, Nexa®, and Regent®).
All of these chemicals are known to be highly toxic to bees. Also found at low levels were two legal miticides used by beekeepers to control mites. While this does not prove that pesticides were behind the die-offs, it does point to them as a possible factor.
“We were hoping to find the proverbial ‘smoking gun’” Cronshaw said, “but it certainly pointed to the potential impact that pesticides could have had on the bees.”
Although a number of the affected hive owners have decided not to continue on with their beekeeping, Kappel and several others are moving on. “Now that we have some baseline information from the studies,” Cronshaw explained, “we plan on spending this year monitoring each of the hives and working with each of the keepers to eliminate any potential sources of chemicals, pesticides or other materials that could harm the bees.”
For Cronshaw this is more than a mission to save the Montecito bees. “Honey bees are critical to so much of what we eat and the honey itself has tremendous nutritional properties. They may also serve as an indicator species for the impacts that pesticides may eventually have on us.”
To that end, Cronshaw notes that he is among a growing trend when it comes to raising bees. “We’re what is known as “non-treatment” beekeepers. That means not using chemicals to deal with mites, viruses or other problems that have plagued bee hives in recent years.
“The Penn study also noted the presence of miticides,” he added. “One of these, Apistan®, is embedded in the wax layer that bee keepers typically use as the starter for the combs that the bees construct to store the honey. The problem is that as the mites become resistant to the miticides, even more powerful amounts of the miticide is used in the wax and that is starting to have an impact on the hives.
“We’re now looking at only using a small strip of the wax to minimize the amount of Apistan and to let the bees fill in the rest and that seems to be working really well.”
If not quite what might be termed “organic beekeeping” the focus is on reducing the impact that chemicals, pesticides and other harmful materials play in the local environment. “What we are practicing is the concept that what is good for the bees is good for us too,” Cronshaw explained. “We may not have the smoking gun pointing directly at the use of pesticides but we do have the capability to limit their use around the home.”
Who Regulates Us?
“Anyone who uses pesticides commercially is well regulated,” Cronshaw continued, as we look over a map of the Montecito area affected by the die-offs. He points out the golf course near the upper end of the map, the lemon grove near the bottom, several commercial hot houses in another — all which have to register the chemicals they use with the County Agricultural Commission.
“But what about the large estates? Cronshaw noted. “Even the smaller properties have plenty of grass, ornamental shrubbery and flowers — and gardeners who may use pesticides without knowing impacts they may cause.”
Though SBBA isn’t sure where the epicenter is or exactly why the die-off occurred in this small part of Montecito, the correlation between pesticide use and the bees seems pretty clear. Scientists have labeled this phenomenon as “acute pesticide poisoning.”
“The problem is with pesticides,” Cronshaw said, “no one regulates us when it comes to what we use at home or in our gardens. We’re our own watchdogs. Though honeybees and other pollinators are getting hit hard, there are things we can do to reduce the threats to them.”
Pesticides applied to plants that are in bloom can be transferred to the hive by bees foraging for nectar and pollen, and thus the pesticides can impact the entire colony. SBBA urges Santa Barbara community to refrain from using pesticides whenever possible, especially during the seasons when plants are in blossom and speak with your gardener, pest control company and anyone else that may use these products to make sure that they are being used properly.
SBBA also recommends planting bee-friendly gardens using organic principles. A variety of species that blossom year-round can provide sustainable nectar and pollen sources that can improve bee habitat and hopeful help minimize the potential for another die-off to occur in the future.