Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
The Sugar Creek Bee Club in Parke County is not short on novice bee keepers. One of their oldest members is 71-year old Wayne Price. He got into beekeeping in 1971. Price paints a landscape of the past that is much different than the world bees live in today; he says bees were common and everywhere.
“I lived in a house in 1971, and there were bee trees at my place, where I could see from my house. If you went out into the woods, there were bees. It would seem like you could walk down the road and you would see a swarm on a fence post. It was a common thing,” Price said.
The beginning decline of bees
Starting in about 1980, Price started to notice mites coming in. In the 1980s mites were the biggest thing Price had ever seen destroy bees. According to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Varroa mites are external honeybee parasites that attack both the adults and the brood. They suck the blood from both the adults and the developing brood, weakening and shortening the life span.
“There were so many mites, you would extract honey and you could see them in the honey,” Price said.
Bees take a hit from chemicals
In the 1990s bees took another hit, this time from chemicals. The Exerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recently released the report Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees? The reports says neonicotinoid pesticides were first registered for use in the mid-1990s. Since then, these chemicals have become widely adopted for use on farm crops, landscape plants and trees. Neonicotinoids are systemic chemicals; they are absorbed by the plant and are transferred through the vascular system, making the plant itself toxic to insects. Because the chemical is absorbed into the plant, neonictinoids can be present in pollen and nectar, making these floral resources toxic to pollinators that feed on them.
Researchers at Purdue University have also linked honeybee deaths to insecticide exposure. The researchers’ analysis found bees dead in and around hives from several apiaries over two years in Indiana. The honeybees showed the presence of neonicotinoid insecticides. The corn pollen that bees were bringing back into their hives tested positive for neonicontinoids at levels roughly below 100 parts per billion. Purdue University associate professor of entomology and co-author of the study said “That’s enough to kill bees if sufficient amounts are consumed, but it is not acutely toxic.”
“I have seen right in the middle of the daytime a cornfield filled with beautiful yellow wild mustard. Then a crop duster would fly by and kill the wild mustard. Every bee that was in that field died right there. The ones that could get back to the hive had to bring it [the chemical] back with them,” Price said.
Additionally, the Dow Chemical company is on the verge of winning regulatory approval for corn that is genetically engineered to be immune to “2,4-D” — a powerful herbicide that was also a primary component of Agent Orange. This will allow farmers to spray the chemical on crops to kill weeds, without harming the corn.
Learning from our mistakes
Price says when he was young, officials didn’t know DDT was bad for our health. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, DDT was a commonly-used pesticide for insect control in the United States until it was canceled in 1972 by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Growers used DDT on a variety of food crops in the United States and worldwide. Some of the crops were beans, cotton and soybeans. DDT was a versatile insecticide because it was effective, relatively inexpensive to manufacture, and persists in the environment.
“If they didn’t catch the problems with DDT there wouldn’t be an eagle or hawk now,” Price said.
DDT is slightly to moderately acutely toxic to birds when ingested. However, DDT causes reproductive problems in birds. DDE, a metabolite of DDT, causes eggshell thinning in birds which make the eggs more susceptible to fracturing.
Price says corn and beans were raised for years without the use of anything but fertilizer. He guesses with more people on the planted the demand for grain increased. More grain would equal more weeds to get out of the field. Price says some of the newer chemicals are an easy and simple solution.
To bring more attention to the problem, Price encourages people to “stand up and say something. It has always been said if enough people say something, they will listen. We do need to say something about it. We need a lot of good, young, intelligent people to stand up and start writing about it,” he said.
Beekeepers can also use the program called Driftwatch. Driftwatch is a tool to help protect pesticide-sensitive crops and habitats in Indiana. Managers of apiaries may register. Pesticide applicators can easily locate registered sites before they spray using a Google Map interface. For more information visit driftwatch.agriculture.purdue.edu/index.html.
Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. She also sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@yourgreenvalley.com.