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Florida's Honey Bees Facing Multiple Threats

One of the foundations of American agriculture is under attack on several fronts. The victims - bees. WUSF visits one beekeeper in Polk County who has to drive thousands of miles every year to keep his hives humming.

Robbie Bell swings his flatbed truck into a grassy area of a reclaimed phosphate mine, a half-dozen miles west of his Polk County home in Fort Meade.

It's the perfect place for bees: only a few cars whiz down Highway 640, and the bees are happily pollinating the invasive Brazilian pepper trees that have taken root here.

"Right here is over 100 hives, sitting in this yard," he says. "Each one of these has in the neighborhood of 60,000 bugs."

SPECIAL REPORT: The Buzz On Florida's Honey Bees

He stokes his bee smoker - a small, metal homemade-looking canister - with pine needles, as he pulls a buzzing frame out of one of the hives.

"People think the smoke calms bees down, and in a way it does, but they actually think its a fire so they turn their attention from you to trying to suck up a bunch of honey in case they have to leave," he says.

But all is not so calm in honey bee circles.

"We're seeing the collapse of the beekeeping industry," Bell says. "After our year is over with - I say our year is from January to the first week of June - we lose 40 percent of our operation. You can go have 100 hives here in June, and I can guarantee you, 40 to 50 of them will be dead in a month."

Bell says the problem is threefold - at least.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Robbie Bell scrapes honey from one of his hive frames

The biggest problem is the varroa mite, which is one of the factors in the puzzle of what causes colony collapse disorder. The mites burrow into the bees.  Then, the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.

The next major problem in Florida is citrus greening. Tiny insects produce a bacteria that shuts down the tree's flow of sap. This has severely limited the production of orange blossom honey, which used to be a roadside staple in Florida.

And then, there's neonicotinoids.

"The new pesticides, the neonicotinoids, are really -- they're playing havoc with this industry," Bell said. "The residues from these sprays, and also we're finding out, and the fungicides are messing up the bee's guts. They can't process their food and stuff."

Those neonicotinoids - called neo-nics for short - have created a lot of alarm among birders and beekeepers. The Sierra Club has unveiled a national campaign against the pesticide-coated seeds, sounding an alarm against a coming "bee-pocalypse." That's disputed by many scientists, however.

Dan Raichel is an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

"Neonics are incredibly toxic to bees and other insects," he said. "Since the introduction of neonics, U.S. agriculture has become 48 times more toxic to bees and other insects. And 92 percent of that increase is said to be attributable to neonics alone. The neonic coating on one corn seed has enough active ingredient to kill about a quarter million bees."

But they're incredibly popular. Raichel says they're the most used pesticides in the country, covering more than 100 million acres.

And in July, the federal EPA allowed the use of a neonic called sulfoxaflor, waiving a legal requirement for a field study of its impacts on pollinators. A coalition of beekeepers fired back in September, suing the EPA for its decision.

In an article in the Washington Post, Alexandra Dunn, head of the EPA office that oversees pesticides, said the agency was “thrilled” to be able to approve new uses and lift past restrictions on sulfoxaflor, which she called a “highly effective” tool for growers around the country — but which the agency itself considers “very highly toxic” to bees. The decision will allow the chemical to be applied to a wide array of crops, including citrus and corn, soybeans and strawberries, pineapples and pumpkins.

“EPA is providing long-term certainty for U.S. growers to use an important tool to protect crops and avoid potentially significant economic losses, while maintaining strong protection for pollinators,” Dunn told the newspaper.

Raichel says four out of every 10 bees nationwide die every year from the pesticides. That's three times the historical rate of loss. But it's become the new norm.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Robbie Bell at this hives

But he says the makers of the seeds that farmers plant are also the makers of the pesitcides. So they are motivated to sell these packages to farmers. Some seeds are not even made available without the neonic coating. But Raichel says farmers see it as a an inexpensive way of keeping their crops from getting eaten by pests.

Several states and the European Union have banned the use of some neonics.

But that's not the biggest threat to bees, says Professor Jamie Ellis, who directs honeybee research at the University of Florida. He says the varroa mites are by far the greatest threat. Though there's no doubt pesticides kills bees every year, he says, that's when pesticides are not applied correctly, and labled in such a way that when the directions are followed, it limits damage to pollinators.
"A lot of the impacts that are happening to bees are hard to reproduce in the lab or in controlled studies," Ellis said. "So we've got this idea that pesticides are driving it, but we don't have the data to support that generally."

Back in Polk County, Bell said the destruction to hives is so widespread that he doesn't have to look for business. He gets calls every year to take his hives on the "circuit," as far as almond farms in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada.

"Used to, we could stay in Polk County and make a living. Now, we're putting a bug on a semi-truck and transporting that bug to California, five days on a truck, being beat," he said.

Bell said citrus greening has wiped out so many orange groves in Florida, that beekeepers like him don't have a choice.

"I did all the watermelons in the state, and the strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, things like that, but it was barely paying the bills. California's a great deal. We make good money out there," he said.

Bell says Florida beekeepers sent out 560 truckloads of bees in January to California. They follow the crops, just like the workers who pick the crops.

"When California's over, that's not the end. I come back to Florida and south Georgia and do the melons, the cantaloupes and all that. But a lot of guys go to the apples in upstate Washington, the Rainier cherries. A lot of guys go to Maine to do the blueberries. I used to do Ocean Spray cranberries back in the 90's.

Despite all the problems, Bell says he's still hopeful.

"I think the future's good," he said. "We're praying that we could come up with some solution to the varroa mite. If we could do away with the varroa mite, I think we could deal with the pesticides a little better."

Bee smoker
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Robbie Bell stands next to his bee smoker

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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