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The bees are trying to tell us something

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"Follow me," Marty Hanks says as he approaches a small field near Chapel Hill. It has been drizzling, and the gray skies form a backdrop to a row of bright orange, green and white boxes, each a different height.

More than 60,000 honeybees live here at the Just Bee Apiary. Hanks stops next to one of the hives, turns and says, "Meet the girls."

Hanks has raised bees for five years. He recently started a hive program in Orange and Alamance counties, where he collects and bottles the honey. Bees pick up nectar on their daily forays and turn it into honey by mixing it with stomach enzymes. The original brewers, Hanks calls them. Since the bees produce honey from the nectar of local flowers and plants within a five-mile radius of the hive, no two honeys taste and look the same.

"That bottle of honey made just in your hometown is the rarest food source you're going to have, because every community is completely different," he says. "We hope that people get more invested in the product because it's unique to their hometown. People, by nature, are more protective of their home, their area, and now we can collectively protect our bees."

Hanks' bee protection plan has greater implications. Keeping bees healthy in the Triangle is key to local, sustainable food. Honeybees help pollinate a third of the food we eat, worth $200 billion in crops annually. The massive bee die-offs in the U.S.—an average of a third of the nation's hives each year—are endangering agriculture. "Currently, the survivorship of honeybee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops," the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in May.

One of the keys to the bees' demise could also be in the Triangle. Pesticides known as neonicotinoids, chemically related to nicotine, are thought to have caused at least some of the bee deaths. The most widely used neonicotinoids include clothianidin and imidacloprid, which kill a variety of insects. Both are manufactured by Bayer CropScience, which has its American headquarters in Research Triangle Park. A third, thiamethoxam, is made by Syngenta, which conducts biotech seed research at its RTP office.

Dozens of studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals have confirmed a strong link between the usage of neonicotinoids and bee health. Exposure to small doses can damage the bees' immune system and memory. Large doses can kill bees. Bayer acknowledges that neonicotinoids can be toxic to bees, but the company contends that almost no traces of the pesticide have been detected in studied hives.

"There are a few cases when exposure happens and you get losses of bees," says Dick Rogers, an entomologist for Bayer CropScience. "It's just like there are car accidents from time to time. But generally, that's not the case. Residue of many different products might be present, but not the neonicotinoids. Those, if ever, are rarely found in hives."

However, beekeepers and environmental groups have criticized the scientific basis for Bayer's claims. Much is at stake for the company: If the U.S. were to heavily restrict the use neonicotinoids, as the European Union has done, Bayer's initial 10-year, $250 million investment, not including additional money for reviewing and honing the insecticides, could be at risk.

Even the EPA and the scientific community acknowledge there is a lack of data and adequate field studies about the effects on both the bees and the hives.

Originally these insecticides were used as sprays. But in the late 1990s, seeds were being treated with the neonicotinoids as well, clothianidin and imidacloprid being the most popular. First applied directly to the seed prior to planting, they then soak through the plant's vascular system. When bees forage, they pick up the substance from the pollen and nectar. One study conducted by Purdue University researchers showed that while the insecticide doesn't directly kill the bees, at the very least it impairs their learning skills and memory.

Memory is crucial to bees. They don't just pick a random flower to pollinate; they learn and memorize the directions. "They have dances where they wiggle in one direction to tell the bees at the hive where the flower is, how far it is," explains Benjamin Trueblood, a bee enthusiast in Hillsborough. "They are talking to each other. That system of communication breaks down if you have these bees feeding off poison."

"The disappearance of bees is actually blown out of proportion," Rogers says. "Occasionally you do find some hives where there are no bees, but you have to consider when the bees disappeared. If you are moving hives from one place to another, the bees may have already died, but if you didn't discover it until the move, that doesn't mean they disappeared at that location. There are a lot of different angles to consider."

In the 1940s, there were 5 million honeybee colonies in the U.S. Now there are just 2.5 million. "If 30 percent of the cows fell over in the field every year, people would freak out," Hanks says.

Recent die-offs include 37 million bees that perished shortly after a nearby farm planted corn. Last year, according to CTV News, Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency took samples from dead bees in Ontario and Quebec and found clothianidin in 70 percent of the Ontario samples. And in the U.S., the Oregon Department of Agriculture temporarily restricted the use of pesticides with a neonicotinoid called dinotefuran after two bee die-offs—one of them involving 50,000 bumblebees last month—in that state.

In addition, the European Food Safety Authority issued an extensive report stating that certain crops treated with neonicotinoid chemicals could harm bee health. As a result, the European Union passed a two-year ban on the use of three insecticides on flowering crops. They can still be used on winter crops and in greenhouses. Bayer CropScience objected to the ban, and was quoted in The New York Times as saying it is "a setback for technology, innovation and sustainability."

"It's important to keep in mind that the impact is not only on Bayer if this product is to be lost," Rogers says. "It has many positives, neonicotinoids increase yield. There is a growing world population. We need higher yields."

Since 2003, clothianidin has been used extensively on millions of acres of corn. In a report, the federal Environmental Fate and Effects division of the Environmental Protection Agency voiced concerns about the insecticide's safety. "The persistence of residues and the expression of clothianidin in nectar and pollen suggest the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honeybee larvae and the eventual stability of the hive," the report states.

Nonetheless, the EPA allowed Bayer to market clothianidin on the condition that the company would conduct a field study in 2004—a year after wide use of the insecticide began. But the study was delayed and not completed until 2007. The EPA later acknowledged that it had changed its assessment of the "usefulness" of the Bayer study because of its deficiencies, although the agency did not entirely discredit it. However, last year the EPA ruled clothianidin does not pose an "imminent hazard" to bees but added it would re-evaluate the risks to pollinators.

Hanks read the study and criticized its methodology. "They only had a few hives and conducted a singular test. They didn't have a third party test it. They didn't do it in multiple locations, and they didn't treat the entire food source," Hanks says. "How can you conduct a test on 20 acres when bees forage up to five miles, and you surround them with a 100 acres of non-treated food? And you call that science? It's an absolute joke."

Scientists and farmers acknowledge that neonicotinoids are among several factors in the bee die-offs and disappearances. Other pesticides and the varroa mite, a parasite that feeds on the blood of honeybees, have also been attributed to widespread bee deaths. Additionally, when commercial beekeepers transport hives across the country, the stress from the trip can weaken, or even kill, the bees.

Under normal circumstances, honeybees fly up to five miles from their hive and then return to it, even finding it among dozens in a row. "Now we are having bees just fly off and leave," Hanks says. "When you have a big crisis like that, you start putting dots together."

Correction: Syngenta was misspelled.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Hive mind."

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