What’s the Buzz about the Bees

The Beepocalypse

 A quick glance at the news paints a grim picture for bees in the future, with title articles such as “Honey, we shrunk the bees: mass extinction threat for beloved insect?”, “The bee all end all: why should we care that the bees are dying?” and “Dying honeybees, and the uncertain future of honey” make us feel like we are on an inevitable slope to losing all of our bees and horrible puns (including this article’s title) simultaneously. Bee health started becoming a great cause of public concern around 2006, when colonies were seemingly left completely abandoned, with capped brood and queen bees still in the hive. Beekeepers were losing more than double the accepted colony loss rate (15% to >30%) over every winter. Despite these losses, the number of farmed bee colonies have been relatively consistent over the last 20 years (Figure 1), most likely because beekeepers are compensating for their higher-than-average bee losses by replacing more hives every year. So although we aren’t really on the verge of a beepocalypse, this raises questions as to what the cause for high colony loss is, and how populations of native bees are being impacted.

Figure 1. Number of honey bee colonies in the USA from 1987 to 2014. Data was acquired from USDA NASS. Note that the number of colonies have remained relatively consistent from about 1995 till 2014, although higher-than-average winter colony losses were experienced around 2006 (from 15% to >30%, data no shown on this graph).
Figure 1. Number of honey bee colonies in the USA from 1987 to 2014. Data was acquired from USDA NASS. Note that the number of colonies have remained relatively consistent from about 1995 till 2014, although higher-than-average winter colony losses were experienced around 2006 (from 15% to >30%, data no shown on this graph).

The main culprits under investigation for high colony loss include environmental stressors, lack of nectar/pollen resources, global warming, new bee diseases, varroa mites, and neonicotinoid insecticides. Going into all of these factors in detail could produce a textbook-worth of material, and I currently am not feeling the desire to write a textbook on a rainy Sunday afternoon, so I’ll focus on the factor most relevant to the floral industry: neonicotinoid insecticides.

The Insecticide in the spotlight

Neonicotinoids, often abbreviated as neonics, are a class of insecticides that were introduced in the 1990’s in response to the need for environmentally friendly and safer insecticides. Active ingredients in this class include acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam, and dinotefuran. They are considered highly effective as systemic insecticides – their water-soluble chemistry allows plants to take them up and give them long lasting targeted control to pests that are feeding on the foliage. Due to the lack of control on many floral pests, it was thought that neonics were not reaching the flowers. However, many are questioning whether neonics are found in the nectar and pollen, which would potentially impact our bees. We know for a fact that neonics can cause harm to bees at certain dosages, but we just don’t have enough data on how much neonic reaches the nectar and pollen. Some of the reasons for this lack of information include the complexity of testing every neonic active ingredient in every type of flowering plant we have on the market, and also that residue analysis for neonics can be very resource intensive, with one scientist claiming 300 man-hours to analyze 30 flowers! So while the science is still out on whether neonics are reaching the nectar and pollen, there are two main things that the green industry can do to help increase bee stewardship and increase marketability.

Bee health in floriculture pest management

Many major retailers are putting pressure on growers to either stop using neonics or label their products that have been treated with neonics. The impact of labeling on marketability of your product is discussed in the next section, but here are some things you can do to ensure that you are reducing your impact on bees from neonic use.

Figure 2. The handy dandy neonic use decision tree. Answer "yes" or "no" from top to bottom to see whether you should use neonics. The pesticide label supersedes this decision tree, so please consult the label first.
Figure 2. The handy dandy neonic use decision tree. Answer “yes” or “no” from top to bottom to see whether you should use neonics. The pesticide label supersedes this decision tree, so please consult the label first.

When deciding to use a neonic, you must first consider two major things:

  1. Is the crop currently in bloom and attractive to bees?
  2. Will the neonics be applied in a manner that will come in direct contact with bees?

If the answers to both of the above questions are “yes”, you aught to use something that doesn’t harm bees. If the answer to either of those is “no”, then the decision gets a bit trickier, hence why you’ve been provided with a handy dandy decision tree (Figure 2). Neonics are a highly valuable tool in any integrated pest management system, but as with any insecticide, they must be used with caution and only as needed. Michigan State University suggests a few different insecticides that may serve your needs that will be safe against bees:

  • Horticultural oils at 0.5%
  • Insecticidal soap at 1.0%
  • Botanigard
  • Mycotrol O
  • No-fly
  • Neem product
  • Spinosad
  • Xxpire
  • Rycar

Bee health in floriculture sales

Public petitions online, using social media as the driving force, pressured some of the large retailers to issue mandatory labeling of neonic-treated plants. Interestingly, most consumers remain uneducated on the subject of neonics and don’t necessarily demonstrate a selection bias against neonic-labeled plants.

A recent study published in HortScience entitled “Consumer preferences for traditional, neonicotinoid-free, bee-friendly, or biological control pest management practices on floriculture crops” (2015) surveyed 3,082 consumers nationally using an online survey. The survey found that consumers had a higher preference for the term “Bee friendly” compared to “Neonicotinoid-free” and “Grown with beneficial insects”. The survey found that consumers would even be willing to pay a premium for “Bee friendly” plants (see figure 3 for details).

The survey also found that survey respondents who bought ornamental plants in the last 12 months ranked their own knowledge high in “Pesticide-free production”, “Pest control using pest’s natural enemies”, “Sustainable Production”, “Grown bee friendly”, and “Growth with beneficial insects” (in order from highest to lowest), and ranked their own knowledge very low in the subjects areas of “Imidacloprid-free production”, “Neonicotinoid-free production”, and “Pyrethroid-free production” (from lowest to highest). As a result, labeling “Neonicotinoid-free” won’t mean much to most consumers, but keywords like pesticide-free, use of natural enemies, and grown bee friendly are more familiar to the consumer.

Figure 3. “Bee-friendly” plant label received the highest premiums compared to other labels for indoor and outdoor 4- inch flowering pots and 12-inch outdoor hanging baskets. The image below shows how much more survey respondents (3,082) were willing to pay for “Bee-friendly” compared to the other three labels (data from Wollaeger et al. 2015).
Figure 3. “Bee-friendly” plant label received the highest premiums compared to other labels for indoor and outdoor 4- inch flowering pots and 12-inch outdoor hanging baskets. The image below shows how much more survey respondents (3,082) were willing to pay for “Bee-friendly” compared to the other three labels (data from Wollaeger et al. 2015).

Summary

Although bee colony losses are greater than historical standards, our honeybee colony numbers have been steady over the last 20 years. In order to reduce the impact your operation has on bee populations, don’t spray blooming plants, and be selective in when and what you spray in order to minimize potential impact on bees. Lastly, consumers may find labels such as “Bee friendly” more sexy than “Neonic-free”; so don’t hesitate to use consumer insights to inform labeling decisions.

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