For the Love of Bees and Beekeeping

July 2014

More about Bees and Chemicals

by Keith Delaplane


It was a typical bee meeting that could’ve been Anywhere, USA. It was the annual state convention on a brilliant Saturday afternoon and I was guest speaker. I was wrapping up what I thought had been a successful lecture to a friendly crowd. The Q&A time was lively and prolonged – always a good sign – and the subject if not a perennial favorite, at least a perennial priority, Varroa Management. The next questioner was a sophisticated looking lady in one of the middle rows; she had hung on my every word with a concentration so intense I had vainly read it as supreme engagement bordering on admiration. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Standing up, composing herself, and drawing a deep breath, she declared what my sketchy memory records as the following:

“How dare you – an employee of a reputable institution – stand up there and advocate chemicals that harm bees and the environment. How can you do that when bees are dying all over the world and it’s perfectly possible to control mites without any chemicals at all? Shame on you! You should be pointing the way to controlling mites naturally. But, of course, you can’t do that because the big Chemical Companies are funding your research.”

These are not happy moments for a speaker. In this case, I responded with some lame, over-worked, and over-conditionalized response that left me looking evasive. Any argument that puts “bees” and “chemicals” together in the same sentence already has the advantage, and my battle was uphill from the start. In the end I was rhetorically defeated, and I walked away frustrated, feeling that emotion had won over reason.

But sitting here in the safety of my office I can reflect and appreciate, if not perhaps her facts – for the record, big industry comprises less than 2% of my career funding – at least the intent behind her emotional words. It is true that the quantity and diversity of pesticide exposure endured by our bees is staggering. A survey of bee and hive samples across 23 states found residues of 121 different pesticides and their metabolites. The average number of residues per sample was 6 and the highest had 39.1 This solemn news is compounded when one considers the infinitude of lethal synergies possible in a witch’s brew like that. For example, we already know that fluvalinate – the active ingredient in Apistan – results in lethal synergies when it is comes in contact with coumaphos – another Varroa miticide – or chlorothalonil – a widely used agricultural fungicide. Yet another bad synergy happens when the Varroa active ingredient thymol comes in contact with chlorothalonil.2 What other devilish combinations exist out there yet to be uncovered?

Moreover, not all toxicity is the same. As I mentioned in my last column, there are acute toxicities which result in ....