Jon Foley Envisions a "Third Way" for Agriculture

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder: Have We Seen This Phenomenon Before?


If you have been following the progress of the honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder in the last three years you may just be confused or overwhelmed with the plethora of probable causes that have assaulted your senses.  Supposed causes include pathogens, weather, poor management, habitat destruction, genetics, cell phone tower transmission, Varroa mites, and pesticides.  It is probably a combination of many or all of the factors. (Well, maybe not the cell phone deal)

Of course, it is good cause and opportunity for the fear profiteers to harangue the corporate manufacturers of the "highly profitable" pesticides that may or may not be used within the proximity of foraging honeybees.  The European honeybee is not native to North America, it was imported in the 17th century, which is neither here nor there with regard to its status in the U.S.  The honeybee still plays a very important role in the unnatural manipulation of the environment known as agriculture and the consequent annual pollination of billions of dollars worth of fruit and vegetable crops on a global scale.


The parade of misinformed keyboard jockeys who's knowledge of honeybees comes entirely from Google and maybe getting stung on a rare weekend picnic foray beyond the city limits, is tiresome.  One of the most recent examples of "highly profitable" fear profiteering is from Tom Philpott at Grist, that bastion of "truth" on the "green" network.  He attempts in the way of all sophomores to attack Matt Ridley, someone who's sandals he is not worthy to untie, concerning the lack of journalistic due diligence.

In an article written for the Wall Street Journal  Ridley dared to introduce the idea that fungal and/or viral pathogens may be playing a part in CCD, of which there is good evidence.  But this, of course, does not fit the shallow narrative of the modern environmental sleuth that parrot the "all problems are caused by man made synthetic pesticides" meme.  Philpott says Ridley neglected to Google all the experts at USDA and the EPA  before weighing in on the subject.  Not Googling is one of the seven deadly sins of the modern cyber "journalist.  I have a hunch that Ridley's sphere of sources was a little more three dimensional and authentic than Googles' first page search engine results.

Philpott also ignored the fact that honeybee declines very similar to the recent CCD phenomenon have occurred on an almost regular basis worldwide since the 1869, probably the earliest recorded account (See Underwood, vanEnglelsdorp link).  And also, I might add, long before there were any modern synthetic pesticides being applied to crops.

I know some beekeepers, and beekeepers are notoriously paranoid about pesticides and almost always blame them first regardless of the evidence.  Now, that may not be without good reason, there have been some localized honeybee holocausts with mis-applied pesticides on record.  But one of the main citations the fear profiteers make concerning the neo-nicotinoid insecticides is with the use of clothianidin  which is used as a seed treatment in corn and other agronomic crops.

A seed treatment is not a foliar spray broadcast across the countryside.  The seed is treated before bagging in an indoor enclosed facility, the dust is kept to a minimum during handling, and after the seed is planted the active ingredient of insecticide applied per acre is reduced by approximately 95-97% compared to spray application.  The insecticidal activity that is absorbed into the growing seedling is effective in controlling early season insect pests like seedcorn maggots, cutworms, wireworms and white grubs which could wreak havoc on the young plants severely reducing plant stand and subsequent yields. It leaves non-target organisms virtually untouched.

By the time the corn plant is shin high the insecticide has run its course and has no further ability to control insect. The active ingredient has been diluted out in the growing expanding plant tissues to very low sub lethal levels.  By the time the corn plant produces pollen, two months and and maybe six feet of growth later there isn't much left of the insecticide, certainly not enough to effect any pest insects feeding on it.

When you start ascribing blame for CCD to accumulation of sub-lethal effects from lots and lots of pollen carrying trace amounts of insecticide it seems to me that you are getting onto thin ice.  There may be some interaction with some of the other pathological factors mentioned above that have a cumulative lethal effect but I can't help but think that this is another case of pseudo-journalism assigning blame to the one with the deepest pockets.  You can't sue the weather.

I just had to get this one off my chest.  Some of these "nature boy" cyber journalists need to get out in the sunlight once in a while and get some pollen in their shorts.  Maybe they should rely a little more on field sweat and a little less on Google.  Step away from the keyboard...

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