The dilemma: Farmers use approved pesticides at approved rates and in accordance with approved application methods to protect valuable field and tree crops from damaging pests. Beekeepers place their hives as near those fields and orchards as they can to provide adequate nectar to produce as much honey as possible.

But that’s not all. Bees near agriculture operations is only one of a half-dozen or more factors that could contribute to bee colony collapse disorder, and it’s likely not even the most significant.

“We know multiple stress factors affect bee decline,” said Laurie Adams, executive director, Pollinator Partnership, during a panel discussion on agriculture and pollinators at the Ag Issues Forum, annually sponsored by Bayer CropScience prior to the Commodity Classic, held recently in San Antonio.

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Adams, along with Troy Anderson, assistant professor of insect toxicology and pharmacology at Virginia Tech, and Don Parker, integrated pest management manager for the National Cotton Council, explored various reasons for declining bee populations and possible solutions to this complex problem.

Bee research sheds new light on faltering colonies

Adams said neonicotinoid insecticide use is “a very small part of the problem. Climate change is huge,” she said. “Extreme temperatures affect bees’ ability to forage.” Other factors include parasites—such as varroa mites—and bee management.

Anderson is in the early stages of a five-year study to determine “what’s killing the bees?” He agrees that multiple stressors are involved and “interact with other factors.” His study is focusing on pesticide exposure.

“For now, I would like to be able to define what a healthy bee is. I can’t do that now.” 

“Pests destroy crops and we have to destroy those pests,” Parker said. He added that farmers also need the bees to pollinate some crops, creating a dilemma. He said solutions must be “science-based. “I have to compliment the EPA for staying with science and not canceling neonicotinoid insecticides, even with heavy pressure to do so,” he said. “There is no smoking gun to show those insecticides are responsible.”

He wants to know more about bees in cotton. “We want to know what the science says,” Parker added. “We want to see field-relevant science. Cotton self-pollinates. Do bees fly to cotton fields?  We want to determine when bees are active in cotton fields.”

Knowing when bees are most likely in the fields, he said, will allow farmers to adjust spray schedules to apply materials when bees are less active and less likely to be harmed.

He also recommended that any course of action not be a national mandate. “We don’t believe we have a one-size fits all solution to applying insecticides across the country,” he said. “We need local solutions.”

A guideline of best management practices for farmers should help protect bees, he said.

Research is a big need. So is cooperation among interested parties. Adams said the Pollinator Partnership was called in to help determine the effect of corn planting on bee deaths. She explained that planters use lubricants that turn to dust as the machines roll across the fields. The dust drifts and may carry traces of the neonicotinoid insecticides used in seed treatments. “We found that these lubricants add to the problem.”