Bees and Beekeepers Feel the Sting of Trump Administration’s Anti-Science Efforts
By Jessica A. Knoblauch
It's been a particularly terrible summer for bees. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it is allowing the bee-killing pesticide sulfoxaflor back on the market. And just a few weeks prior, the USDA announced it is suspending data collection for its annual honeybee survey, which tracks honeybee populations across the U.S., providing critical information to farmers and scientists.
The Trump administration pushed for these two anti-bee actions, even though our nation's honeybee populations have been nosediving for years. Last winter, beekeepers reported a record 40 percent loss of their colonies.
Longtime beekeeper Jeff Anderson, owner of California-Minnesota Honey Farms, says the picture is even grimmer if you look at bee losses across the entire year, particularly in the spring and summer when farmers are spraying pesticides. It's not just bees that are suffering, he says. Beekeepers are also feeling the sting of the Trump administration's anti-bee and anti-science efforts. And consumers of healthy, fresh foods are next.
A honey bee alights on a cherry blossom in Stockton, California.
CHRIS JORDAN-BLOCH / EARTHJUSTICE
Were you surprised to learn that the USDA pulled its honeybee colonies report?
No. The USDA quit doing the honeybees survey because they absolutely don't want to document what's happening, because then they'd have to do something about it.
How do you feel about the EPA reregistering sulfoxaflor?
One thing that stood out to me in the EPA's notice is that it said it's "providing long-term certainty for U.S. growers to use an important tool to protect crops and avoid potentially significant economic losses, while maintaining strong protection for pollinators. The wording, "long-term certainty … to use," seems totally wrong for a regulatory agency to make a promise like that. It predisposes a defensive position for all decisions going forward.
Basically, the EPA's buddies at Dow AgroSciences want to make billions on this pesticide, and the EPA is going to let them. But please don't lie to us and say that sulfoxaflor is somehow pollinator safe. I'm not buying.
Why do bees get such short shrift by regulators and legislators?
Beekeeping has always been the ugly stepchild in agriculture. Agriculture needs us, but not everybody in agriculture needs us. Corn growers and wheat growers don't need my bees. Cherry, almond and blueberry growers need my bees. Any of the healthy foods that are in our diet need insect pollination, and if you want to eat chicken, beef, whatever, most of that doesn't need my bees. But when it comes to our healthy, nutritious foods like nuts and fruits, almost all of those need insect pollination.
Farmers know that pesticides are a problem. In Minnesota, the standard question I get from farmers when I walk into a room or get gas at a gas station is, "How are the bees doing?" I tell them, "Well, not so good." And it's getting to be that most farmers these days will say, "It's all these chemicals, isn't it?" I tell them, "It should give you some pause to think about that because you and I are next. We just haven't started coughing as much yet."
Our environment is sick and our bees are a good indicator when that's the truth. When my beehive gets sick, there's something not right within the flight range of those bees. But the chemical industry is the one who speaks for everybody on the Hill, so it doesn't matter what farmers think. That's the reality.
Beekeeper Jeff Anderson says the Trump administration's anti-bee and anti-science efforts are hurting his business.
CHRIS JORDAN-BLOCH / EARTHJUSTICE
How are your honeybees faring this year?
I've had about 90 percent honeybee loss between last spring and this spring. I typically run about 3,000 colonies in our spring count and we instead we had 300.
If you want to look at my winter losses, they were probably about like what the Bee Informed Partnership survey is claiming, around 40 percent. And that is almost exclusively painted up in the press like that's the annual number that the industry is losing, which is absolute hogwash because it isn't the full story. The spring losses are greater than the winter losses because generally most things die when they're most exposed to pesticides. Is that rocket science? No. It's just that nobody talks about it.
Has the bee die-off impacted your ability to do business?
I used to have all of my adult children working for me. My oldest, Jeremy, has worked with bees ever since he got out of diapers. He's been my foreman for 20 years. Now, with honey production way down, he's barely getting paid enough to put food on the table. Things are getting tight because our honey crops are way off. The most barrels of honey I ever produced was about 450. Last year, I had about 68 barrels. Sick bees don't make honey.
That's the other part of the bee story. I run a family operation and I can't keep my kids employed anymore. When you can't keep hives alive, you can't keep income coming in. We all talk the demise of bees, but the demise of the beekeepers gets overlooked a lot of times. Beekeepers all have a form of PTSD. We just don't get it in the military.
Is climate change impacting your bees?
Yes, but not like you're thinking, where it's too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter.
Neonicotinoid pesticides like sulfoxaflor cause problems with thermoregulation in affected insects. One of the problems we have with overwintering our bees is that the cold will now kill a beehive. That didn't used to be normal. Before, most of the bees in the Midwest stayed all winter. The beekeeper would wrap them with insulation and give them a top entrance, so they could ventilate the moisture out of the colony. And the bees would be just fine, coming out in the spring big enough to split into separate hives. If you try to do that with a bee colony now, it's dead by November.
It's not the extreme temperatures. It doesn't even have to get that cold. They have bee mortality in Florida at 40 degrees. The hive simply can't thermoregulate.
Anderson minds his colonies in a California cherry orchard.
CHRIS JORDAN-BLOCH / EARTHJUSTICE
Do you plan on continuing as a beekeeper?
My plan today should have been to go up to Fargo, North Dakota, for the bee convention with a for sale sign for anyone who wants my operation. That's what I should have been doing.
My parents' generation, they would have stuck with it because they knew you might have a bad year, but it was an anomaly, and the next year was going to be better. That's what farmers always think. For the most part, that's true. In the grand scheme of things, you've usually got one year in 20 that's down, so it really wasn't a stupid decision to dip into your savings to push things forward.
But in year after year after year we keep setting records for low honey production in the U.S. This year, we were down to 300-some hives. You don't just take 300-some hives and magically sneeze and all of a sudden you've got 3,000. You work your tail off, you buy bees from other beekeepers, you get extra queens, etc. It costs a lot of money, and I decided I'm not gonna throw good money after bad in this operation. If Honey Farms can't pay its way, then it's going to cease to exist. I see no reason to put the 50 cents I have set aside for retirement into trying to manage a bee operation when I'm 62.
What can people do to support bees?
Consumers are starting to understand that what they put in their mouth has a great deal to do with how often they see their doctor. There's a direct connection between your health and what you eat. It's not rocket science. Vote with your checkbook. The chemical industry is in charge on the Hill, unless we can un-buy Congress.
Editor's note: In 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that sulfoxaflor could not be used in the United States, following an Earthjustice lawsuit. The court found the EPA violated the law by approving sulfoxaflor without reliable studies regarding the impact that the insecticide would have on honeybee colonies.
"At a time when honeybees and other pollinators are dying in greater numbers than ever before, Trump's EPA decision to remove restrictions on yet another bee-killing pesticide is nothing short of reckless," said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie, who litigated the sulfoxaflor case. "Scientists have long said pesticides like sulfoxaflor are the cause of the unprecedented colony collapse. Letting sulfoxaflor back on the market is dangerous for our food system, economy, and environment."
.@EPA just okayed "emergency" use of bee-killing pesticides on nearly 14 million acres of land known to attract bees.— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) July 9, 2019
40% of insect species are on the brink of extinction. This is inexcusable. #SaveTheBeeshttps://t.co/ga60bZMvEI
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The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
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