Global warming skeptic wary of worries about bee colony collapse disorder

Bees from Propel Andrew Street High School's bee-keeping program scramble about on Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at the school's beehives in Braddock.
Bees from Propel Andrew Street High School's bee-keeping program scramble about on Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at the school's beehives in Braddock.
Photo by James Knox |Trib Total Media

Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, 11:10 p.m.

Forget words such as “beepocalypse” or “beemageddon,” coined to describe the colony collapse disorder that began to devastate the country's honeybee population seven years ago.

Such talk is over the top, says Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish academic and writer on the environment.

“Panic is not a good way to make decisions. Exaggeration and hyperbole are not a way to solve problems,” said Lomborg, author of “A Skeptical Environmentalist,” a book that questions the urgency of global warming.

Beekeepers nationwide began noticing in 2006 that adult bees vanished from hives in droves, leaving behind newborns. Researchers dubbed the syndrome colony collapse disorder, or CCD. After years of studying the effects, most scientists agree its main causes are nutritional stress, mites, fungus, viruses and pesticides.

Last winter in the United States, nearly 32 percent of managed honeybees died, up from nearly 22 percent the previous winter, according to a survey by the Department of Agriculture and two industry groups, the Bee Informed Partnership and Apiary Inspectors of America.

The bee die-off has fueled the imagination of science fiction fans and provided topics for television and magazine documentaries. Lomborg believes CCD is a problem but contends that speculating about a world without honeybees misses the point.

“There is a definite problem, but bees have been under threat for a long time and we adapt to these kinds of things,” said Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank.

Though two recent studies cite neonicotinoid pesticides as a contributing factor in bee deaths, Lomborg takes particular issue with this year's decision by the European Commission to ban use of the relatively new class of insecticides — ones that affect the central nervous system of insects, causing paralysis and death — on crops that bees pollinate.

“This kind of ban is overkill and will probably accomplish nothing,” Lomborg said.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, thinks Lomborg underestimates problems beekeepers are having.

“There is a serious problem meeting pollination demand in this country,” he said. “This year has been a very close call. Many beekeepers have gone out of business.”

Pesticide makers are fighting back.

Bayer CropSciences and Syngenta recently sued the European Commission, claiming the moratorium on pesticides is excessive and unjustified.

In the United States, most researchers express ambivalence about what role pesticides play in honeybee health.

“Pesticides are one of many factors related to CCD,” van Engelsdorp said. “If there were just one cause, we would have figured this out years ago.”

Beekeepers are more convinced than researchers of the damage done by pesticides.

“We are behind Europe, where four pesticides have been banned. The science is there to prove this, but it is being discounted in this country,” said Steve Ellis, a commercial beekeeper from Barrett, Minn.

Ellis, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, lost 65 percent of his bee colonies over the winter. He said Lomborg spread “disinformation” in a commentary published by the Ottawa Citizen.

“He attempts to downplay the importance of pollination for agriculture,” Ellis said.

Some experts say most people misuse pesticides.

“We are concerned that pesticides are being misused by homeowners and farmers and contributing to poor pollinator health. The fine print instructions on pesticides are almost impossible to read,” said Michele Colopy, program director for the National Pollinator Defense Fund in Danbury, Texas.

Without honeybees for pollination, the Agriculture Department estimates the nation would lose crops valued at $20 billion to $30 billion.

Yet May Berenbaum, head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois in Urbana, agrees with Lomborg that much of the buzz about CCD is exaggeration. “The rhetoric has gotten ridiculous. It is hyperbolic to talk about the apocalypse.”

Still, Berenbaum said, “There are fundamental problems. This level of loss would not be sustainable at any other level of animal husbandry, and beekeeping is not a sustainable industry as it's configured. I would not dismiss losses from colony collapse as a minor concern.”

Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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