House Agriculture panel examines parasite’s influence on bee health

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, April 30, 2014 -- Witnesses at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing Tuesday focused on a parasite called the Varroa mite as the most significant factor impacting bee health, but environmental groups later said the hearing should have emphasized the use of neonicitinoid pesticides.

“Over the past several years, beekeepers have experienced significant losses due to colony collapse (disorder),” said Rep. Austin Scott, chairman of the Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture. While the precise cause of CCD isn't yet known, “a leading cause appears to be the Varroa mite pest,” he said.

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In 2006, beekeepers began reporting over-winter losses of 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives, which is unusually high, according to USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Jeff Pettis, research leader at ARS, told the lawmakers that recovering bee colony losses and making beekeeping profitable again starts with controlling the Varroa mite.

The mite, which Pettis called “a modern honey bee plague,” was first found in the U.S. in 1987, when beekeepers managed more than 3 million colonies for crop pollination and their winter losses were typically about 10 to 15 percent. Today, beekeepers are struggling to maintain 2.5 million managed colonies and winter losses are averaging over 30 percent, he said. Pettis said USDA would release the latest loss estimates on May 6. 

“To meet today's increasing pollination demands, we need well over 3 million managed honey bee colonies in this country,” Pettis said. “The beekeeper's best hope is research that can build better tools to reduce the size of the Varroa mite problem.”

However, “even if the Varroa mite problem disappeared tomorrow, it will not by itself solve all problems facing honey bees, Pettis said. Stresses on apiaries include exposure to pesticides as well as a lack of diversity in nectar and pollen sources, which may contribute to CCD, he said.

To address bee colony losses, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., introduced legislation last year that directs the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the use of the most bee-toxic neonicotinoids, a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine.

Jeff Stone, the CEO of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, however, said banning these products is not the solution. He described the actions of Oregon pollinators, pesticide users and environmental groups after a misapplication of pesticide on linden trees in one community resulted in the death of 50,000 bees last summer.

Instead of passing legislation similar to Blumenauer's, stakeholders “determined that a science-based approach to pollinator health would lead to a better solution,” he said. The state Department of Agriculture eventually required new label language restricting the use of certain products on linden and basswood trees, which are attractive to pollinators when in flower.

On the national level, Stone praised EPA's effort to require labels on chemical products potentially dangerous for bees. He said EPA's labeling program could prevent patchwork lawmaking by states.

“While seven states have made efforts to pass anti-neonicotinoid legislation, it is critical that the federal government's efforts be science-based,” Stone said.

Bayer's David Fischer, the director of pollinator safety at the company's North American Bee Care Center in North Carolina, said research shows that neonicotinoids do not pose a long-term threat to honey bees and he said understanding the Varroa mite “remains a critical gap in honey bee health.”

Still, environmental groups like Friends of the Earth are pushing for laws to ban neonicotinoid pesticides, which they say are a known risk factor for bees. 

“We are disappointed, but definitely not surprised, that the hearing was heavily slanted toward pesticide industry interests,” the group said in a statement issued after the hearing.

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