Pettis himself may have been a victim. In summer 2014, he was demoted, just two months after he testified before Congress. “I was asked by the [ag] committee to restrict my testimony to the Varroa mite,” says Pettis. But under questioning, he declared that neonics raise the danger for bees to “a new level.”
While no one at the USDA ever mentioned his testimony as the main reason for his demotion, Pettis says, he heard rumblings that he had angered people downtown.
The controversy over bee declines has driven Pettis and vanEngelsdorp — Batman and Robin, once poised to save the bees — to separate scientific corners.
Pettis even retired early from his post at USDA-ARS, in large part because he says he felt “muzzled” by government policies that prohibit him from saying anything that might even be “construed” as reflecting on policy. “Chemicals,” he says, “need to be used when indicated by signs or risk of pest infestation, as opposed to prophylactically.”
I interviewed vanEngelsdorp, who sounded a different note in 2015, in his office at the University of Maryland, where he runs the Bee Informed Partnership, a consortium that includes government, industry and beekeeping constituents. He says the Varroa mites are a big problem, and typified pesticides as a lesser concern.
“As a scientist,” vanEngelsdorp says, “I am motivated by the data.”
Queen bees today barely survive a third of their normal life spans.
He recently published a pair of papers that deepen the debate. In the first one, published online last April in Apidologie, he surveyed beekeepers and samples over five years from 41 states. He found that the Varroa mite is more prevalent than suspected, even when beekeepers follow good practices, and a significant vector for disease. And in a September study in Nature Scientific Reports, he found that exposure to multiple chemicals in a colony correlates with high rates of colony deaths. The evidence, gathered from 91 bee colonies owned by three commercial beekeepers, showed just trace amounts of neonics but did find that fungicides are more prevalent than thought and closely correlate with bee deaths. The finding seemed to slightly push vanEngelsdorp, who commented in a news release at the time that we need to “make sure we only use the products we need, when we need them.”
Former commercial beekeeper David Mendes, who serves with vanEngelsdorp on the Bee Informed Stakeholder Advisory Board, praises his ethics and rigor but says the politics are important. “I think Dennis would need the evidence to be beyond incontrovertible before he could take any stand on pesticides,” says Mendes. “That’s an even higher standard than science usually requires.”
Darren Cox’s personal enlightenment about the ways in which science can be subverted reached full bloom when the USDA mounted a series of workshops on the stressors affecting bee health. The agency invited him to two meetings covering mites, viruses and bee nutrition. Agency representatives assured him for months, he says, that a pesticides roundtable would follow. Then, he says, “They told us, ‘There isn’t going to be any meeting on pesticides.’ ”
Cox readily acknowledges that his bees are “afflicted by a variety of stressors.” But talking about this decision, his frustration shows. “The USDA’s own website, on the science of bee health, lists four stressors, including pesticides,” he says. “But that’s the one thing they wouldn’t hold a meeting about. Now, why is that?”
“The Honey Hum”
On the last day of my trip to Utah, at a peak time of day for bee foraging, Cox took me to a bee yard wedged tightly between a farm and a major road. Arrayed before us were at least three prime bee-attractors: milkweed, safflower and thistle, in full bloom.
I expected Cox to open the top box on one of the “bee stacks,” to check on their health. But instead he walked right through the bee yard to the surrounding field.
“You hear that?” he asked.
“Hear what?” I responded.
“Exactly,” he said. “The sky should be filled with bees, and you should hear them. We call it ‘the honey hum.’ ”
The sky was empty, and the only noise was the sound of the wind.
His bees, many tens of thousands of them, crawled and hovered listlessly around their hives. Neonics are not so prevalent by Cox’s bee yards, but other chemicals are, including Lorsban, which attacks the nervous system. Further, as a commercial pollinator, Cox comes into contact with all the chemicals, including neonics, used in the areas he visits, and those chemicals can wind up in his bees.
Immediately after witnessing this dismal scene, Cox took me to a bee yard where he keeps another trove of bees, up in the mountains, away from any development or farms. There, the sound was unmistakable — a warm buzz.
The prospect of weaker bees, which fail to forage even in abundant habitat, is not a product of beekeepers’ imaginations. Scientists like Pettis, Lundgren and vanEngelsdorp seem to agree on this: Bees are less vigorous than before.
Of course, they are also dying.
Over the winter, 2015-2016, fellow beekeepers called Cox and reported record losses. Hackenberg lost 90 percent of his stock, saying they “disappeared” just like they did during colony collapse. Cox is suffering, too. He recently had to make up the loss of 30 percent of his hives.
The bad year, however, might actually turn out to be a good thing.
The price per hive for crop pollination continues to increase. Soon the plight of the honeybee might force such massive cost increases that angry citizens will demand change. In April 2016, a group of Bayer shareholders publicly demanded that corporation executives “turn away” from neonics because they are linked to bee declines. In addition, Cox and his fellow beekeepers have become increasingly political, writing letters of protest about Pettis’ demotion, contributing significant funding to a new, private lab for Lundgren — the whistleblower who has now left the USDA — and looking for ways to provoke action.
Toward the end of a day spent checking on his suffering bees, Cox pointed his truck up a steep mountainside in the Cache Valley and expressed his newfound sense of place in this scientific debate. “Whatever feeling we once had — that this was all going to go smoothly or in some typical, orderly process, and science was just going to figure this out and we’d get back to business — is long gone,” he says. “This is a fight.”
[This article originally appeared in print as "Buzzkill"]