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    What killed 3 million honey bees in Southern California? Beekeepers fear the answer has larger ramifications
    • October 18, 2023

    Caleb Lunetta | (TNS) The San Diego Union-Tribune

    The beekeepers had never seen anything like it before.

    On the evening of Sept. 20, Dominic Peck and Paul Gunn, co-owners of the San Diego Bee Sanctuary, drove out to their hives in rural Valley Center assuming they were going to find an active, honey-making apiary as usual.

    Instead they found a mass graveyard.

    “There were just piles and piles of dead bees,” Peck said.

    Over the next two days, Peck and Gunn would watch as roughly 80 percent of their 64 hives — each with a single queen protected by 50,000 to 100,000 bees — were decimated by a mysterious plague.

    Each year, beekeepers around the country report losing more than 30 percent of their colonies in the winter and spring due to a number of issues — bad weather, destroyed habitats or pesticides. Those numbers have only been increasing in recent years.

    But it remains a mystery as to what caused the mass die-off at the San Diego Bee Sancturary.

    “It’s an accepted thing in beekeeping that you’re going to lose a lot of bees, at least for some beekeepers,” Gunn said. “But for us, it’s too important that we keep the bees healthy.”

    The co-owners said they were shocked — and so were their colleagues with decades of experience in the field.

    “Unfortunately we’ve seen reports of (die outs) from different beekeepers throughout Southern California,” said James Nieh, a professor at UC San Diego and expert in the field of bee biology and evolution. “But something like 80 percent. … That’s not normal.

    Until the U.S. Department of Agriculture finishes testing samples investigators took last month at the sanctuary — and that process can take weeks — Gunn and Peck won’t know what killed the bees.

    And that has them not only worried about their business, but also for the symbiotic relationship between local pollinating bees, Southern California farmers and the national food supply.

    “If you don’t have things getting pollinated, you don’t have fruit or vegetables,” Gunn said. “Without bees there’s no you and me.”

    Critical workers

    Outside of making honey, bees play a critical role on farms as pollinators, according to experts.

    When bees leave their colony and land on a flower or plant, pollen is transferred to the hairs covering their body.

    As they fly from crop to crop, they transfer pollen from the male parts of flowers to the female parts, ensuring that the plants produce seeds.

    The bees return to their hives with the collected pollen, transferring it between one another, mouth to mouth, to dry it out and make honey.

    Because of their role in pollination, beekeepers can be brought in by farmers — who grow everything from fruit to nuts to the hay used to feed livestock — to help ensure they have thriving crops, according to Denise Bienias, a local beekeeper and vice president of the San Diego Beekeeping Society.

    Roughly three-quarters of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators like bees — accounting for one in every three bites of food, Bienias said, citing a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    Bienias says her organization of roughly 300 local beekeepers work together to teach one another healthy beekeeping practices, and to work with local farmers to pollinate crops and perform hive removals at homes and businesses.

    But despite the best attempts by beekeepers and academics to spread awareness about the critical role honeybees play in wild ecosystems and our food supply, hives are dying off every year in increasing numbers.

    And experts are trying to figure out why.

    Honeybee decline

    Every year in the winter and spring beekeepers experience die-offs, where colonies are killed by everything from weather to starvation to the varroa mite (a parasite that attacks and feeds on the honeybees).

    U.S. beekeepers reported losing nearly 50 percent of their managed colonies in the past year — a 8.5 percent increase from the average over the last 12 years — according to a study released by the Bee Informed Partnership, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to understanding the decline in honeybees.

    Bienias said she lost a hive she kept in her backyard last year. Nieh said he suddenly lost several colonies and has been seeing increasing reports of similar die-offs across Southern California.

    However, scientists are taking a particular interest in studying man-made factors that may have also contributed to the steep decline in the health of bee colonies and how it can be avoided.

    Nieh said his UCSD lab is focused on demonstrating how pesticides — even at very low concentrations — can be toxic to bees.

    The increase in food production coincides with a boom in human population and housing over the last half century. Farmers, housing developers and homeowners use many different types of pesticides with diverse effects to ensure the greatest yield and diversity from crops and plants.

    “Imagine if you went home, took everything in your medicine cabinet — cold syrup, maybe leftover antibiotics, everything — and crushed it up in a blender and drank it,” Nieh said. “What do you think would happen? Probably some things that are unintended and surely nothing beneficial.”

    Many of the chemical concoctions — designed to protect crops from harmful pests, fungi and weeds — are fatal to bees.

    Without knowing they’ve found a poisonous field or crop, bees travel back to their hives and make honey from the tainted pollen.

    “Let’s say they find a crop and it has been sprayed with pesticides, the bees actually don’t realize that. They just think it’s sweet food,” Nieh said. “They will actually collect more hive members to go out and get that food and then they will bring that back and concentrate it into honey.”

    By doing so, they unknowingly poison one another and their honey, leading to mass die-offs that can happen overnight, Nieh said.

    New pesticides, combined with other natural phenomena, have resulted in a 60 percent decline in the U.S. honeybee population since the 1940s, according to a report published by the Department of Agriculture in 2017.

    Waiting for answers

    Was it an extreme disease, destroyed habitats, or even pesticides that killed approximately 3 million bees at the Valley Center apiary?

    Peck and Gunn said they spend most of their time building up their business and occasionally sell honey. They are paid to collect hives from people’s homes, to rehab colonies to sell to first-time beekeepers, and to contract pollinators out to farmers, working roughly 12 hours a day.

    But Gunn said for all their work, they couldn’t save many of their hives in Valley Center.

    “If you were shoveling them, it probably would be about 30 scoops full of dead bees,” Peck added.

    Gunn has his suspicions, including illegal pesticide use or pesticides used in a nearby housing development. The hives that died were located at the top of a hill surrounded by multiple avocado orchards, but bees will travel upwards of 5 miles for food, the beekeepers said.

    “We’re supposed to be notified when an application of (pesticides) takes place and then we can prepare for it. We clearly didn’t get that.”

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    If beekeepers find a poisoned or sick colony, they have little recourse to cure them outside of giving the bees sugar, water and proper nutrition to improve their immunity to toxins, Nieh said. They can also move their hives.

    But in the San Diego Bee Sanctuary’s case, Peck and Gunn said the toxin moved too fast for them to save many of their hives. All they can do now is move forward, and wait for answers.

    “We’re definitely going to buy back the number of bees that we lost and we’re going to do a bunch of removals,” said Gunn, adding that they keep the hives they remove from residential areas. “We’re going to be slammed next year because it’s going to be a big winter again.”

    The two beekeepers used a GoFundMe page to finance their rebuild, but oftentimes other apiaries or backyard beekeepers don’t have the funds to reinvest in their colonies after a massive die-off.

    Between paying for the boxes, hives and transportation costs, beekeepers can face thousands of dollars in losses from a single mass die-off before they are able to turn a profit.

    “People think because bees are everywhere that beekeeping is this free, easy, cheap thing and it’s not,” said Gunn. “And a lot of the smaller guys in their backyards, when their colonies die from pesticides or they don’t know why, they’re just like, ‘I’m just gonna give up.’”

    So what can people do to save not only the bees, but the beekeeping industry as a whole?

    “One of the best things you can do is if you see these in your house, don’t call an exterminator, call a beekeeper (to remove it),” Peck said. “And use environmentally friendly products on your home garden or farm.”

    Local bee experts have also called for cities to support Bee City USA, a nationwide project that asks cities to commit themselves to protecting bee populations through policies and awareness campaigns.

    “Bee cities” promise, among other things, to reduce pesticide use, host public awareness events, and create a local committee consisting of volunteers and city staff to advise policy.

    “If San Diego becomes a Bee City — we’ve started down that road — we would be the biggest in the United States,” Nieh said. “We’d do a lot of good. … We can be the model for the nation.”

    This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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