So what exactly is happening to the bees?

As I’m sure you know, changes in the the honey bee population has been a subject of much debate for the last decade. The chart below from Bee Informed shows that around 23% of bee colonies were lost in the US during the winter of 2015/2016, significantly higher than expected losses during hibernation. But bees are also being lost in spring and summer, through abrupt colony collapse disorder (CCD) but more often as a gradual decline in the population, and the total loss for 2016 was 44%.

Data collected from US beekeepers by Bee Informed, a partnership between the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). The map shows 2015/2016 winter colony losses by state, ranging from 10% in Vermont to 60% in Mississippi. States colored orange and red experienced higher than expected winter losses.

Frustrated with media coverage on the subject, which is rarely objective, I thought I’d spend some time researching and summarizing. It’s a complex issue of course, so the most I can hope to cover in one or two posts is the most commonly asked question: do neonicotinoids make a significant contribution to bee colony losses?

So briefly, some background:


Neonicotinoids (“neonics”) are insecticides that act by binding to central nervous system receptors in insects, causing paralysis and death. The market is dominated by three insecticides: imidacloprid and clothianidin from Bayer and thiamethoxam from Syngenta. Seed coatings were developed in the 1990s to deliver the product more directly to the plant — for example, imidacloprid-coated seeds sold by Bayer under the trade name Gaucho. The insecticides are currently banned in Europe but widely used in some countries — almost all of the corn and half of the soybeans grown in the US in 2013 started as neonicotinoid-coated seeds. This article, published in Science, questions whether the coatings provide any benefit since sunflower and corn yields were unchanged after neonicotinoid-coated seeds were banned in France.

Corn and sunflower yields in France were unaffected by the imidacloprid ban (Source: Science)

There are concerns over impact of neonicotinoids on aquatic and bird life, but I’ll just focus on honey bees here. They are systemic insecticides — present in all parts of plant — so bees ingest them when they feed on pollen and nectar. There’s no doubt that they are ingested by bees and also toxic to bees — the debate centers around the question of how much do the bees ingest and whether this affects their health. Here’s a quick pictorial guide to some key numbers:

I’m showing conservative numbers here — the quantification in pollen and nectar and the lethal dose (LD50) all come from a paper published by Bayer scientists in 2001 (Ref 1). The estimate on how much imidaclprid a bee ingests comes from a 2005 paper by French scientists (Ref 2). Other research groups have found higher concentrations of imidacloprid in nectar and pollen — for example, this group studied squash that was treated with the insecticide by spraying on soil or via drip irrigation after transplant. On average, they found 10 ppb imidacloprid in nectar and 14 ppb in pollen and the highest concentration encountered in pollen was 28 ppb.

But even taking the conservative numbers from Bayer (1.9 ppb in nectar) the estimated weekly intake (for a bee that’s foraging contaminated nectar) is in the range of a single lethal dose, but spread out over a week. To put it in a colorful way, if someone offered you a glass of poison, saying it’ll probably kill you if you drink it in one go but you need to drink a bit each day and finish it in a week, would you want to do it?

This post was going to be longer but some subjects are harder to write about — this is definitely one of them.

In the next part I’ll take a look at more recent research including the impact beyond neonicotinoids and honey bees, possible upcoming changes in regulation, and some suggestions for action.