Depending on who you ask, either the mites or the pesticides are to blame for the record-breaking bee decline among honeybees last winter. The truth is likely a combination of both, and the deadly synergy between the two causes has grave impacts on the entire agriculture industry.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat, and the majority of pollinators in the U.S. are domesticated honeybees. Because industrial agriculture is largely made up of expansive plots of monoculture crops, farmers have to call in commercial beekeepers, who travel the country with hundreds of hives to place on farms. This little-known agricultural niche is absolutely essential to the food system, but with the “product” rapidly dying, many commercial beekeepers fear their profession will no longer be possible nor economically viable.

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According to a survey of 4,700 beekeepers, respondents lost nearly 40 percent of their colonies this past winter. That survey represents 320,000 hives, which is thought to be about 12 percent of all commercial hives in the country. This rate of bee decline is the highest ever recorded since the annual survey started 13 years ago.

The causes of death are varied but mainly include loss of habitat, improper beekeeper techniques, pesticide use and the bee’s arch-nemesis: the Varroa mite. Scientists at the University of Maryland counted three mites per hundred bees in the colonies they tested, enough to all but ensure death for the colony.

“Beekeepers are trying their best to keep [mites] in check, but it’s really an arms race,” said Nathalie Steinhauer from the University of Maryland. “That’s concerning, because we know arms races don’t usually end well.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t much beekeepers can do to prevent the mites; however, it is clear that pesticide application weakens honeybees’ immune systems and makes them susceptible to parasites, like the mites.

Although the pesticide companies are quick to point a finger at the mites as the culprit for widespread colony deaths, their hands are far from clean.

“There’s a huge amount of data [and] research showing pesticides are a significant player in the decline of honeybees and other insect species,” said Steinhauer. “And yet there’s been so little done to make a change on that front. The EPA has been incredibly ineffective.”


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