As a kid, he loved the taste of honey. And so, at the age of 12, he ordered his first bees from a mail-order catalogue and cobbled together a hive on his parents' dairy farm.
Today, Hackenburg is 64 and caring for bees is still his life. Except now, he tends about 100 million of them in 3,000 hives, many on a hill above his farmhouse in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
“When I’m working bees, it’s like the rest of the world seems to go away,” Hackenburg, owner of Hackenburg Apiaries, said lifting the lid of one of his hives on a recent afternoon.
Over the last decade, however, Hackenburg has noticed something wrong with his busy extended family. The bees are not living as long –- 28 days instead of 48, on average. They don’t eat well. They are not as vigorous. And they seem to wander off from their hives, and never come back. Already this fall, he said he’s lost 40 percent of his bees.
Hackenburg, former president of the American Beekeeping Federation and current chairman of the Honey Bee Health Advisory Board, said beekeepers across the country are seeing the same kinds of losses. He suspects pesticides are to blame -- and there is growing scientific evidence he may be right, although other factors may be involved, too.
“Our annual production in the United States has gone from over 200 million pounds of honey, to probably this year we are going to be around 128 million,” Hackenburg said. “It’s been a steady decrease in honey production in this country ever since we started using neonicotinoids.”
Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides used since the 1990s to treat the seeds of corn, soybeans, and many other crops and protect the plants from pests. Some neonicotinoids have been banned in France, Italy and Germany because of concerns they could be causing collateral damage to bees and other pollinators.
The scientific journal Nature last month published a study linking neonicotinoids with bee population declines and damage to bees’ ability to collect pollen. This is a major problem because bees are the spark plugs of our agricultural system, responsible for pollinating as much as $20 billion worth of vegetable and fruit crops in the U.S. every year, about a third of the food we eat.
There are other likely causes to the bee declines, in addition to pesticides, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, including mites and viruses in bees, and the practices of modern commercial beekeepers and farms.
A life on the road leads to a poor diet for bees, as do monocultures of corn and soybeans and real estate developments that have eliminated fields of wildflowers and diverse forested landscapes lush with flowering trees, according to Jerry Fischer, head of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Apiary Inspection Program.
“Here in Maryland, every year for the last eight years we have lost 30 to 35 percent of all of our bees,” Fischer said. “This is something that really should not be acceptable.”
Dr. Dave Goulson, a leading bee researcher at the University of Sterling, in Scotland, argues that neonicotinoid pesticides should be banned. He said they are designed to make entire plants -– even the pollen on corn tassels –- slightly toxic to a wide variety of insects, although not humans.
“It’s as if the bees are becoming intoxicated,” Dr. Goulson said. “Neonicotinoids are nerve toxins – they attack the central nervous systems, the brain essentially of the bee. They seem to be less good at navigating, and that’s a crucial ability that bees have. If they fail to do that, and they get lost, they are as good as dead, basically.”
Pesticide makers disagree with theories that their products play a major role in bee deaths. Dr. Barbara Glenn, Senior Vice President for Science and Regulatory affairs with a pesticide trade group called Crop Life America, said it is unfair to point the finger only at pesticides.
“Crop Life America...supports the efforts of the EPA and USDA to increase the scientific basis for assessing any potential impacts of pesticides on honey bees and other pollinators," Glenn wrote in an opinion article in The Hill's Congress Blog.
In September, EPA convened a scientific advisory panel to re-examine the safety of neonicotinoids.
“EPA is concerned about potential effects of pesticides on pollinators,” said a statement from EPA about the issue. “We continue to seek to learn what regulatory changes, if any, may be effective.”
Some scientists suggest EPA should look at an even more fundamental question: whether the agribusiness industry really needs to drench each and every seed with insecticides, before the seeds are planted –- or whether the chemicals should be used more selectively and frugally.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo of bee from EPA; other photos by author)