What's Behind the Honeybee Decline? Perhaps Not What You've Heard

Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring is widely recognized as the founding document of the environmentalist movement. Less widely recognized, but equally important, is why. For 40 years before the book was published in 1962, scientists concerned about toxic contamination had been trying to draw a solid link between pesticides and public health. The link eluded them. What these scientists were routinely unable to do-either for lack of evidence or literary eloquence-Carson eventually did. Meticulously, and with narrative grace, she connected the dots between pesticides and a host of health problems (bearing on all forms of life), thereby sparking an intense political response that continues to this day.

The environmental movement thus began with a bang: a general environmental problem (toxicity) was shown to have a specific and readily verifiable environmental cause (certain pesticides) that stood head and shoulders above other possible explanations. To be sure, there was controversy-most notably on the issue of DDT and malaria-but the court of public opinion was generally convinced that Carson, who died of cancer in 1964, had made her case against organophosphate and chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides.

Carson’s accomplishment, for all its impact, bequeathed to the environmentalist movement a daunting legacy. The ecological ills that Carson identified became a poignant cautionary tale for an agricultural system hooked on chemicals. As such, an unintended consequence of Silent Spring was to encourage the emerging environmentalist movement to rely heavily on the power of relatively simple cautionary tales to engage grassroots action.? Ever since Carson, when an environmental problem has been identified, no matter how complex the underlying ecological factors, it’s often packaged as a morality lesson highlighting the impact of a single, human-driven environmental sin.

But this standard approach to environmental problems, while translating seamlessly into short press releases, can backfire in ways that gradually weaken the movement. Ultimately, it ignores the central point that ecology is as messy as it is beautiful, and that establishing bull’s eye causation is often like throwing a dart into a cyclone.

The allure of singular causation is hard to resist. When, in 1987, a barge from New York holding 3,000 tons of trash floated up and down the East Coast without finding a landfill able to take the garbage, environmentalists deemed it a cautionary tale about the nation’s maxed-out landfills.? When, in 2000, the first weeds resistant to genetically engineered (herbicide-resistant) crops appeared, environmentalists turned it into a cautionary tale about the decline in diversity of cultivated plant breeds. And when, most recently, H1N1 swept the globe, environmentalists rushed to tell a cautionary tale about the inherent dangers of factory farms. Such reductions to a single cause are satisfying. They stoke a sense of outrage and inspire a quest for justice. They also make it clear who is at fault.

But in each of the above cases, the cautionary tale never quite captured the deeper causes. Future assessments showed landfill space to be far from a premium; a recent report from the Dutch Center for Genetic Resources has revealed that seed biodiversity has actually increased since the advent of GE seeds; and the H1N1 virus’s origin has yet to be positively linked to factory farming. In fact, the USDA goes so far as to note that free-range swine, by virtue of being outdoors and exposed to wildlife, are more susceptible to certain pathogens than confined pigs.

These misfires matter. Every time a cautionary tale fails to demonstrably confirm the identified cause, the environmental movement comes off as rashly leaping before looking, placing politics ahead of science.

And now it appears another cautionary tale may be veering off its mark. It involves the rapid decline of honeybees in the United States-a depressing phenomenon called “colony collapse disorder.” Since 2006, when American farmers and beekeepers began to lament drastic declines in hive populations, environmentalists have been packaging CCD as a cautionary tale confirming our excessive reliance on-once again-harmful pesticides.

As it became clear that this decline was indeed real (40-50 percent in the US since 2004), environmental interests began to construct the narrative. Democratic Underground explained, “Imidacloprid Pesticide Most Likely Cause of Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder.” Grist helped out: “So there’s this insecticide called clothianidin that seems likely to be implicated in colony collapse disorder,” offering as evidence the claim that “over in Germany the introduction of clothianidin coincided with a sudden bee die-off.” Environment 360 led with the headline “Behind Mass Die-Offs, Pesticides Lurk as Culprit.” And Mother Earth News joined the chorus, adding, “Colony Collapse: Are Potent Pesticides Killing Honeybees?”? As recently as March 2010, media reports have continued to stress the pesticide connection as the leading causative factor behind the nation’s declining bee population.

To date, no scientific evidence directly supporting this conclusion has emerged. Of course, this could change. The problem here is not that pesticides are a suggested cause of CCD-this seems perfectly reasonable to assume. Rather, it’s that they have been routinely favored-and sometimes politicized-as the singular or most likely cause when, as it turns out, there are a number of supplementary explanations that bear on the phenomenon. These explanations are neither as simple nor as damning of our behavior as the pesticide explanation. A January 2010 congressional report on CCD shows why.

Particularly compelling is the impact of the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), which scientists have known about since the 1970s. This virus, which is transmitted by a Varooa mite, was identified by the USDA in 2007 as “a marker of CCD.” Although the USDA did not go so far as to call IAPV the cause of CCD, the congressional report did note that “research indicates there is a strong correlation of the appearance of IAPV and CCD together.” The report also stresses the likelihood of a pathogen-perhaps the fungus Nosema ceranae-being a contributing factor, “given that some bee colonies have recovered once their bee boxes were irradiated.” It briefly mentions a range of other factors, including the impact of feed supplements made with GE crops, changes in nectar flow as a result of climate change, and the growing gossamer of phone transmission lines, but adds, “these possible factors have not been substantiated by evidence examined by the key researchers of this issue.”

The report had something to say about pesticides as well. As environmentalists rightly-if too exclusively-pointed out, the new class of insecticide known as neonicotinoids was indeed being taken up by bees, along with a variety of fungicides and herbicides. Although not absorbed in lethal doses, these agents did raise concerns about “possible chronic problems caused by long-term exposure.” The report also recognized that the Organic Consumers Association claimed that collapses were not happening on organic bee operations. But it went on to mention that “there is conflicting information about the effect of these pesticides on honey bees,” adding that these chemicals had been discontinued in Europe while colony losses continued unabated. In the end, the congressional report placed the pesticide possibility in a broader and more complicated context, one rarely provided by anti-pesticide advocates, and one that makes the standard cautionary tale about pesticides leading to CCD that much harder to accept.

Media reports are beginning to catch on. In The Economist, a British apiary professor, speaking on the cause of CCD, was recently quoted as saying, “People want it to be genetically modified crops, pollution, mobile phone masts and pesticides.” But, he added, it’s “almost certainly none of these.” The BBC reported that CCD is actually a cyclical event rather than an anomalous tragedy. An Australian entomologist quoted in the article explained, “Researchers around the world are running around trying to find a cause of the disorder-and there’s absolutely no proof that there’s a disorder there.”

Perhaps most compellingly, an article in the recent issue of Conservation reports that, while indeed bee populations have declined in the U.S. since 2004, the global population of managed bees has, since the 1960s, risen by 50 percent while honey production has gone up 100 percent.? “U.S. bee losses,” writes Nathanael Johnson, “have been dwarfed by increases in places such as China, Argentina, and Turkey-countries which now dominate the honey supply.” Additionally, “the production of pollinator-dependent crops has quadrupled.”

None of this additional information has kept the keepers of the cautionary tale from capitalizing on the possible pesticide connection. For example, several environmental groups are bringing charges against Bayer CropScience to prevent the sale of two pesticides-popularly known as Movento and Ultor-on the grounds that they harm honeybees. Perhaps these agents should be kept off the market. I honestly don’t know. But I do know that if the means and ends are not consistent-that is, if dubious pretenses are deployed to promote positive environmental outcomes-a short-term victory will come at the expense of the environmental movement’s long-term viability. Carson, for her part, would have surely persevered to find the truth, ensuring that the changes she initiated derived from science more than suggestion.


There have been a number of television programs devoted to the Colony Collapse Disorder on the Science Channel and the National Geographic Channel, among others. My own non-scientific assessment is that exposing honeybees to different environments, different crops, different parts of the country and different pesticides has weakened their collective immune systems and made them susceptible to the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), which is transmitted by a Varooa mite. The hypothesis should not be hard to test: limit some colonies of honeybees to a limited geographic area and a limited number of crops and observe whether these colonies suffer the same proportional collapse as those that are transported to multiple locations.


I am hoping Kevin was being flippant when he suggested the problem is caused by government researchers. When Monsanto pays the scientist you can bet that the research will be favorable to Monsanto.

CCD is probably going to turn out to be the result of a combination of overlapping assaults on the bee. The issue here is the same as for all complex scientific problems; the complexity forces scientists and journalists to simplify to try to help others understand. Sometimes they simplify to the point that the statements are no longer true.

c eisenhart

Pesticides, too many cell towers, global warming, GMO plants?
How about the simple answer of bees being transported from one state to another. I'd die if I had to go from West Virginia to the District of Columbia. From toxic to deadly toxic!

Erica Etelson

Perhaps not yet solid proof but clearly a possible/probable causal relationship that deserves careful study, especially given how much damage pesticides do in general. See http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/03/poison-hive-high-levels-pesticides-breakdown-productsfound-bees-wax-pollen.php.

Carolyn Egeli

You are obviously an industry hack.

Carolyn Egeli

It is now known that GMO's cause organs in animals to turn to mush. This is what is happening to bees. Animals also die from eating GMO's. Monsanto is finished I hope. They need to go to jail.


There are a couple of dubious ideas behind this blog post.

One is the idea that there is a unified source behind various claims -- multiple times McWilliams refers to "the environmental movement", which is as meaningful as lumping together the shoe repair place at 103rd and Madison and RJ Reynolds as "The Business Community" and then trying to suggest that both have the same attitudes towards tobacco and cancer. While it is true that the asbestos and lead and tobacco industries have made tragically false health statements, I would argue (and I'm sure McWilliams would agree) that trying to lump all businesses together is unfair, misleading, and wrong.

The second idea is that people arguing against pesticide use are not acting in a vacuum. McWilliams argues that [e]very time a cautionary tale fails to demonstrably confirm the identified cause, the environmental movement comes off as rashly leaping before looking, placing politics ahead of science" but leaves out that fact that the manufacturers of pesticides have likewise made numerous claims about the safety of their products, which have not always proven true.

If McWilliams would have no claims about anything be made until there is absolute scientific certainty, then not only would "the environmental movement" be silent, but no products would ever be marketed. The best solution is not ominous cautionary tales about cautionary tales, but more straightforward reporting of facts, greater attention to context, and fewer generalizations.



Keith says, above:

" I hear more about CCD from HFCS partisans (whooo, you want to meet a real "singular causation" nut? High fructose corn syrup is destroying this great land of ours through diabetes, obesity, multinational agribusiness, GM corn, diversion of cropland to ethanol, and now the honeybees!) who have jumped on the proposed lack of nutrients and in the HFCS syrup used to feed the bees on their trucks."

But in what way does calling people with that question 'nuts' prove that that is not a problem, or in fact, the problem?

It would be easy enough to test -- just have 1 entire hive being fed the "HFCS" way and 1 hive living as they do in nature, no added vitamins, minerals or sugars of any kind. Do that in a few different locations, the answer would become obvious.

Refusing to even consider or rule out such a question seems, well, unscientific to the max.


I wouldn't trust statistics saying honey production has increased 100 percent worldwide since the 60s. For one, what China and India sometimes pass off on the world market as "honey" is sugar water processed by bees rather than actual floral nectar. Add to that phenomenon, the watering down of "honey" with sugar or corn syrup, and you get something counted in your statistics that is not true "honey."

It's all about the money, honey. And, by the way, I wouldn't ever consume any store brand or large brand honey bought in a grocery store for the reasons I cited above.


Wait a minute -- back the heck up, pease.

Are honeybees everywhere in decline, or is this really just CCCD -- Commercial Colony Collapse Disorder?

I've got a happy, thriving wild honeybee hive in my backyard. They're pollinating my citrus as I write this. They look pretty healthy and happy to me.

They started living there a few years ago. Maybe they escaped from a commercial colony, who knows?


Oh by the way -- I don't use any pesticides in my garden at all, and I use only organic fertilizers on my lawn and on my citrus.

Is that why I have such a healthy, happy wild honeybee bee colony in my yard?

I don't know. But I know that other organic gardeners also report healthy wild honeybee bee colonies on their property.

So maybe it is the pesticides after all.

Maybe scientists should do a better job of studying wild bees and the people on whose property they end up living.


As a beekeeper, my hives are healthy and have been for years. What I believe is a big factor is that I (GASP) don't medicate....at all, ever. The first years packages I purchased experienced a huge dieoff that first year. I thought the hives were done. However, a number survived and they have thrived ever since. I call them the super hives as they are so healthy and amazing. If I even mention to other beekeepers that I don't medicate then I'm immediately berated and told that I'M the problem. Personally, I think that my bees actually have strong immune systems developed from those who did survive and they've only gotten stronger since. They're in town and so certainly see their fair share of pesticides, cell towers and God only knows what else....yet they survive.

But hey, what do I know.

judit fried

If the bees in organic operations do not have CCD don't you think that we should try and protect the small bee from extinction if only for selfish reasons to continue to pollinate foods so that we may continue eating.


The author is clearly a distinguished graduate of the David Brooks School of Punditry...glib and seemingly sensible, but at root, disingenuous--as one poster put it--dismissive (mostly of environmentalists, liberals,et. al.) and ultimately, dangerous.


Yeah, you're right. Reductive thinking by environmentalists is what's really dragging us down.

The depressing thing about Freakonomics is that it ISN'T ideological in its pursuit of center-right peace-of-mind. It's more a symptom of the educated class' desire to stop thinking and just have the lifestyle and standard of living that they were promised on 90120 and Melrose Place (first iterations).

Are we gonna hear from Glenn Beck again, Freakonomists?


The early environmentalists were also scientists. Now environmentalists are more likely to be people who prefer fund-raising and tofu instead of actual observations and data.

So much about the modern environmental movement follows from that observation.

shellie milne

As a beekeeper I can tell you that another major problem is the beekeepers themselves - not the pesticides. First off, we know which crops are sprayed with pesticides, so we do not polinate those crops - the farms are registered as to what they are spraying and the beekeeper makes their determination from there. Pesticide spray = no bees will be at your farm. Beekeepers in the US, especially those that live in the mid west, breed bees for honey production. as with anything else - when you breed for any particular trait, t you weaken other areas. Then the beekeeper puts these weak bees on trucks and hauls their poor behinds all over the country - which then really increases the risk of disease and mites. And then to top it off, these beekeepers that have very short seasons, feed their bees fructose during the winter months instead of feeding them back honey - so not only are they genetically weakend, the bees are then malnutritioned from this cheap source of food. I ONLY have wild bees (bees I have caught in swarms or hives in their natural state), I feed my bees back honey for the 2 months I must supplement them for and I have no CCD to date. But then I live in Southern California, where the pollination season is long, the honey flows and my bees are very happy -just like California cows :) - did someone say "the land of milk and honey"? Yep - that's is why I stay and endure the liberals....................



I really cannot communicate how much McWilliams's posts are negative contributions to the Freakonomics blog. I realize this comment will probably be moderated and deleted, but the man is just a contrarian. Maybe he doesn't mean to be, but if so, he needs lessons in writing essays. I got nothing out of this beyond "the media simplify things...then the correct info gets out there anyway, just under the radar."

Yes. OK. And? Please be interesting and/or useful. "Freakonomics" is and was both.


We Do know who pays the bills for Garbage Science about Global Warming.

The Koch Brothers and Exxon pay Hundreds of Millions of Dollars to 40 Institutions to produce Global Warming Denial Garbage.

The Koch Brothers are lovers of Communist style Propaganda. You have to wonder how these guys can Blow their Money on Garbage, rather then spend it on Wind Farms that Pay for themselves in 7 Years!

Every Time there's a Genetic Medical Break-thru there's More Proof DARWIN was right. Sorry if that offend your RELIGION, but, we're not talking about Religion, we're talking about Science.

Belief in GOD does not require Proof.
It requires FAITH. Maybe you should review yours.

Anything on this Blog about an Environmental Issue is Suspect.


Who Knows how to Make Money?
T. Boone Pickens Who Sees Reality
Screw Loose Koch Brothers Blowing Millions on Communist Propaganda. People who Love Communist Tactics May BE Communists?