The Buzz Stops Here

Dying bees have their Colorado keepers in a state of hive anxiety.

Typically, what a farmer gets in return for allowing his field to be foraged by honeybees is a free army of pollinators that spread crop seeds across acres of farmland. But many of Colorado's biggest and most important crops, such as corn and alfalfa, are pollinated by wind and don't require bees. As a result, beekeepers don't have much pull with many of the state's farmers.

Complicating matters even more is that aerial spraying is an inexact practice, and a lot can happen between the time the insecticide leaves the plane and when it reaches the ground. Wind drift is a common phenomenon. "I can't stop that spray on the last row of corn and keep it from going no more than six inches into the weeds next to the field," says Dan Tietmeyer, who flies for Crop Air Inc. in Eaton. "If I stop spraying too far from the edge of the field the farmer gets mad. And he's the one who's my client."

In Theobald's case, a plane sprayed Penncap-M on twelve fields near his hives. "Within a couple hours of that application bees started dying," Theobald says. "When it was over it was a fairly serious kill--10,000 to 15,000 bees in each of my 20 to 30 hives in the area."

Theobald filed a complaint with the state ag department, which regulates commercial pesticide applicators, claiming that the sprayer had violated Penncap's strict warning label. Two days later the state inspector showed up. He collected some dead bees, a few hive-top swabs and vegetation from the fields that had been sprayed, as well as control samples from adjacent fields for comparison purposes.

Three months later the ag department sent Theobald its conclusions. While their sampling had indeed turned up several positive identifications of methyl parathion--the active ingredient of Penncap-M--the inspectors said they couldn't be certain the actual spray at fault was Penncap-M and, if it was, they couldn't be certain the chemical had been misapplied. Maybe Theobald's bees flew to the wrong field: Who could know?

Six months later, in May 1995, Theobald got around to replying. "There may be other possible explanations for this bee kill," he agreed. "One: The methyl parathion in question was deposited by a UFO. Two: A marauding band of bee-mutilating Gypsies is at work in the west. Three: The bees themselves, cleverly disguised as farmers, flew many miles to the nearest supplier of methyl parathion, where they presented falsified credentials, purchased large quantities of the suspect pesticide, and returned to the bee yard, where they committed mass suicide."

A postmortem of Miles County's Sterling-area hives also found some evidence of methyl parathion. Despite both Theobald's and County's absolute certainty that their bees were done in by Penncap-M, however, the mystery is not solved that easily. There are huge gaps between what beekeepers claim they know from years of keeping bees and what researchers claim they know from their research.

For starters, even though the number of hives in Colorado plunged by a third last year, the honey business here is remarkably healthy, a fact that beekeepers are reluctant to concede but that statistics support. Despite the bee kills, Colorado's honey production barely dropped between 1995 and 1996. Producers also are getting more money for honey than ever before, although the 79 cents a pound averaged here is slightly below the price tag in other states.

Even the most basic assumptions about honey production can be grounds for dispute between beekeepers and researchers. For example, in its recent effort to determine the cause of the bee-kills, "the Department of Agriculture has taken us back to ground-zero," Theobald complains. "They won't even acknowledge that bees use corn for pollen. Corn is a rich source of pollen for bees, and anyone who knows anything about bees knows this. To say otherwise is like trying to tell a rancher with a problem that his cows don't graze on grass."

But that might not be as true as beekeepers think, judging from a 1995 study in neighboring Nebraska, where corn farmers and beekeepers also have tangled. "We found that in all cases we studied, the bees did collect corn pollen, but that it was a very minor component--about 2 percent," says Ellis, who directed the research.

There's also disagreement over how much Penncap-M actually is being used in Colorado. Beekeepers believe the rootworm pesticide was a major contributor to last year's bee kill--which suggests that sprayers must be using it more, or more inappropriately, than in the past. Yet the actual numbers are difficult to reconcile with that theory: So far, methyl parathion has been positively identified only at County's and Theobald's hives. And in County's case, the chemical was found on a single hive out of a possible eleven.

The last time the state ag department conducted a comprehensive study of commercial insecticide use was in 1991, before the recent die-offs. Linda Coulter, who heads the department's pesticide program, says that her staff is conducting another statewide survey but that the results won't be available until later this fall.

In the meantime Tietmeyer, who also is president of the Colorado Agriculture Aviation Association, a trade group of aerial sprayers, insists he has seen no increase in the amount of Penncap being applied to the state's corn fields. John Sedivy, director of marketing and field development for Elf Atochem, which manufactures Penncap, says sales to Colorado farmers have stayed flat since 1992.

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