The Buzz Stops Here

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

And Colorado Corngrowers Association Executive Director Hal Smedley says Penncap-M is used on only five percent of the state's one million acres of corn--a percentage that hasn't changed recently.

It's possible that corn farmers are applying the chemical differently, when their crops are in bloom and bees are foraging--an illegal use that could cause more bee deaths. Over the past three years, a half-dozen beekeepers have requested that the ag department investigate kills thought to have been caused by Penncap applied in violation of its labeling. Coulter says that although some of those investigations are pending, so far the department hasn't found reason to discipline a farmer for misusing the pesticide or even confirmation that Penncap killed the bees.

The state's beekeepers, of course, consider that lack of confirmation proof that the ag department is doing its best to ignore the problem, supporting a large constituency--corn growers--at the peril of a smaller one. "The general feeling among beekeepers is that when the ag department comes to do an inspection, when they step out of their trucks their aim is to prove that it wasn't pesticides that killed the bees," says Johnston. That opinion was encouraged last winter when the ag department convinced Elf Atochem to pay the way for Ellis and Daniel Mayer, a Washington State University entomologist, to attend the informational meetings for beekeepers around the state.

But some experts simply feel there's not enough evidence to implicate Penncap. Mayer points out that if bees are dying in the winter from Penncap poisoning--as Miles County claims--there should also be big summer kills. His reasoning is that some bees would die when they collected the pesticide-infected pollen and more would die later in the winter, as the capsules disintegrated inside the hive.

Dead bees are proof enough for many beekeepers, though. County says he didn't ask neighboring farmers if they'd sprayed with Penncap-M the summer before his bees died--he didn't have to. "Oh, no, there wasn't any spraying done in the area," he says sarcastically. "No one admitted it. But when the hives are adjacent to the corn fields, and when Penncap-M is the cheapest way for farmers to spray for rootworm, you know. You just know."

"We've got a rash of reports--that's for sure," says Dallas Miller, senior program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency office that monitors pesticide use in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota. "But is it really Penncap? It doesn't appear to be being used very much." But the EPA, which is charged with keeping tabs on private applicators--mostly individual farmers--keeps no registry of pesticide usage.

As an alternative to Penncap, agriculture officials have suggested that two varieties of mites that have plagued Colorado's beekeepers for the past decade could be the bee-kill cause.

"We don't dismiss mites," says Theobald. "That's a serious problem." But he insists that beekeepers have become adept at identifying and treating the pests over the years: Theobald says he places a combination of menthol and fly-strip-like deterrents inside his hives to keep them free of mites.

Yet entomologists say the keepers may be deluding themselves. The only foolproof way to measure the extent of an infestation, they say, is to dissect bees and painstakingly count the number of mites inside their tracheas, an expensive and time-consuming process that virtually nobody bothers to do. County says he hasn't tested his bees for mites that way since 1989.

In addition, Mayer says recent research indicates that the methods beekeepers have traditionally used to discourage mites don't work well. They have proven so ineffective, he says, that beekeepers in Washington have taken to using formic acid, a highly effective--but thus far highly illegal--chemical to deter that state's mites. "It's a tough pest," he says admiringly.

Penncap and mites aren't the only potential culprits in the bee deaths, either. One of the more intriguing theories is that plants whose pollen is toxic to bees are proliferating--or have lately become more dangerous. A prime suspect is locoweed, the toxic plant that has northern Colorado's ranchers worried about their livestock; the weed's pollen is also poisonous to bees. Yet while researchers have identified nearly a dozen plants in Colorado that produce pollen that can kill bees and have learned that the plants' toxicity can change with an area's weather, they don't know much more.

Beekeepers dismiss that theory, too. "In my opinion that's a brush-off," scoffs Johnston. "These toxic plants have been around since the beginning of bees. If the ag department wants to look at it, fine. But my father and my father's father have been here raising bees since 1908, and I would've thought they could have discovered it by now."

"Beekeepers are a strange bunch," concludes Mayer. "It's either the nature of the job or too many stings. In this case they're convinced it's Penncap-M and nothing is going to change their minds."

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