The Buzz Stops Here

On June 29 the state commissioner of agriculture, Thomas Kourlis, traveled to Salida to address the Colorado Beekeepers Association. The beekeepers consider themselves an underappreciated group, the overlooked child of Colorado agriculture, and this was the first time the government's top farm official was paying them close personal attention. They had hive hopes.

Lyle Johnston, the lanky, slow-speaking president of the association, recalls feeling optimistic. For the past several years, Colorado's bees have been mysteriously dying at an extraordinary rate. To Johnston, a third-generation beekeeper in Rocky Ford, Kourlis's attendance at the biannual meeting was a welcome sign that the state recognized the beekeepers' pain.

"He was coming in and trying to show his concern for the bee industry, and he said he'd be trying to get to the bottom of the problem," Johnston remembers. "Now, I'm no fan of any political deal, but that's the first time any commissioner attended a bee meeting, so I gotta give the guy credit. Besides, it was a Saturday, and he came on his own time."

The feel-good moment was not destined to last. The warmth disappeared almost immediately after "Kourlis called us 'assholes,'" says Paul Hendricks, editor of the beekeepers association newsletter and co-director of the American Honey Producers.

"I would characterize it this way," Hendricks continues. "A lot of us had buckshot in our questions, because of the way the ag department has been handling our problems. There were no softball questions. I asked two questions, and then on the third question Kourlis just blew his top. He said, 'You're sticking your finger down my throat, and I'm going to stick my finger down your throat--asshole.' He used the word. Then he generalized it: Something like, 'Maybe you're all assholes.'

"I've been called worse," Hendricks concludes, a little proud. "But never by anyone that high in government."

"It was a clearing of the air," recalls Kourlis, who denies swearing at Hendricks. "I wanted to show them that they were attacking the people trying to help them the most. I thought it was inappropriate to go out and make accusations against the department that are completely untrue just to provoke a reaction. I wanted [Hendricks] to know that if you think you can get in the department's face without me getting back in your face, I'm not going to allow that to happen."

Johnston agrees that's a pretty fair summation. "The commissioner and Paul had...different words," he says. "They just didn't hit it off. What Mr. Kourlis might have suggested was that 'if you guys are going to be assholes, then I can be an asshole, too.'"

That label may be about the only thing beekeepers and ag officials have in common lately.

For an understanding of what is making beekeepers so ornery, you need only travel southeast of Denver to the honey business of a man named Miles County. He didn't always keep his hives in Lincoln and Elbert counties; up until two years ago he had a thriving bee farm in Logan County.

In late 1995 Miles County prepared his 322 hives on the outskirts of Sterling for winter. By March 1996, 298 of the colonies were wiped out, the bees nothing but dried-up husks. Imagine a cattle rancher losing 92 out of 100 cows to disease or predators, he says, and you begin to get the idea.

"I just went out on a nice day to check the hives and you start opening up beehives and you find them all dead," he recalls in a monotone. "And you go from one yard to the next and they're all dead." After that County moved his hives south, where he's since built his business back to about 200 colonies.

County isn't suffering alone. Bees are dying across Colorado. In 1995, the state's honey growers maintained 45,000 hives. Last year the number plummeted to 30,000--a drop of one-third. It was the equivalent of all the land used to grow winter wheat in Washington, Kit Carson, Logan and Weld counties--which together account for one million of the state's three million winter wheat acres--suddenly disappearing.

Although hives are withering around the country--wild bees have just about vanished--the decimation of Colorado's domesticated stock is unprecedented.

Last year, says Frank Peairs, an entomologist at Colorado State University, the country's bee industry lost a total of 82,000 hives; 15,000 of those were in Colorado. The state's losses account for almost 20 percent of the country's entire bee kill, yet Colorado's keepers have less than 1 percent of the country's hives. "It has been a real wake-up call," Peairs says.

In any industry a mystery with such devastating consequences would produce speedy government action, and the state agriculture department says it is moving as quickly as it can to figure out what is causing the mass die-offs of Colorado honeybees. Late last year it arranged for entomologists and other experts to speak at a series of informational meetings across the state. And this past spring the department, along with CSU, began a broad study to find the reason for the bees' demise; the earliest results are expected in January.

"The first thing we're trying to do is to decisively and accurately determine what's behind the bee deaths," says Kourlis. "We're committed to solving the problem, but we're committed to solving the problem accurately."

Yet, the state is finding itself with some odd opposition: the beekeepers themselves, who remain distrustful of an agency whose inaction, they claim, is pushing them to the brink of extinction. Several keepers declined invitations to participate in the current study. One of them is Tom Theobald, a Boulder County beekeeper since the days of disco.

"I've been working on this problem for seven years," Theobald says. "And it's just a waltz and a waste of time. It's a waste of my time. I'm struggling for survival, and I've already spent an awful lot of time with these people."

"I think we're going to have to go around the state," adds Johnston. "If we want anything done I just don't think we can expect it of them. They're incompetent."

So the beekeepers have come up with their own explanation. The primary culprit, they say, is a highly toxic pesticide called Penncap-M, a byproduct of fifty-year-old nerve gas research. In a flurry of public relations moves that have state agricultural officials scrambling--and, in some cases, as with Kourlis, cussing--the keepers have pinned the blame for the bee die-offs on the chemical.

But have they busted the right suspect, or is the buzz based on nothing but panic? While the agriculture industry has become more and more dependent on science and technology, beekeeping remains a largely unchanged art, a highly independent avocation pursued by mavericks. Yet beekeeping is tied directly to farmers and their crops--a contradiction that has put many beekeepers on the defensive and desperate for answers.

"One of the skills that has helped beekeepers survive is being sort of independent fellows," says Marion Ellis, a well-known entomologist at the University of Nebraska. "They don't have a huge support network. It serves them well in most arenas. But in this instance, in the new chemical arena in agriculture, they need to look a little harder at the science."

On August 2, 1994, Tom Theobald received a phone call from a local crop sprayer warning him that a neighboring farmer was about to treat some fields with Penncap-M. It was unwelcome news.

Theobald is a giant, deliberate man with a tangle of graying hair and a thicket of white beard clinging to his face. His entrance into the world of beekeeping 22 years ago, he says, came as the result "of blind luck."

"I spent about ten years in the corporate world, working for IBM in human resources," he recalls. "The money was good, but it wasn't for me. So I decided to jump." With time on his hands, Theobald spent a lot of time puttering about his Niwot house and decided to acquire a couple of bee colonies to complement his garden.

One of Theobald's neighbors was an elderly man named Ted Johnson, who'd been a beekeeper from the 1920s until he retired. "He and his wife always talked about the life with a real reverence," Theobald remembers. Inspired, he tracked down the Longmont beekeeper Johnson had sold his hives to and offered to volunteer his labor in exchange for learning anything and everything about honey. Eventually, Theobald took over the man's business. And while he says keeping bees is no way to earn a living--he takes part-time jobs to make ends meet--he has never regretted the move.

"It's really a magnetic craft, a magic kingdom," he explains. "It's a unique window into the natural world. You see the seasons and how they're reflected through the eyes of the bees. It's like livestock, but gentler. Nothing is butchered or slaughtered. It can still be done by a single person; I work for myself."

Like many other beekeepers across the state, Theobald began noticing about five years ago that an unusual number of bees was dying during the slow winter months. Although beekeepers expect that a certain number of bees will die from various causes each year, the winters seemed to be getting deadlier.

As the keepers compared notes, many concluded that the cause of the bees' deaths was the pesticide Penncap-M, a recently revived chemical used mainly to control rootworm in corn. The pesticide had been developed just after World War II. Initially spread over fields by aerial applicators in a fine spray, by 1970 the chemical was being packaged in tiny capsules, which, when sprayed onto a field, worked like time-release medicines, protecting a farmer's crop over a longer period of time.

The active chemical in Penncap has always been deadly to bees: Since a rash of Penncap-related bee kills in the 1970s, the pesticide's warning label has specifically directed applicators not to spray it on blooming fields where bees are foraging. But the pesticide can kill bees more insidiously, too.

Penncap capsules are about the same size as pollen. Bees flying into fields gather up the encapsulated chemical along with pollen and return to the hive. There, the pesticide can wait like a time-bomb, slowly leaking out and poisoning a colony up to a year after it has been deposited.

So when Theobald learned that his neighbor was about to spray with the pesticide, he was less than pleased. Still, there wasn't much he could do. In the agriculture business, beekeepers are unique in that their livestock grazes on land they neither own nor rent; they are squatters on the edge of an industry.

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.

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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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer