The Buzz Stops Here

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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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer