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USDA Researcher: Killing Mites Key to Saving Bees

  • By Bill Tomson and Jenny Hopkinson
    Politico Pro, April 29, 2014

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page, and our Honey Bee Health page.

The best chance the scientific community has at saving the honey bees that pollinate almonds, apples, apricots, blueberries, peaches and many other crops is to find better ways to kill off the Varroa destructor mites, Jeff Pettis, research leader of the Agriculture Department’s Bee Research Laboratory, told a congressional subcommittee.

Concerns have been growing about the link between the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in agriculture and the loss of pollinators, but USDA’s top bee researcher focused instead on another nemesis when he appeared before the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture today, according to a written copy of his testimony.

The nationwide honey bee decline over more than 20 years can be tied directly to the Varroa mite, Pettis said.

“Ultimately, if no long-term solutions are developed to slow bee decline, consumers will pay more for the food they buy,” Pettis warned. “The beekeepers' best hope is research that can build better tools to reduce the size of the Varroa mite problem. Researchers at USDA’s scientific agencies — the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture are on that trail right now.

“… To meet today’s increasing pollination demands, we need well over 3 million managed honey bee colonies in this country,” the USDA researcher said. “To do that, we need to make beekeeping profitable again and that starts with controlling Varroa destructor.”

Pettis acknowledged that the pesticides used by farmers may also be playing a role in the bee decline. “Exposure to pesticides in the environment may be weakening bee colonies, possibly making them more susceptible to other stresses,” he said.

The subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), also heard from Dan Cummings, CEO of Capay Farms, in Chico, Calif., and the CFO of Olivarez Honey Bees; Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries; and David Fischer, director of pollinator safety at the Bayer North American Bee Care Center.

Following the event, Beau Greenwood, executive vice president of government relations and public affairs for CropLife America, the trade association that represents pesticide manufacturers, commended the subcommittee for bringing “balance to the public dialogue around pollinator health."

“From this vantage point, we can continue to develop and implement comprehensive and responsible strategies for improving pollinator health based on sound science and research, and not be distracted by appeals to emotion that have little to do with addressing the underlying issue,” Greenwood said.

Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety, environmental and consumer advocacy groups, however, had a different take on the hearing, which they said glossed over the impact pesticides were having on bee population declines.

“It is confounding that Bayer CropScience, a leading manufacturer of neonicotinoid pesticides, was given a seat at the witness stand while the commercial beekeeping industry was noticeably absent,” Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for CFS, said in astatement following the hearing. Despite a growing body of research showing concerns about pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids on pollinators, “today’s hearing underscored that many House Agriculture Committee members remain reticent about discussing any actions that would upset the influential pesticide lobby.”

“The hearing was stacked in favor of pesticide industry interests and others who have a stake in conducting business as usual," Lisa Archer, director of the Friends of the Earth food and technology program, said in a separate statement. “If Congress really wants to get informed about the bee crisis, they must hear from the independent scientists who are studying the issue, not Bayer.”

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