Buckfast honey bees gather on a beehive in Merango, Ill.,...

Buckfast honey bees gather on a beehive in Merango, Ill., on Sept. 10, 2018. Credit: Bloomberg/Daniel Acker

How are the bees? People who know I am a beekeeper often ask me that question. I’d like to tell them that the bees are doing great, pollinating flowers, making honey and helping feed the world, but that isn’t true anymore. Bees are doing terribly, or more accurately, they are dying.

From summer of 2017 to spring of 2018, 80-90 percent of the honey bees in Central Maryland died. Some died suddenly, and some died slowly, but nearly all of them died. Most small-scale beekeepers with one to 10 colonies lost them all. I visited one beekeeper in February of last year, and out of 20 colonies, only one was still alive. Another very skilled beekeeper, with a doctorate in entomology and toxicology, lost 26 out of 30 colonies. My own apiary had three survivors out of 26, and I am a master beekeeper. Another friend, a very experienced beekeeper, lost 40 out of 40 — total devastation.

We love our bees, and these deaths are heart-breaking, as well as very costly. We can buy new bees if they are available, but it takes a year before they produce a honey crop. We won’t know until April how the bees are doing this year.

Knowledgeable, responsible beekeepers cannot keep their bees alive. Why?

There are two syndromes: acute and chronic. If a colony suddenly drops dead, it’s acute. A healthy, thriving family of 50,000 honey bees just dies, with piles of dead bees everywhere, after insecticide is applied to flowers nearby.

The chronic condition is harder to explain, as it happens over a period of months. The colony may seem fine at first but gradually declines, seeming to lose the will to live. Bees have many jobs that must be done daily. The queen lays eggs, 1,500 or more every day. Worker bees raise babies, build honeycomb, feed the queen, clean house, pollinate flowers, make honey and guard against invaders. In recent years, they just forget how to do those things, and the colony slowly dwindles and eventually dies. What could possibly cause this to happen?

Some blame a parasite called the Varroa mite, first detected in the U.S. in 1987, for all these losses. But the bee deaths in Maryland started in 2012, and the symptoms do not indicate Varroa damage. I think that the recent mite problems are a symptom of insecticide damage, not a primary cause of bee deaths.

Systemic insecticides such as neonicotinoids, widely used on crops and home gardens, permeate all parts of a plant, poisoning the very food bees need to survive. Large amounts cause acute poisoning, but tiny amounts, too small for a chemist to measure, slowly attack the bees’ brains and immune systems. They get sick from germs that normally cause little harm. They forget how to find their way back to the beehive after they go looking for flowers. They cease defending the hive from mites, wasps and other parasites and predators. Eventually, the whole colony is lost. In previous decades, before neonicotinoids were everywhere, normal colony losses averaged about 10 percent; now beekeepers are now losing their colonies to chronic conditions at an alarming rate.

What can we do to combat this crisis? The only solution appears to be a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. Europe has already done this, heeding the overwhelming evidence of the damage these toxic chemicals cause. Maryland passed a law in 2016 requiring retailers to stop selling neonic-containing products for use in home gardens as of Jan. 1, 2018. Tragically, some stores still sell these products illegally, continuing to endanger Maryland’s pollinators. Congress has for two years refused to consider bill (H.R. 5015) introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, to ban neonics nationally, (though the new Congress may view it more favorably). After all, as one secretary of agriculture said, “They’re only bees.” They only produce one third of our food supply, most of our fruits, vegetables, and nuts, as well as hay for our animals. Why should we care?

Neonics are in practically everything we eat — including 91 percent of the food in congressional dining halls — according to one Harvard study. What are they doing to us? They have never been proven safe for humans. If they might cause long-term brain damage, is that a chance we are willing to take?

Steve McDaniel is a master beekeeper with 40 years’ experience and past president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association. He holds a degree in chemistry from Harvard.

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