TRAVERSE CITY — Garth Ward is worried about bees.
The depth of his concern is obvious from the tone of his voice as he talks about chemicals, pollinators and our nation's food supply. He wants to sound the alarm, to tell people that he believes bees are getting a raw deal.
He also suspects that certain pesticides — neonicotinoids, sometimes called neonics — could be contributing to declining hive health in northwest Lower Michigan and across the nation. He believes that neonicotinoids, introduced in the 1990s, may have killed some of the honeybees he keeps on his property near Traverse City.
But Zachary Huang, PhD, an associate professor at Michigan State University who specializes in honeybees, said other possible causes more likely caused the death of Ward's bees.
"We just don't know the big picture, whether it's neonicotinoids, other chemicals, mites or what. It's very hard to say. Everyone has their own gut feeling," Huang said of both Ward's experience and of the decline in bee populations across the nation.
Michigan's honey production dropped 9 percent from 5.73 million pounds in 2014 to 5.22 million pounds in 2015, according to the United State Department of Agriculture. The state ranked eighth in the nation's honey production both years. Beekeepers worked 90,000 honey-producing colonies in 2015, a drop of 1,000 colonies from the previous year.
Ward's small operation consists of eight hives. He lost production in two of them, and he wants to know what killed his bees.
Research on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees continues to evolve. Some studies have shown that the chemicals, in certain conditions, can harm insect life near fields planted with treated seeds.
"It shows mainly in corn. In general, neonics can get into the hive," Huang said, and cause a variety of health problems among the resident bees.
Ward said his hives that sustained damage had been placed near a neighboring corn field. But that doesn't mean neonicotinoids were the cause of the problem.
"It's hard to say," Huang said. "Could be just mites."
Cause of hive damage varies
Huang said the causes of hive health problems are many and varied. The region's chilly weather can be a problem in itself.
"Winter loss is always high in Michigan and other midwest states," he said.
Some beekeepers are wintering their hives in warmer regions, Huang said. He mentioned one Michigan beekeeper who moves his hives to Georgia each winter to minimize loss. Kirk and Sharon Jones, owners of Sleeping Bear Apiaries in Benzie County, keep their bees in Michigan during the summer but truck them to Florida and California each winter.
Neonicotinoids commonly are used to treat commercial seeds to ward off damage from pests including the soybean aphid. About 150 million acres are planted with neonicotinoid-treated seeds each year, according to the USDA.
Ward, 64, hopes to raise enough money via crowdfunding test his bees next summer for neonicotinoid contamination. He said he makes about $500 a year selling honey and eggs from a kiosk by the side of his driveway. A Vietnam War veteran, he toiled for more than four decades in northwest Lower Michigan as a builder before a tumble at a job site resulted in broken bones and a permanent disability. He now spends most of time at home.
"This is where I am," he said at his property off Gray Road. "I've got chickens and bees."
When bees go missing
Ward has kept bees for a decade. Two of his eight hives recently had problems. One was littered with dead bees. The other hive was simply empty. Neither hive contained anywhere near the quantity of honey that could be considered normal. Both damaged hives were positioned along one end of his seven acres.
"Nothing over here survived," he said as he gestured toward one edge of his property.
The die-off drove Ward to internet research. He discovered a wide variety of information about neonicotinoids and their effects on bee health. Some governmental units have acknowledged a direct tie between the compounds and bee death.
Minnesota's Department of Agriculture last month compensated two beekeepers after investigators found that hives were damaged by dust containing neonicotinoid residue that blew in from a neighboring cornfield. Ward fears a similar cause-and-effect relationship on his property.
Neonicotinoid research continues
The amount of research is growing that links neonicotinoid contamination and health problems in pollinators. The scientific community disagrees on its possible harmful effects.
A research letter published in the December 2015 issue of the journal Nature states that "pesticide exposure can impair the ability of bees to provide pollination services, with important implications for both the sustained delivery of stable crop yields and the functioning of natural ecosystems." The study said that the chemical can affect bees' reproductive success, foraging behavior and ability to navigate back to their hive.
A three-year ban on neonicotinoid use went into effect in the European Union in 2013, but was partially suspended in the UK in 2015 to allow limited use of the insecticide to combat the cabbage stem flea beetle. Farmers throughout the European Union have spoken against the ban and blamed it for a reduction in crop yields because of increased losses to pests.
Ward wants to help further the body of research by testing his bees next year. He also wants to make life easier for bees and other pollinators by planting flowering shrubs and trees on his and cooperating neighbors' property.
"I'm just trying to put in a wide variety of things," Ward said. "It's something that will be here for years. It's kind of like a pollinator station."
Flowering plants can help natural pollinator populations by providing consistent forage year after year. Ward also plans to plant milkweed in an effort to help butterflies, particularly the monarch.