Ray McAllister, senior director for regulatory policy for CropLife America, a pesticide industry association with more than 90 member companies, says his organization is committed to improving honeybee health. Like other industry representatives, he questions the pesticide levels Lu used in his study, saying they were significantly higher than those bees would find in the natural environment. “It’s just difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from the study,” he says.
But what of the European ban? McAllister calls the decision politically motivated and the product of faulty science. What if, I ask him, honeybees in Europe bounce back after the two-year hiatus? “I will be very surprised,” he says.
Lu has come to expect this kind of response, seeing parallels to how Big Tobacco tried for years to deflect growing evidence of the health risks posed by smoking. The more pesticide companies can muddy the picture of what’s happening to honeybees, Lu says, the better their business does. “This is just like a gold mine.”
MORE THAN ANYTHING, HE REMEMBERS THE QUIET. It was the spring of 2011. Lu had driven out to Worcester County to see one of the apiary sites. Other hives were buzzing. But not the ones exposed to pesticide. “Those four hives were dead silent,” he says. The take-away, to him, was clear: “This,” he thought, “is the replication of Silent Spring .” It was, as Rachel Carson had written about the absence of birds decades before, a “spring without voices.”
Lu has studied pesticide exposure in Seattle-area children, in migrant farm workers in Washington state, and in Boston Housing Authority tenants. He and his family try to buy organic food. They also grow fruits and vegetables themselves in eight raised beds. He describes honeybees as “a wonderful gift that God gave to us.” But he is hardly the radical anti-pesticide activist his critics may assume.
He calls pesticides “a tool that we cannot afford to lose,” given their importance to food production. He believes there’s a responsible way to use pesticides, but that we’re nowhere near that. “I think it can be done,” he says.
Callahan thinks farmers should approach pesticides the way sensible people approach antibiotics: “You take it when you need it. You want to take it carefully. You want to know what you’re doing. And you sure as hell would like to know the side effects.”
I heard a few people raise the idea of the honeybee as canary. Bees aside, what do we know about the consequences of our own chronic exposure to chemicals like neonicotinoids? “Very little,” Lu says. He sees promise in an emerging research field called metabolomics, which seeks to connect the dots between the body’s short-term responses and reactions to things like chemical exposures and the subsequent development of disease.
Even if Lu turns out to be right about neonicotinoids, still outstanding is the question of what chronic exposure actually does to bees physiologically. Does it impair their navigational and orientation capabilities, as some research suggests, prompting them to fly away? Does it indeed make them more susceptible to cold temperatures? Does the buildup of pesticide residues enhance bees’ vulnerability to mites and pathogens? All of the above?
In a sense, Lu and the scientists, regulators, and companies skeptical of his work don’t seem all that far apart. It may well be that several accomplices share responsibility for colony collapse. It’s just that Lu is ready to pick neonicotinoids out of the lineup, and not everyone is.
If there’s any upside to this crisis, it’s widespread sympathy for honeybees, sparking new interest in beekeeping in urban areas such as Boston and New York, in the suburbs, and beyond. Some 320 beginners signed up for the Worcester County Beekeepers Association’s Bee School in March, which Warchol says is the largest such class ever seen anywhere in Massachusetts. Chas Mraz says the same thing’s happening in Vermont.
For veterans like Warchol, the allure of beekeeping has never worn off — of tending to a flourishing hive, of harvesting its honey, of bearing witness to the intricate age-old ecosystem, with all the individuals working for the good of the whole. “I still love it,” Warchol says over a handsome breakfast at an Uxbridge diner. “I go out there on a sunny afternoon. It’s such a glorifying feeling to see this little micro-world — how they work together — and you learn so much from it. They all know their jobs. They do it well. They just know what to do to make a successful beehive.”