Mysterious Bee Die-off in Red Bridge
By Jill Draper
Words of comfort poured in after Caroline and Jeff Henbest posted their troubles on Nextdoor.com.
“We are deeply saddened by your loss,” the messages said. Or, “So sorry to hear this. Please add my condolences.”
Two weeks ago the Henbests strolled across their gravel driveway on W. Red Bridge Road to check on their beehives and were shocked to find nearly 60,000 dead and dying honeybees.
“It was a horrible scene, just heart-wrenching,” says Caroline. “We were in a state of mourning.”
Only two months earlier the Henbests, who are fairly new to beekeeping, had received encouraging comments from a bee expert who came out to their 3-acre property for a checkup. “She was impressed,” Jeff remembers. “She said it was one of the healthiest hives she had seen. The bees were coming and going like a very busy airport.”
It had not been an easy start. The year began with a long, cold winter which turned abruptly into a hot,dry summer. The Henbests battled hive beetles and mites and were forced to supplement the bees’ diet with sugar water because spring wildflowers were in short supply. But by mid-summer, all was going well—until the die-off.
The Henbests’ honeybee expert returned to examine the scene and concluded the cause was clearly due to pesticides. Somewhere within their typical 2-mile range the subset of bees that worked as foragers had visited flowering plants, bushes or trees that had been sprayed with a toxic chemical.
Michael Vathakos, who lives in the East Red Bridge neighborhood, did not examine the bees, but he agrees that poison was a likely cause. Now retired, Vathakos worked both domestically and internationally in the agricultural chemical industry doing field research on crop protection chemicals such as insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and plant growth regulators.
“I think a product that was toxic to bees was sprayed somewhere,” he says, citing a recent incident on State Line Road where “somebody had bagworms and sprayed some pretty hot stuff” as a remote possibility. He says both homeowners and businesses are often at fault.
“People should read the label,” he cautions. “Every insecticide will tell you not to spray in the presence of bees. You’re actually breaking a federal law if you do that.” He says people also tend to over-treat situations. “If the label says one glug is enough, they figure two or three is better.”
Elaine Evans is an entomologist at the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab and the co-author of two books on bees. She also says a die-off at the hive usually indicates a pesticide kill rather than a virus, noting that chemical drifts from home foundation treatments can be a problem as well as yard-wide mosquito sprays. “It’s my understanding these are more of a general insecticide than products that are applied to water,” she says.
Evans compares the die-off to a canary in the coal mine. “Honeybees are managed like livestock, but the same pesticides that hurt them are killing other beneficial insects such as butterflies, fireflies and wild bees. Their deaths are often unnoticed, and we can’t go out and buy more—we just lose them.”
After the die-off, the Henbests were so discouraged they considered shutting down their honeybee hives.
I don’t know if we can do this again, Jeff remembers thinking. But after receiving dozens of comments from their south Kansas City neighbors, they changed their minds. “When we saw the outpouring, we said OK, we’re gonna try again. That moral support meant everything to us,” Caroline says.
Still, it’s a scary and expensive venture because they probably will never know what caused the die-off.
“It’s almost like we have little kids and we let them go away for the day and hope they come back home safe. But we can’t do it alone—we need other people’s help.”
She hopes people will become more aware of the negative impacts of pesticides and realize that pollinators are essential to human life.
“I don’t want to be preachy. You can do what you want with your property,” she says. “But you’re not living in a bubble. We all need to be conscious and be aware that everything we do affects nature.”