Science AMA Series: Hi, reddit! I’m Alex Lu, Associate Professor of Environmental Exposure Biology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and I’m here to talk about the state of science and public policy around the world on protecting honeybee health

Abstract

Hello, reddit!

My name is Alex Lu and I’m Associate Professor of Environmental Exposure Biology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I study the decline of honeybee populations around the world. My team’s research has traced the collapse of honeybee colonies to a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids, and we’ve also published studies showing just how widespread these pesticides are in some areas. Here is a link to the full 2012 paper

The honeybee decline is a critical issue and the future of global agriculture—and our food supply—hinges on our ability to address it. Approximately one-third of the foods we commonly consume—apples, pears, blueberries, strawberries and so on—require pollination, and honeybees happen to be the most effective pollinator for agricultural production. The European Union (EU) has already taken action. Since December 2013, the EU has banned three most widely use neonicotinoid pesticides in crops that attract bees for pollination. Ontario, Canada also passed a bill in 2015 to restrict neonicotinoids uses in agriculture. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently in the midst of a review of neonicotinoids.

I’ll be here to answer your questions from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM ET; Ask Me Anything!

Edit (10:45 AM): Welcome everybody. I wish all have a wonderful Thanksgiving. And thank you for submitting your questions. There are lots of them. Due to the time constraint, I won't be able to answer all your questions. For some questions, my answer will be brief. I already looked at some of the questions, and I believe that this is going to be a very informative and educational session about the losses of bees and what we can do to reverse the trend. Let's get started.

Edit (1:00 PM): It's been a little over two hours and I do need to go now. Thank you for all your questions.

is there something I can personally do/avoid in my daily life to help?

IdlePatterns

Don't use neonics, tell your neighbors not to use neonics, go to your town/city meetings to tell them not to allow the use of neonics in residential landscaping. Planting may help, only if bees are still around.


I was wondering if you would like to respond to many of the honey bee experts criticism of some of your previous studies? Not necessarily to Entine but to many of the scientists at the major entomology departments:

"Many of the world’s top scientists have challenged his research. Dennis vanEngelsdorp called Lu’s first study “an embarrassment” while Scott Black, executive director of the bee-hugging Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, characterized it as fatally flawed, both in its design and conclusions.

University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences 2007 National Research council study on the Status of Pollinators in North America called it “effectively worthless” to serious researchers. “The experimental design and statistical analysis are just not reliable,” she said."

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6323626

albopictus

It is very important to read our studies in 2012 and 2014 again so you might be able to answer some of the comments raised by people who criticized the studies. I am going to answer the comments briefly here; 1. The unreliable study design and statistical analysis. Our study design is so straight forward that anybody could replicate it. In fact, Bayer and Syngenta, two major neonics manufactures, have replicated our study design in their own studies. The reports of those studies, unfortunately, could only be obtained from USEPA by the FOIA. In terms of statistical analysis, we did not use any fancy analyses in the studies. 2. The dosage used in the Harvard studies were too high that bees have no chance to be exposed to. The highest dose used in 2012 study was 400 ug/kg, that represented 400ug of neonics in a kg of HFCS that we fed to one hive for a week. If you do some calculations, we only gave 2.8ng/bee/day in the 2012 study. In 2014 study, we decided to only use one dose level, which is 100 ug/kg or 0.7ng/bee/day. This dose exceeded what we have measured in pollen that we collected in the 2015 study.

Besides the criticisms, they never mentioned the use of control hives (no neonics provided throughout the experiments) in our studies. I guess that is because the control hives all survived along with those dead CCD hives. We only lost one control hive with the post-mortem observation that is vastly different to CCD hives but resemble hives died of diseases like Nosema infection.

Edit: Here is a link to the full 2012 paper


I was wondering if you would like to respond to many of the honey bee experts criticism of some of your previous studies? Not necessarily to Entine but to many of the scientists at the major entomology departments:

"Many of the world’s top scientists have challenged his research. Dennis vanEngelsdorp called Lu’s first study “an embarrassment” while Scott Black, executive director of the bee-hugging Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, characterized it as fatally flawed, both in its design and conclusions.

University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences 2007 National Research council study on the Status of Pollinators in North America called it “effectively worthless” to serious researchers. “The experimental design and statistical analysis are just not reliable,” she said."

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6323626

albopictus

I am aware of those comments, but never have the interest of responding to those until whoever raised the questions or comments declares their conflict of interest to the manufacture of neonics.

Edit: I've posted a detailed response above:

It is very important to read our studies in 2012 and 2014 again so you might be able to answer some of the comments raised by people who criticized the studies. I am going to answer the comments briefly here; 1. The unreliable study design and statistical analysis. Our study design is so straight forward that anybody could replicate it. In fact, Bayer and Syngenta, two major neonics manufactures, have replicated our study design in their own studies. The reports of those studies, unfortunately, could only be obtained from USEPA by the FOIA. In terms of statistical analysis, we did not use any fancy analyses in the studies.

The dosage used in the Harvard studies were too high that bees have no chance to be exposed to. The highest dose used in 2012 study was 400 ug/kg, that represented 400ug of neonics in a kg of HFCS that we fed to one hive for a week. If you do some calculations, we only gave 2.8ng/bee/day in the 2012 study. In 2014 study, we decided to only use one dose level, which is 100 ug/kg or 0.7ng/bee/day. This dose exceeded what we have measured in pollen that we collected in the 2015 study. Besides the criticisms, they never mentioned the use of control hives (no neonics provided throughout the experiments) in our studies. I guess that is because the control hives all survived along with those dead CCD hives. We only lost one control hive with the post-mortem observation that is vastly different to CCD hives but resemble hives died of diseases like Nosema infection.


Entomologist here. Just a note for readers that Lu is not an entomologist, nor are entomologists co-authors of the studies they refer to (a good summary of the problems I'll comment on below here).

Two questions I would like to see Lu address:

1. Your 2012 study and 2014 study have been heavily discredited by the actual entomology community of scientists, especially those that have a formal background in assessing honeybee stressors. Those criticisms linked above include:

  • Essentially pumping the bees with much higher than realistic concentrations of neonicotinoids for much longer than they would be exposed to any amount in the field (and actually finding those bees live surprising long when you did that).
  • Extremely low sample size.
  • Not accounting for confounding factors like disease that we do know affect honeybee populations.
  • Having a smoking gun conclusion that would have no problem getting into a high tier journal like Nature if it were sound, but instead publishing in an obscure pay-to-play journal after being correctly rejected by Nature.
  • Poisoning your colonies and calling it CCD when the symptoms didn't even match the criteria for CCD.

Talking to entomologists in the field, a few regard this study as such a poor design that it appears to be fishing for the result you got (followed by incorrect interpretations), but most seem to think this just looks like a case of inexperience from someone not familiar with the field of entomology. I was actually surprised about this study when I saw how many big names in the field of honey bee health (independent university researchers) called out the major issues with this study.

To the actual question, why do you continue pushing this study as if it is accepted by the scientific community, and do you have any plans to implement a properly designed study if you are still convinced that your hypothesis is true? You've been repeatedly shown the many fatal flaws in your study design, so I'm surprised you haven't done a corrected follow-up study yet if that is the case.

2. You have a serious conflict of interest being on the board of The Organic Center, which is affiliated with the Organic Trade Association. Such groups are rather well known for demonizing synthetic pesticides to make the organic crops they market (and their "organic" pesticides) appear more appealing to consumers. Why have you not declared this conflict of interest in your published papers?

cicindelidae

The co-authors of my two papers have the extensive beekeeping experience needed to conduct a scientific research on bees.

I did not join the board of the Organic Center until after we published these two papers.


Do you think that the rapid spread of the hive collapses are due largely to migratory beekeeping, or do you think it's just a combination of a whole bunch of things? I know there was a campaign for regular people and businesses to help by allowing storage of honeybee hives, but do you think that's hurting more than it's helping given how widespread the pesticides really are? :(

orangeandblackattack

Migratory beekeeping practice has existed much much longer than the occurrence of CCD.


The last I heard about research into CCD was that it seemed to be caused by a combination of factors working together, including some sort of fungus. Has any further evidence appeared about CCD, and are there any good methods of fighting it yet?

Iunnrais

One of the hallmark of CCD is the emptiness of the hive during the winter, or toward the end of winter and the beginning of the spring. None of the "other factors" could lead to such a unique and apparent post-mortem symptom. This is why CCD was first claimed as a symptomatic disease.


What did you think about the Bee Movie?

hombreross

It is very funny movie. I enjoyed the movie.


Do you believe the weight of evidence suggests total banning of neonicotinoids, like DDT in the US, or is there a reasonably safe level that allows the same protective effects without damaging bee populations?

Silverback_6

Throughout my professional career, I never called for the ban of certain pesticides. However, I do believe that neonics should be ban for the following reasons; 1. It is systemic, meaning that once applied, neonics will be everywhere in the foods that we eat, in the pollen that we breathe in, the water that every organisms drink. 2. It is the sub-lethal levels of neonics that cause CCD. So it is unlikely that there will be a safe level. Please google "Hennekes", and read some of his publications about the safe levels of certain chemicals, including neonics.


Given the commercialization of bees and destruction of natural habitats, do you feel like the bee genetic diversity might be suffering in a way that could put them at risk beyond things we can stop like pesticides?

liquidpele

This is a very good question. We do not have much time left to save not just bees, but also other pollinators, birds, and the whole list of natural organisms. American Bird Conservancy was one of the first non-for-profit organizations to raise the warning of neonics to the ecology. You can check out their publications.


Since neonicotinoids are systemic and remain present in the treated plant for a number of weeks, is it possible that they may be present in pollen collected by the bees, and subsequently in the honey used to feed their young? Can you recommend any studies on the effects of trace neonicotinoids being consumed by developing bee larvae?

semi_modular_mind

You can google our paper published in 2015. We collected pollen directly bees who came back from foraging in the state of Mass. More than 70% of pollen samples that we collected from April to August contained at least one neonics. Those neonics-contaminated pollen would have been consumed by bees.

Edit: Here is a link to the abstract for that paper


There is this episode in 'Black Mirror' where they use bee-like robots swarms as a replacement of bees.

Do you think such a solution would work out in case the entire bee population is gone ? Is there any research going in this direction ?

rick29de

Why we are hoping robotics bees will do the work that natural bees could do, and could them very well?


Do you think there is a need for more pollinator-oriented policy? Would policy about honeybees be most effective if it was developed specifically for the honeybee or if it was through policy that addressed the needs of pollinators as a whole?

groovyM

There is a very good pollinator-oriented policy just passed by the providence of Ontario Canada last year. You can find the law online. Basically, the law explicitly stated that farmers should only use neonics when other legally approved insecticides have failed to the purpose of pest control. Farmers who request the use of neonics will imply government regulation on how to use neonics and accept close monitoring imposed the government for the purpose of not-harming pollinators.


Is Beekeeping as a hobby really any use for the Environment? I've always been conflicted. Yes they will pollinate he local area, but typically beekeepers are keeping non native species that wouldn't do well at all without our interviention (feeding, sheltering). It seems to be a common misconception in my opinion that beekeepers are helping reestablish bee populations. I think better efforts to help our environment would be planting pollinator friendly plants and banning neonicotinoids but I'm curious for your thoughts.

Edit: /u/boshaft says European Honey Bees are invasive. I didn't know that! I know beekeepers that are hired to transport their hives to farms for pollinating. Its not exactly a natural solution but I wonder if this will scale up as natural native pollinator populations become more suppressed.

Rickles360

Because how we farm today, we do not substantial numbers of hives to help pollination.


What does it take to get governments to listen to scientists on these kind of issues? I mean, I imagine when scientists initially said that honeybees were in danger official response was "so?"

graven29

You meant "independent" scientists? We have other scenarios that results from independent scientific research are called "hoax".

What we really need to do is to separate independent scientist research from interested groups within our government. EU has done this, and their policy on protecting bees is very different than ours.


First of all, thank you for this interesting AMA, as an aspiring ecologist I was waiting for this kond of post!

1) A lot of people are asking about consequences of industrial pesticide use etc. But are there other dangers, i.e. viruses that cause global population decreases (similar to what amphibian species are witnessing) and how could this possibly be(e) stopped?

2) If, hypothetically, honeybees were to die out in the near future, could wild bees fill the resulting evolutionary gap and at least lessen the ecological damage of the honeybees extinction?

Thank you for your answers!

Eendachs

Wild bees also suffer the same consequence as those cultivated bees.


Do you believe that any form of pollination, such as hand or robotic, will ever replace, either entirely or partially, the bee? If so is their a clear benefit other than conservation for bee pollination rather than say a perfect equivalent robotic pollinator?

mo0_mo0

Hand pollination will never be sufficient to produce enough foods for the world. Robotic bees will never work as hard and efficient as the natural bees.


Thanks for doing this AMA! In your opinion, do you think the pros of these pesticides outweigh the cons? Or should they be banned altogether? If not, do you think there's a way that the US could ever regulate the amount that's allowed to be used in agriculture to prevent the colony collapse of the honeybees?

420_swag_queen

I have answer a similar question to this one earlier.


Who do you think has the biggest impact to recover from honeybee extinction? Industrials, farmers, consumers?

gocchisama

Government policy. Look at EU and Ontario, Canada (not the whole Canada but just the providence of Ontario).


Thanks for doing this AMA. I've never thought about bees as being this important before. I was hoping that you would consider giving a lecture at the Environmental Science Institute at UT Austin as part of hot science cool talks. So my question is, what would be the state of the global food supply and bees in 50 years if neonicotinoids were not banned? 100 years?

vpp20ice

Thanks for the invitation.

Saving bees from the harm of neonics is very urgent. Some countries, like Japan is losing ton of bees for pollination. I don't think we need to wait for 50 years to witness the consequence.


Obviously pesticides play an important part in Colony Collapse Disorder, but what about mites such as Varroa? They are on the rise and resistant to some treatments. Is there any plan on how to tackle this?

Quailpower

Any diseases associated with bee hives can be prevented, managed, and treated. Many competing beekeepers have done so many years. But harms caused by neonics could not be prevented, managed, and treated.


Wow, I didn't know that honeybees were the most effective pollinator of 1/3 of all the food we eat. I guess my question then is, what alternatives do we have to honeybees for pollination, including natural and perhaps technological methods?

RandomUsername618

I personal do not think there is a viable alternative to bee pollination. We could reduce the whole world population in proportional the degree of bee pollination decline so we can be ensured with sufficient food production for human consumption.


For people who live in the city or don't have a whole lot of yard space, what can they do to help bees?

For people who have large yards, what can they do? For example I have 2 acres partly surrounded by woods. Would setting up a bee hive in the back help? Planting native flowers? Etc?

whiskeyinabox

Same answer to an early question.

Planting bee attracting plants may harm bees if your soil is contaminated by neonics.


Thanks for doing this! This is a really important issue and more people needs to learn about this.

Here's my question:

I live in a city where there's a lot of urban beehive projects and I've heard that lately this is causing some problem to other pollinators. Because of those projects, the honeybee is getting an edge over the other species.

Is there such a thing ? Considering the state of the honeybee in North America, is it still possible to have an area saturated with honeybees and that further protecting them would be a problem ? Or is this just false information/rumors, honeybees still need all help it can get at the moment.

In other word, should I counsel people in my area to get more beehive or not.

Thanks.

hanexar

Bees would only survive in the urban setting if there are enough foods for them. If they are competing foods again other species, yes, they could be getting an edge over other species.


Thank you for this. What are your impact projections if we make reasonable changes now vs the status quo?

nomad80

Look at results from EU and Ontario Canada. Those are two government entities that took on neonics in order to protect bees and other pollinators. Results from EU one year after the ban were promising enough that EU has extended the ban indefinitely.

EDIT: Here is an infographic from the European Commission about the state of honeybee health


Are there any teeth behind Canada's recent announcement? Is it a ban on neonicotinoids or just an intent to study more closely?

LWZRGHT

We will see the outcomes soon from Ontario Canada.


Is there industrial resistance (i.e. lobbying) to banning neonics in the US? If so, is this coming from the agriculture sector or the chemical sector, or both?

bent42

This is a joint effort sector, called Agro-Chemical industry.


At what stage is the EPA's review in, what's your best guess at their conclusion, and if it's positive, what's the time-line for any proposed implementation?

rainemaker

I wish I know


Do you believe any sort of law can pass that will ban more than a couple neonicotinoids in time to stabilize the honey bee population and hopefully see some growth? Or do you believe genetically enhanced bees (or something along those lines) will be a more viable solution for long-term success?

nikolabs

I hope I would never encounter a genetically enhanced bee. I think there are efforts in towns/cities/coutries to take on neonics. The positive outcomes will hopefully convince others that taking neonics away usage will solve the problem of losing bees.


I'm a biotechnology student and I would like to know if it is possible to boost a local population of bees by genetically engineering plants.

xicocookies

It is genetically engineering plant that harms the bees initially. You can read our paper published in 2012. The hypothesis in that study was due to the fact that genetically modified corn seeds were no longer treated with Bt, but instead neonics way back in 2004. Those GMO seeds were engineered treated with neonics that because of its systemic property, the residue showed up in corn that later was manufactured for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Many commercial beekeepers used HFCS in the winter even before 2005 when CCD was first emerged. But because of the change of "receipt" in the GMO corn seed, we have massive losses of bee hives among the commercial beekeepers since then.


Will the bees recover quickly? If the world stopped using the pesticides today, how long would it be before everything was back to pre-pesticide levels?

JoeTheShome

Not all pesticides, but neonics. EU's results are good enough to extend the 2-yr ban to indefinitely.


I'm currently organizing large pollinator gardens for my University as a part of becoming a Bee Campus. In addition to the gardens is educational outreach. What would you like to see us focus on in educating young people on the plight of bees and how they can help?

HIPSTERfilter

This is very cool.

It is very important to let the young generations be aware of how/when the losses of bees started, the science behind this line of research, and the progress of global public policy on how to deal with this issue. There are so much to learn on this specific crisis.


I'm new to the pest control industry, and I'd like a fact check on this if you could- The way it's been presented to me during training is that CCD is the result of the varroa mite, but the media blames pest control professionals, so we get increasingly strict regulations while the same products we use are available to the public (without the same regulations), leading to irresponsible applications/environmental contamination. Is that mostly correct? And, if so, isn't the first step to solving the CCD crisis properly informing the media and public about who/what is killing the bees?

InstantKarma-

First of all, CCD is not to be caused by varroa mite. Second of all, small towns and cities across the country are taking their own actions to stop further losses of bees by banning (or restrict) neonics use. I do not believe that you have to use neonics in your job to serve your clients. Keep in mind that neonics once applied will be everywhere, pollen, ground water, or soil, whereas other insecticides will stay in the area that you apply.


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