Decline in Bees
TOM PELTON/CBF STAFF
By Tom Pelton
s a child, David Hackenburg loved the
taste of honey. And so, at the age of 12,
he ordered his first bees from a mail-order
catalogue and cobbled together a hive on
his parents’ dairy farm.
David Hackenberg, long-time beekeeper, has made a living from the great pollinators, but has
noticed a marked decline in bee populations in the last ten years.
partly to blame—and there is growing scientific evidence he may be right, although
other factors may be involved, too.
said that “neonics” are designed to make
entire plants—even pollen on corn tassels—slightly toxic to a wide variety of
insects, although not humans.
Today, Hackenburg is 64 and beekeeping is
still his life. Except now, he cares for about
100 million of them in 3,000 hives, many
on a hill above his farmhouse in Lewisburg,
Pennsylvania. “When I’m working bees, it’s
like the rest of the world seems to go away,”
Hackenburg said as he lifted the lid of one of
his hives and watched the dance of his bees.
Over the last decade, he has noticed something wrong with his busy extended family.
The bees are not living as long: 28 days
instead of 48, on average. They don’t eat
well. They are not as vigorous. And they
seem to wander off from their hives, and
never come back. Many years, he loses 70
to 100 percent of his bees in this way.
Hackenburg, owner of Hackenburg
Apiaries and Chairman of the Honey Bee
Health Advisory Board, said beekeepers
across the country are seeing the same
kinds of losses. He suspects pesticides are
“Our annual production in the United
States has gone from over 200 million
pounds of honey, to probably this year
around 128 million,” Hackenburg said.
“There has been a steady decrease in honey
production in this country ever since we
started using neonicotinoids.”
Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides used
since the 1990s to treat the seeds of corn, soy-
beans, and other crops and protect the plants
from pests. The scientific journal Nature pub-
lished a study linking neonicotinoids with bee
population declines and damage to bees’ abil-
ity to collect pollen. This is a major problem
because bees are the spark plugs of our agri-
cultural system, responsible for pollinating as
much as $20 billion worth of vegetable and
fruit crops in the U.S. every year, about a third
of the food we eat.
Dr. Dave Goulson, a leading bee researcher
at the University of Sterling, in Scotland,
“It’s as if the bees are becoming intoxicat-
ed,” said Dr. Goulson said. “Neonicotinoids
are nerve toxins—they attack the central
nervous systems, the brain essentially of
the bee. They seem to be less good at navi-
gating, and that’s a crucial ability that bees
have. If they fail to do that, and they get
lost, they are as good as dead, basically.”
More research is needed into the causes of
the declines in pollinators and whether
more careful and selective use of pesticides
might help. But it is becoming increasingly
clear that something needs to be done,
because we are all stung when our ecosystem becomes ill.
Tom Pelton is Senior Writer and
Investigative Reporter for the
Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Read his blog, Bay Daily, at