Pesticides, honeybees, and native pollinators

Could native pollinators save us?

Most folks are now aware that our honeybees are in big trouble. Public opinion surveys shows more total agreement about this environmental threat than global warming, likely because Republicans worry about the bees, but not climate change/global warming. Democrats and independents worry about both.

There is no consensus on the cause of honeybee decline, although it seems like more fingers are pointing to a fairly new kind of pesticide, the neonicotinoids. Yes, this refers to a new kind of nicotine-like pesticide. These first were introduced twenty years ago. More are being added. They seem to be sweeping the field, but like with DDT 40 years ago, voices are now rapidly rising about their side-effects. Europe is placing bans on them for some uses.

Neonicotinoids (neonics) are popular because they can be quite long lasting, can be used to coat seeds to produce insect-lethal plants as well as use in soil. They are not very toxic to birds and mammals, especially mammals. To quote from a pro-neonic web site: “the insecticide [inside the seed coat] is absorbed and distributed within the plant as it grows. This enables the plant to control pests that feed on it below or above ground. These threats to the plant can easily destroy the harvest, wasting huge amounts of natural resources (water, soil, nutrients), energy, and labour.”

In other words the plant kills insect pests from sprout through maturity. The pesticide will also enter into the pollen and nectar produced.

DDT and related pesticides (chlorinated hydrocarbons) have been off the market in most places for a long time now, and the recovery of many kinds of animals, especially birds at the top of the food chain, has been remarkable.  DDT was, of course, highly effective against many insects, but it didn’t seem to affect aquatic invertebrates, reptiles, mammals and birds, at least not directly. DDT was very persistent in the environment and it concentrated in the food chain, affecting animals at the top of the chain the most in the long run. In particular it altered calcium metabolism in birds. The eggs they laid were brittle and thin — not viable. This was a bitter pill for pesticide makers and some of the users. They fought hard, but eventually lost against the many efforts to ban it.

DDT and its cousins were replaced largely by the the organophosphate pesticides (OPs). These were not persistent in the environment and did not bioaccumulate in the food chain. Instead, they killed insects quickly. If not dead, they survived. OPs also sickened field workers quickly if they were allowed to enter the field too early.  It is hard to say if this was worse than the chlorinated hydrocarbons which did not make workers sick in the short run, but perhaps did twenty years later.

Neonics pummel insects too. It would be amazing if they only destroyed insect pests.  “Pest” is a not a biological classification; a general pesticide only for pests is not possible. Agricultural pests are a wide variety of things that humans find irritating or costly. Neonicotinoids harm most insects, including neutral and beneficial insects along with the pests. See “The effects of neonicotineoid insecticides on agriculturally important beneficial invertebrates.”  Neonics kill or weaken insects that prey on or are parasitic to other insects, thus disrupting biological controls, both intentional control and naturally occurring controls.

It might be safe to make individual plants invulnerable to insects, but that would kill the lady beetles and similar predators that crawl the leaves eating aphids. Pollen and plant nectars are problems. Bees, butterflies, and other harmless or beneficials that drink or eat these would succumb. Perhaps use on pollen rich plants could be banned, but it is not. Neonic seed coats are used on sunflowers!

Bees are beset with problems other than neonics. Colony disorder collpase has also been blamed on the growing incidence of the external parasitic varroa mite.  This tiny mite attaches itself to a bee, including bee eggs, and sucks out the hemolymph (the bee’s juices). 

Varroa mites (reddish brown) on honeybees
Varroa mites (reddish brown) on honeybees

Varroa destructor is not a native bee parasite. The varroa greatly weakens a beehive and can be blamed for colony collapse. It might be an independent factor in the great decline of honeybees. It might also be that sub-acute exposure to neonics weaken the bees, setting them up for varroa attack.

I have a small piece of land I use for informal experiments of plants. I used to plant sunflowers and I noticed how many honeybees and bumblebees they attracted. Over time, before I heard the honeybees were in trouble, I perceived a decline in honeybees and I thought  more flying insects of some kinds flitting around the flowerheads.

Since I learned of neonics, I do not buy sunflower seeds. I let them volunteer from the previous year. The result of this is more pests, but the sunflowers bloom anyway. Amazing to me, is that there is a whole host of alternative bees and beelike flying insects moving through the pollen on the sunflowers.  They range from a large number of small, mostly black bees to large brightly stripped bees, but not as large as bumblebees.


Most people do not realize that what we call the honeybee is not native to the United States. There are many native bees. Some are solitary. Others live in small groups. Some swarm. To a degree European honeybees have been their competitors. What I am seeing is an influx of native bees. It is exciting to me.

I am not saying that the native bees are a panacea to the neonics, the mites, and perhaps diseases being spread. However, their habitats and habits are different. So too might be their susceptibility to these bee destroying agents. We should learn more about native bees and how to passive help, and not harm them.

– – – –

Wasp-like bee on goldenrod. By Ralph Maughan. Taken 7/26/14
Wasp-like bee on goldenrod. By Ralph Maughan. Taken 7/26/14






  1. birdpond Avatar

    – Now there is concern that these pesticides are filtering up to birds and bats – Of course. That makes sense. Everything is interconnected.

    The frightening prediction I just read, though, if true, is that we could lose 35% of avian population within only 10 years.

    If that doesn’t send up the alarm sirens, then humans are just too deaf to be worth saving. We are on the brink of planetary collapse of life as we know it, yet we worry about corporate profits above everything else.

  2. birdpond Avatar

    Sorry, this was the link I meant to share – It has the reference to the 10 yr decline percentages.

  3. Kathleen Avatar

    Someone keeps hives a couple miles away from my property so I occasionally see nonnative honey bees but thankfully not too often. One critical way to help native pollinators is to landscape with native plants. We have plants providing nectar for them nearly all growing season. The silver buffalo berry shrubs (Shepherdia argentea) flower early and they are simply filled with all kinds of pollinators, lots of small ones. The native penstemon attracts bumblebees. This year, our wild rose (Rosa woodsii) was so full of pollinators that you could stand several feet from the bush (it’s a monster because it gets rain run-off) and hear the entire bush humming…it was amazing! The pearly everlasting always attracts a bunch of pollinators (starting now), and soon the goldenrod and rabbit-brush will be buzzing with butterflies, bees, and other flying insects. Right now the butterflies are loving the wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa, a mint).

    Can’t begin to describe how gratifying it’s been to restore native plants/grasses to the land, with the bonus of providing quality habitat for native pollinators, birds, and animals. Another bonus: once native plants are established, you don’t have to water them. Our house was built with lots of salvaged wood from an old barn, so we also get the solitary bees who nest in holes. Here’s a nice pdf of native flowers and bees for our area:

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Isn’t that interesting. I’m hoping to do this too.

    2. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      Very informative site with excellent illustrations; thanks, Kathleen.

      1. Kathleen Avatar

        You’re welcome. Here’s another that I like (it’s not for any particular region of the country):

        I like this one because it explains why native plants are far superior (if planting for pollinators) to the showy cultivars you buy at garden centers. I also learned about butterfly salt licks from this site and why, whenever I douse the burn pile with water, butterflies always come and land on it…looking for minerals. During hot weather I run water over our concrete slab (with exposed aggregate)a couple times a day–open the spigot for just 15 seconds or so and let the water run down the slab and thirsty pollinators land on it for a drink, but I think I’ll get some sea salt and give the sponge lick a try.

  4. Maureen Coffey Avatar

    While I tend to go with the idea that pesticides and esp. neonicotinoids have something to do with it (despite “… no consensus on the cause of honeybee decline …”) I also wonder if there are historic data (anecdotal or otherwise) that point to “ups and downs” in honeybee populations over the thousands of years that agriculture has played a role in human development? We have tree rings as temperature and drought proxies etc. and there might be some light to be shed on the phenomenon if we looked for direct or proxy data as to pollination in previous centuries.

  5. Nancy Avatar

    Thanks for bringing this issue up on the Wildlife News, Ralph.

    Read recently where a property owner in CA was fined for NOT watering his lawn. This, in a part of the country, suffering from drought and water shortages. And we all can relate to the “Keeping up with the Joneses” mentality anymore in our culture, with regard to that “just want to kick my shoes off and run my toes thru your lawn – because its soooo thick and lush!”
    Ignoring the fact that fertilizers, pesticides and overwatering, got that lawn, to that point 🙂 But hey! The jury is still out on how steroids effect the human body.

    “Weed week” in my area. Noticed a few trucks hauling 4 wheelers (with containers on the back of them) heading up the valley this morning. Ah, the weekend, volunteer crowd, doing their part to contain obnoxious weeds. Weeds that may or may not be obnoxious. Weeds that benefit a host of insects but are now considered “obnoxious” to ranchers expecting a cleaner crop of hay come the end of August.

    Some thoughts across the “pond” on the use of chemicals:

    “With such overwhelming evidence against neonicotinoid pesticides it beggars belief that they have not yet been restricted or banned by the UK government. I truly cannot understand how seemingly intelligent people can reach positions of such power – yet be so blind to the horrors of these chemicals. Those in power are, I suppose, more concerned with short term profits and ‘economic growth’ than the long term health of our pollinators and struggling eco-systems. Very short sighted”

    1. Kathleen Avatar

      Hi Nancy–regarding your comment about noxious weeds, ranchers, and so on–I share your distaste for herbicide use, even though we’ve used it (reluctantly) on our own land to get a handle on leafy spurge (our integrated weed management approach utilizes everything but grazing animals). But noxious weeds aren’t just about ranchers and their hay crops; certified weed-free hay is required for horses heading onto MT public land to protect the land.
      Even so, and sadly, miles and miles in from the trailhead, sometimes well into designated wilderness, the trails are often lined with all sorts of weeds including some of those on MT’s noxious weed list. Ugh.

      I know of no better illustration of the devastation caused by weeds than these two photos–when I worked for the county as a noxious weed/native plant educator (5th grade level), these two pics just blew the kids away. We’d talk about healthy, bio-diverse ecosystems, how different plants contribute different things for different birds, insects, and animals, how their differing root levels and types hold the soil together, etc. I’d show them this first pic of Missoula’s North Hills back during the ’70s–it’s this amazing riot of wildflowers (lupine, paintbrush, arrowleaf balsamroot); then I’d show them the very same spot 30 years later, after a weed invasion…it really got their attention. You have to work a bit to view them–they’re on page 66 of this document
      but it will be worth the half minute it takes to scroll through the pages. Worse yet, I’ve actually seen this happen with my own eyes over the years I’ve been roaming various wild and semi-wild places. It just about kills me to see shooting stars make their last stand against knapweed or spurge.

      So while I absolutely hate to sound like I’m advocating herbicide use (no one despises Monsanto more than I do!), I also see huge danger in not recognizing the devastating impact of noxious weeds. It’s such a terrible dilemma! As bio-controls become more standard and effective, herbicide use will, one hopes, be much diminished. We have a leafy spurge tip gall fly who did a bang-up job this year and we didn’t purchase them–they came in from somewhere else! We also have had the flea beetles who can hammer a plant into submission, and then I hand-pull the ones that go to seed if I get to them in time. Anyone who’s interested in seeing Montana’s invasive, noxious weed list can find it here.

      Sorry this was so long-winded but gawd, I HATE noxious weeds!

  6. Wolfy Avatar

    Neonics can alter the mitosis process in human embryos. In other words, we may be poisoning unborn children with these chemicals. The research has shown that they can move through the food chain and bio-accumulate in tissues; especially reproductive organs! We’re not just killing bees, but ourselves as well.

  7. topher Avatar

    We plant a small raised bed with Tomatillos every year and its amazing how many bees they attract. I buy them from a small local greenhouse and I can’t imagine they are treated seeds but I’ll check before I plant next year. I do notice several different types of bees. Now I’m interested what kinds of bees they are.

  8. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Last year, a coalition of food and environmental groups sued the EPA, demanding more rigorous tests. They say that, in its haste to fast-track a new class of toxins, the agency missed what should have been obvious: They can also kill such desirable insects as butterflies, dragonflies and honeybees. In a critical assessment, the Government Accountability Office — an independent watchdog office within the federal government — agreed, saying agency routinely failed to follow up on required research.

    Nature’s Dying Migrant Worker

  9. Nancy Avatar

    A wonderful site to wander around in. Found it trying to identify a tiny beetle on my Potentilla bushes, that seem to dominate the flowers.

  10. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    This is all rather apropos – I’m reading The Constant Gardener about the horrors of Big Bad Pharma!

    Have a good night –

  11. Nancy Avatar

    Does anyone know if this is the same Bayer that’s manufacturing pesticides? What an evil twist – killing us “softly” with their pesticides while trying to save us with their drugs. A win-win…..

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Little digging and yes, they are!

  12. snaildarter Avatar

    I remember the Alpine Forest acrossd the top of the Smokies was destroyed by acid rain, they blamed it on mites. Mites again I suspect mites are just the fall guy.

    1. Kathleen Avatar

      It’s more complex than just acid rain, I believe; I recalled it being due to an insect called the adelgid that was killing the Fraser firs at high elevation. In fact, I recall seeing an interpretive sign about it up near Clingman’s Dome many years ago. As usual, the non-native invader (in this case an insect, but it’s the same for weeds) found its way over here from elsewhere (in this case, Europe) without any of its natural predators. But you’re right, acid rain is in the mix of threats too:

  13. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    Meadowfoam is a native flower planted in the Willamette valley for its oily seed that blooms early in the spring while the weather is often rainy and cold. As a result some growers are using native bees as pollinators and putting up several nest boxes per field to attract native mason bees

    Meadowfoam is a native flower planted for its oil in the Willamette Valley, Oregon that blooms early in the spring while the weather is often rainy and cold. As a result some growers are using native bees as pollinators and putting up several nest boxes per field to attract mason bees similar to the first image at this site:

  14. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    Sorry about the duplication.

  15. rork Avatar

    I ask my DNR guys the other day why no farmers keep bees inside of the recreation areas near me like they used to – my wild blueberry take has been seriously harmed in the last 15 years, and I finally realized it might be honey bee problems.
    He ask me if I thought they belonged out there, and I was forced to agree that we shouldn’t be pushing the white man’s fly out in wild land. We both wondered how many species of insect have been made extinct in North American thanks to European honey bees.
    Thanks for a level-headed post, admitting some of the uncertainties of neonic effects on bees (and perhaps other things). If any are staunchly anti-neonic they can have their thinking challenged at Science2.0 – not that I agree with them all that often (on medical issues), but it’s a place to see if you are thinking straight, and not caught in an enviro echo chamber. About GMO’s too.

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      Blueberries. Bumper crop of the wild variety in the Ely area this year. Black flies also. Story going around Ely Field Naturalists is that one of the biggest pollinators of wild blueberries is the blood thirsty black fly.

      Loon offspring also affected by black flies. So bad up here this year that 50% or more of loon nests were abandoned.

      So there you have it, the little natural fly that could and does.

      1. JB Avatar

        Sh|t. Does this mean I have to decide between the native black fly and non-native, European honey bee? I hate it when my ideology conflicts with my self-interest.

  16. Yvette Avatar

    I’m going to post this link on DDT killing birds in this MI town on this thread since it is so closely related to the topic. This sounds quite concerning.

    1. Amre Avatar

      Just shows that pesticides can stick around for a long time.

    2. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      It’s hard to believe that these chemicals were developed without a care to what they might do in the environment. I don’t think we’ve learned anything from it either. And why does it take so long to clean up a superfund site? There are so many problems associated with these things – there’s science for ya! IMO, better to avoid a disaster than to live with the consequences years afterwards. Europe is way ahead of us on investigating neocotnoids – we just shrug and forge on ahead, saying that ‘there’s no proof it is harmful’. Why not assume it could be harmful and take steps and proceed with caution, especially after all of the chemical disasters we have had in the past? Like in the link I provided – consumers don’t want to wait for the science until 2018 (when there will probably be another delay), bogged down by government and special interests. They are beginning to refuse to buy products grown with this pesticide, especially where it isn’t necessary.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        I know it is a fine line to walk, bringing important medicines to us while staying competitive and profitable, but still….

  17. Nancy Avatar

    “Insects Facing Mass Extinction

    Unfortunately, over a period of just 100 short years, things have changed so dramatically that this amazing class of species is now under threat. For the first time ever, INSECTS ARE FACING MASS EXTINCTION.

    Let me ask you a question……

    When did you last have to stop your car during a long journey to clean away dead insects from the windscreen?”

  18. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    Thank you, Ralph.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan