Possible Connection Between Roundup and Colony Collapse Disorder

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Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been devastating honeybee colonies across much of the country and world during the past few years. There have been many theories about the cause of this calamity. Research from the University of Montana is leaning toward a combination of viral and fungal factors as the cause, which hasn’t been proven, but is among the many suspects causing CCD. Insecticides have also been pointed to more and more, but perhaps this is not quite the right direction in which we should be looking. Perhaps we should be looking at Roundup, which presently is the most commonly used herbicide in the world.

I have been keeping bees for 55 years, with up to 250 colonies in some years, and producing an average high of 200 pounds of honey per colony. Through selective breeding 20 years ago, I produced a Carniolan/Caucasian strain of honeybees, which seemed to be resistant to mites, wintered well using very little honey, and were gentle and very good honey producers. All of these bees were decimated by sprays in 1996, when planes sprayed neighboring fields of soybeans every three weeks from mid-June to August 20. Thousands of acres were sprayed over a period of four or five days each time, some of these acres within a quarter mile of my yard. There were no dead bees in front of the hives to document the losses; the colonies just collapsed, then would almost recover within three weeks, only to be devastated once more. The colonies were all dead by the end of September. The commercial farmer claimed that his planes were only spraying Roundup, not insecticides, so there should be no damage to my honeybees.

As far as I am concerned, Roundup is causing Colony Collapse Disorder. It has been the major cause of my bee losses for the past 13 years. I explain what Roundup does to a bee colony, think about how your bees have reacted at different times of the spring and summer during the past few years. Perhaps you’ve experienced some of the same problems, but never made any kind of connection between the losses and the spraying of Roundup.

Have you lost good young queens in the middle of a honey flow, or in the spring when the colony was in the midst of expanding? Have you had colonies that didn’t expand during the late spring, even though they had lots of brood every time you looked at them? Have your colonies experienced spring dwindling to such a point they either abscond or die? Have you been forced to feed your colonies to keep them alive? Have you looked into your colonies and seen dead, sealed brood outside the cluster of bees? Have you lost colonies within a period of just a few weeks? When these colonies are gone, is there still sealed brood in the center of the area where the cluster was? Have you put new packages of bees into hives with beautiful used brood comb, only to have the bees abscond or disappear within two weeks after installing them? Do you have an unusually high loss of queens in the spring, either from your packages or from your overwintered hives?  If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you may have been exposed to Roundup!

Twenty years ago, by raising my own queens for years and never bringing in new queens, I developed a strain of honeybees that I think were superior to any I could buy. They were gentle, and I never had to use smoke to take care of them. They had varroa mites, but lived with them without the need for chemicals. The mites were not an economic problem. The hives overwintered using almost no honey, with many of the hives still containing almost a full super of honey (the part of a beehive that is used to collect honey) left in the spring. They were good workers, bringing in as many as 10 to 12 medium supers of extracted honey or 10 supers of Ross Rounds in one season. The bees never swarmed — I lost no swarms from 250 hives for two years in a row — while producing the crops of honey.

Before the first aerial spraying in mid-June of 1996, each colony had 10 deep frames of brood and a bee population filling 2 to 3 supers. A few days after the first Roundup flight, each hive was left with insufficient bees to keep the 10 frames of brood warm, so the outer frames on each side of the cluster would chill and die. In three weeks, enough brood would have hatched, so the colonies would have enough bees to once again cover the 10 frames of brood. The chilled frames of brood would be cleaned out and the queen would be once again filling them with eggs and brood. During this time all of the honey in the supers was used to feed the brood. Three weeks later another aerial spraying would occur, and this time there would only be enough bees left to cover a couple of frames of brood. The other eight frames of brood would be chilled, as we had several cold nights in a row, which is sometimes common in our northern Illinois climate. It seemed that two sprays, which occurred within four weeks, were all it took to kill the whole colony. But the plane kept spraying every three weeks all summer. The bees never had a chance, and all of the hives were dead before winter.

Over the years I have tried to find out which insecticides were responsible for the loss of these honeybee colonies. I purchased new bees each spring for the last 13 years, only to find them all dead by fall. Many times the farmers insisted they were not using insecticides, only Roundup, and yet the bees still disappeared. When I complained to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, inspectors were sent out to assess my losses. Their final decision was that they could find no illegal use of pesticides. Legal or not legal, my bees were dying.

State bee inspectors came to view my colonies and stated I had foulbrood (a bacterial infection) in all of my hives. I told the bee inspectors they didn’t have to come back until they could tell the difference between foulbrood and chilled brood, and until that time they were doing a disservice to the beekeeping industry. Those same hives and equipment have been used ever since with no sign of dead brood until after a spray event occurs.

I have since determined that if Roundup is last used from mid- to late-August, the hives cannot recover enough to even make it into the winter, unless they receive lots of feed, sugar syrup and/or honey. The queens may have been killed, but if not, there may still not be enough bees left to take care of any brood they do have — especially if there is a cold, wet fall — and the colony will die. Even if the beekeeper adequately feeds the colonies, the hives may be found empty of bees later in the season. The bees may have just absconded.

In this area, Roundup is the major cause of spring dwindling. Colonies may be strong coming out of the winter, but after Roundup has been applied within one mile of the colonies, their populations will rapidly dwindle unless they have plenty of food left or are fed.  If the Roundup is used before the colonies are flying well, the hives may survive if they still have about 40 pounds of honey. I put a full super of honey on one surviving hive this last spring and the bees used almost all of it to get their population back to health.

What does Roundup Do? 

Roundup kills the field force, or at least makes them so sick they do not come back to the hive. A beekeeper never finds enough dead bees near the hives to send in to be tested. How can you walk over 16 square miles looking for dead bees?

Many of the field bees are killed soon after the spray, depending on how close the field is to where the hives are located. If the sprayed field is within one mile of the hives, the hives that were foraging in that direction lose their field force within three days. Other hives will lose their field force more gradually. But, within a week, all colonies will be about the same. The problem is that if they are not killed outright, these workers will bring back contaminated food to the hive to be used to feed the young. If a colony has 20,000 to 40,000 bees in its field force, a lot of contaminated food is brought back and stored in the hive before the field force dies.

Something eventually makes the bees sick, and any beekeeper knows that a sick bee will leave its hive so the rest of the colony may remain healthy and other bees do not have to take the time to carry out their dead bodies. It seems that Roundup gets into the royal jelly gland of the workers and the larva that are fed this food die. If a queen lays over 3,000 eggs per day, she may be killed by this poisoned royal jelly. The colony then tries to re-queen, but because all of the young queens are fed the same poisoned food, they may die in their cells. So within two weeks the colony will be queen-less, with no young larva and no way to raise a new queen. Such a hive must have a queen added, or it will die soon after.

If a hive has little extra food in the hive, the newly hatched bees try to fill the void and become the new field force, so they can get the necessary food for the hives’ survival. These bees are also dead within a day or two in the field. If the hive has plenty of food, the new bees that have just hatched don’t have to leave the hive to find the necessary food, and the hive may possibly recover. But it will be at least three weeks before things will start to get back to semi-normal in the hive. When farmers spray Roundup every three weeks, the hives have just started to get back to normal when their populations are sent into another tailspin.

If the colony does not have sufficient food in-house and the weather is inclement and/or cold, the hive may be dead within two weeks. The only thing remaining in that hive will be some sealed brood, some of which have hatching bees that have died part way out of their cells, having starved with their tongues hanging out.  Even if the hive survives there will be dead, sealed brood outside the now-reduced bee cluster, which has chilled. These cell cappings remain raised — not sunken like is seen with foulbrood — for over five years. But a bee inspector who can’t tell the difference will diagnose the hive as having foulbrood. I do not doubt that there may be some foulbrood spores found in this comb, but there are probably many other viruses found there as well, which some university research studies are finding and trying to blame for Colony Collapse Disorder. These universities are not looking in the right direction for the true cause of what killed the colony.

Until Roundup is banned, we will have to live with it. That means we are going to have to watch our hives closely at all times, and watch out for spraying in the vicinity. This spraying does not have to be just aerial spraying; it could be tractor or truck spraying, which has the same effect. It may be aggravated by other chemicals, but most of the time the farmers near my hives claim that they have been using nothing other than Roundup.

The best colonies will be the ones that lose their queens. The queens don’t have to be old. They may be only 2 months old, but if laying at full speed, over 3,000 eggs per day, they may die from being fed this poisoned royal jelly. If this happens, the chances of the colony being able to raise a new queen to replace her is almost nil, for most of the young larva will be fed this same poisoned food. Even though the colony survived I have lost many of my best queens because of this and new queens had to be added. At first I didn’t know what was happening, but after watching very closely and keeping records I have finally put two and two together. My three observation hives in the office have been a real blessing as I have been able to watch what has been occurring in my other hives.  

Whenever a beekeeper finds the size of his/her hive cluster rapidly reduced to about a quarter of its original size, be concerned. When almost half of the workers are fuzzy, showing they are freshly hatched, the beekeeper knows that the other half of the bees are just a few days old. If this is the case, the beekeeper wants to be sure that there is plenty of food available for the hive, so these young bees don’t have to leave the hive to find food. In a normal hive, the fuzzy bees account for less than one out of every 20 bees, unless the beekeeper is looking in the brood nest where the young bees are hatching, he or she normally doesn’t notice the fuzzy bees.

Roundup doesn’t just get into the honey and/or pollen, but it migrates into the comb. Once it is in the comb, the bees don’t like to even walk on the comb. If many combs become contaminated with this chemical, the bees will actually abscond the hive, leaving fresh brood behind, which will be chilled within a day or two.  This may occur in a strong or weak hive, causing what some would call Colony Collapse Disorder, except I know the cause. It may happen in May, June or even September.

I put a frame of this contaminated dark comb into a two-frame observation hive, placing the contaminated comb in the bottom of the hive, with foundation in the frame above it. When I placed some new bees and a queen into the hive, the bees tried to keep as far away from this contaminated comb as possible. They started to draw out (build cells out from the foundation of a honey frame) the foundation in the top frame from the upper two corners and would not even walk on the comb in the lower frame. After about a week when the foundation in the top frame was about half drawn out, the bees finally absconded the hive, leaving young brood and eggs behind. They had never used a single cell in the contaminated comb.

So I took that frame out and scraped this contaminated comb off of the plasticell foundation. Then I coated this plasticell foundation with clean wax and put it back in the hive. When I placed a new queen and workers in the hive they drew out the foundation on both frames and I never saw any more ill effects of the poison that year.   

Another two-frame observation hive was created using the bottom frame for brood when Roundup was applied over a half-mile away from the hive in August. The brood away from the reduced cluster died. The smaller cluster of bees continued to raise brood in the top frame and, while being fed, they made it through the winter. But the next spring when the cluster was expanding, they needed both frames for brood. Instead of using this old comb, they tore it down and built out new comb on the plasticell foundation.

Even though there was plenty of brood and the cluster should have been expanding, it did not expand while the bees were tearing this comb down. It seemed that the bees that worked on tearing this comb apart died, so there was a constant drain on the population in the hive. This old comb was not removed from the hive, but was dropped to the bottom of the hive. There the bees covered it, (comb pieces piled a half of an inch thick across the whole bottom of the hive) with propolis, like they would a dead mouse. After that was done, then the hive population started to expand and is still going two years later, issuing swarms each summer.    

Two years ago, by closely monitoring the hives which were being used for my beginning beekeeping class, I was able to gather circumstantial evidence that every time the herbicide Roundup was used by neighboring farmers, my colonies were affected. Hives were affected differently depending on how much excess honey had been stored in the hive at the time, how much brood was being raised, how close the sprayed field was to the hives, what target plant was being sprayed, how much time had passed since the last spray, what other blooming plants were near the sprayed fields and what the weather was like at the time of the spray application. Research must still be done to determine how all of these factors affect the honeybees.

The colony’s field force was lost 100 percent of the time. How fast a colony recovered from this loss depended on some of the other factors listed above. Sometimes the queens were killed, as well as some of the brood and field force. Because of this I believe that something is brought back to the hives in either the honey or pollen that gets into the royal jelly, which the queen and larva are fed, and is strong enough to kill the recipients of this food. A queen in a strong hive laying from 3,500 to 4,000 eggs per day is fed copious amounts of royal jelly from many different bees. If enough of them have this chemical in their royal jelly, or if this chemical is being concentrated in the royal jelly-producing gland in the worker’s heads, the queen would be the biggest receptor in the hive, and thus would be most affected by such a chemical. A couple of my best, most prolific queens disappeared from their hives just a few days after the sprays were used the past two summers. All young unsealed larva was also killed.

We still must determine the answers to several questions: How do 100 percent of the field bees die during the initial spray, even if they are not all out in that field at the time of the spray? How do they pick up the spray after the event? Do they accumulate the poison by walking on the sprayed plants, or do they accumulate it from the nectar, or from the pollen of the plants they are working? How many days, or hours, does it take for a worker bee to lose the ability to fly, or to be unable to find its way back to the hive?

Because there is something affecting the brood and queens, some of the workers must be able to make at least one or two trips back to the hive to bring this chemical back with them. How does the chemical eventually kill the workers that do get back? How long does it take after a spray event before the complete field force has disappeared?  These are all questions for which we need an answer.

Living with Roundup: What Can Be Done? 

I recommend that a beekeeper check his or her colonies at least once each week to determine how strong the populations are and how much honey stores are available to the bees. The colony must also be checked to ensure the queen is still laying eggs. If the queen has died, the chances are very poor that the colony will be able to raise a new one from any of its own brood. They may try, but the odds are that all of the young queens will die in their cells. A new queen or a sealed queen cell must be introduced, or the colony will die very shortly.  Of course, there is no guarantee, for it may die or abscond even then.

If the queen is still laying eggs but there are less than two full frames of sealed honey available to the bees, the colony must be fed immediately. It does not matter whether sugar syrup is fed or frames of sealed honey are used. Feeding must be continued until the colony has at least six frames of brood with three frames of food available. Feeding must be done, whether it is spring, summer or fall. Feeding the hive is the only hope the colony has of surviving.

Old combs should not be used if the hives have been exposed to Roundup previously. Be sure to use fresh foundation to start out your new packages, or when capturing a new swarm, to lessen any problems with contaminated combs. If you are using plasti-cell foundation, the old comb can be scraped off, but then you need to re-wax the foundation with uncontaminated wax.

I urge all of the bee supply companies that are making beeswax foundation to get their beeswax checked for Roundup residue.

Living with Roundup is not easy. If the farmers use Roundup more than once during the summer, there is almost no way to keep the hives alive. Exposure to Roundup once may not kill the hive, but it will reduce the population so much that the bees may not be strong enough to gather excess honey for the beekeeper that season. If the only use of Roundup occurs in early- to mid-April, the hive may gather some excess honey, but only if the beekeeper is on top of the situation and feeds the hives liberally, immediately. If the exposure occurs in mid-June or later, the beekeeper will be lucky to have the hives alive with adequate stores for going into winter. If the Roundup is used in August, there is almost no hope of getting the hive populations strong enough to make it through the winter, even if they are fed very liberally.  Some neighboring beekeepers are even considering the possibility of killing off their hives in the fall and starting with new bee packages each spring, for they’re losing too many hives even though they spend a lot of effort and money to feed their hives in both spring and fall.

Because of my experiences, I firmly believe that Roundup is the major cause of Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees in the United States. It should be banned for any use within two miles of honeybees. I would like to receive comments from other beekeepers about their experiences with Roundup.

Terrence N. Ingram was raised, and still lives, on his family farm near Apple River, Wis. where he had been responsible for the breeding of Registered Guernseys and Horned Dorset Sheep before he developed Farmer’s Lung and could no longer work with hay. As a commercial beekeeper with up to 250 hives, he and his wife sell over 15 tons of honey a year. After sprays wiped out his bees, he still teaches beekeeping classes and sells close to four tons of honey a year. For four years, he had a column in the monthly American Bee Journal and, for the past 19 years, has published the monthly Small Beekeepers Journal. He was also instrumental in starting the Stateline Beekeepers Association in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.