Toxic House Syndrome

 In his book Bee Time : Lessons From the Hive, in a chapter entitled ‘A Thousand Little Cuts,’ Mark Winston  describes in exquisite language and detail, “(T)he slow but relentless transformation of beekeeping from a relatively small scale, pastoral occupation directed by a close feeling for nature’s rhythms, with little chemical input and mostly stationery apiaries, to a highly industrialized business where mobility is essential and management is driven by artificial feed, pesticides and antibiotics.”


Colony Collapse Disorder was one of the outcomes of the latter form of management,  and significant energy was devoted to studying the causes.  The initial suspect was a  new disease or pesticide until attention refocused on the synergy between multiple factors, of which pesticides were central, both those applied by farmers in nearby fields and those applied by beekeepers in the hives.


The first significant study came from the Department of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University in 2010 which found 121 different pesticides in wax comb, many with known toxic effects on bees, and an average of 214 ppm of pesticides in stored pollen. Although the latter had been delivered very efficiently to both nectar and pollen by a new class of systemic insecticides called neonicotinoids, Chris Mullin, one of the authors, asserted that “It’s not any one of the pesticides correlating with with decline or health problems; it’s the suite of chemistry and the chemical load that causing the problem.”


In France, Yves LeConte showed higher bee mortality and reduced resistance to diseases when bees were exposed to nosema spores together with a pesticide (imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid) rather than when exposed separately.  At the University of Maryland a study reported that the impact of miticides applied by beekeepers was more severe in the presence of antibiotics, in that the ability of the bees to detoxify and eliminate pesticides was reduced.  


Wanyi Zhu, at PSU, developed a model using invariables such as the reduced nectar and pollen collection from disoriented foragers, the shortened life spans of workers who  begin to forage several days earlier than they normally would, and small increases in larval mortality which caused eventual reductions in the worker bee population, all of which destabilize the age structure of a healthy colony, disrupting the vital balance between eggs, larvae, pupae, workers and foragers.  Remarkably the model mimicked CCD almost perfectly - all seemed well until the colonies suddenly collapsed and died. 


The overall picture of these and many further studies is that small effects on individual bees are amplified as they accumulate in the thousands of workers that make up a colony. Each worker’s functions are only minimally reduced by one exposure but reactions between diseases, miticides and  agricultural pesticides lead to considerably worse outcomes. 


The overarching lesson is one of synergy - disorders act together and escalate exponentially to induce considerably more damage than simple addition would predict. In agriculture, for example, the application of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers have increased at the same time as water becomes an increasingly sensitive resource.  Like the bees, it is not one issue in isolation but the synergy between them that Winston calls ‘the toxic chemical treadmill’ - increased resistance in pests, decreasing biodiversity, habitat reduction, the build up of chemical residues in soil, water and air, and the increasing costs for farmers together with increased rates for petroleum, natural gas and food caused by the war in Ukraine. 


Nor is this limited to bees and agriculture.   Our homes, schools and  workplaces are riddled with a profusion of synthetic compounds in a potentially toxic package.  Winston describes some of the  interactions as described by biologist Sandra Steingrabber in Raising Elijah -  preterm births linked to exposure to combustion products from coal, the connection between asthma and plastics, between learning disabilities, organophosphates and heavy metals, and between autism and chemical exposures in early pregnancy.  With one exception, risk assessment is  based on one material at a time even though we are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of low level toxicants in our food and environment, each of which alone is supposedly safe for us, according to the EPA, but perhaps not in combination.  Why?  Because almost none has been evaluated in groups of two, three, ten or hundreds even though the fate of the bees confirms the regulatory limits to the exposure of single compounds offer little safety. 


Anyone who has picked up a prescription at the local chemist knows what that exception is -  the pharmaceutical industry.  In the US, where people over 55 take anything from 6 to 9 drugs on average, regulatory authorities require exhaustive tests of drug interactions, and even when a drug is approved the side effects are extensively monitored.  (The same monitoring does not apply to products labeled ‘natural’, even though they cram the shelves of the same pharmacy.) 


I feel like I am living in the midst of a CCD epidemic, although I prefer Chris Mullin’s phrase,  toxic house syndrome.  In the 24 hours leading up to this article, over and above the regular acrimonious political news, stories related to climate change (as of mid-October, 2022, there is nowhere on earth where it is safe to drink rainwater)  and fears of a recession, there have been vivid images of child starvation in Sudan and the Yemen, barbaric deaths of civilians in the Ukraine, missiles launched over Japan by North Korea, fears of rising winter fuel costs in Europe, threats of nuclear war by Putin, the bombing of a school in Afghanistan were 50 girls killed as they studied for university entrance exams, and 30 young children killed in a day-care in Thailand. 


When is one cut one too many?  Like CCD, it’s unpredictable, even unforseeable.

I can handle and respond to each issue alone, but it is the synergy between them which is overwhelming to the point that I want to abscond, if not physically then emotionally and mentally.  Yet I also want to stay informed, not to bury my head in the sand.  So what to do, not least as our exposure through modern media is only going to increase?  Incidentally, the evening news programs often end with a ‘feel-good story’ of individual kindness or generosity, but somehow it doesn’t cut it in the face of the preceding stories of overwhelming tragedy and sadness. It’s the old tale of the frog in water on the stove; he doesn’t react as the heat gradually escalates until it is too late and he boils to death.  We may not literally be in the process of incineration but the increasing rates of mental illness may be a symptom of that distress. 


Historically, this is when a populace is tempted to trade its liberty for security, realizing too late that the ‘strong man’ cares little for those who gave him or her that power. 


 In terms of solutions, beekeeping is probably the easy part in that we need to become more bee-centric, meaning managing honey bees in terms of their health and well-being as they have established it over the millennia, rather than for the convenience of the beekeeper.  The environment in which pollinators exist is more challenging, and it is depressing to note that in the coming elections only one percent of the voting population regards climate and environmental issues as their main priority, or that here in York County, according to the latest county profile, of the 253 000 acres of farmland, only one percent is farmed organically. Unfortunately, the environment is controlled by the politicians who in turn are influenced by the deep pockets of industries with their own profit-oriented agendas.  Bee colonies, by contrast, remain in the hands of the beekeepers. As with our toxic houses, schools and workplaces (consider children bussed to school in vehicles belching diesel fumes)  education is a vital part of the solution, and meanwhile I vote with my wallet by making purchases in line with my values, as happened with the anti-smoking movement a generation ago.  And lets not forget how one amazing person - a Rachel Carson, John Muir, David Thoreau, Ralph Nader, Greta Thunberg - can make a difference as long as we also play our part. 


Ultimately the solution involves reducing pesticide use and diversifying farms in a way that enhance both our food security and the natural world on which we depend.  There is much research to show that this is economically realistic; the challenge is to change the current mindset which is beset with inertia.  I’m reminded of the many predictions in the 1900’s that the automobile had no long term future and that it was physically impossible for a man-carrying machine to fly!


That leaves our exposure to incessant stories and images of brutality, criminality, denial, irresponsibility and cruelty to the innocent.  I guess we each have our own solutions, which for me include recognizing my meaningful sphere of influence and acting within it.    Honey bees are an essential part of this.  How often am I asked, “How are the bees doing?” which provides an opening to discuss wider issues. I can be creative in ways to help them, and I get to appreciate a creature and an environment that has, like us, survived and prospered through collaboration.  


‘How are the bees are doing’ offers other specific reactions as well.   Common lore has it that a honey bee starts working immediately she leaves her birth cell and doesn’t stop until she dies of fatigue some five weeks later.   In fact in 1983 an English research, Walter Kaiser, showed that bees sleep anywhere between 5 and 8 hours a day, According to Jurgen Tautz, young bees sleep for shorter periods than foragers and are fond of “cat naps.” Conversely, adult foragers have a sleep pattern that mimics a human adult -  a night of long deep sleep -  reflecting  the arduous demands of foraging.  They are what Mark Winston calls ‘restaholics rather than workaholics.’ 


This pattern can change.  If stressed, perhaps by a drop in population, the workers begin foraging at an earlier age and return with heavier loads.  But they die younger, a trade-off that is good for the colony but tough on  individuals.  


When sleep deprived, their waggle dance is impacted negatively,  affecting both those performing the dance as well as the observers, which in turn results in less efficient foraging. And according to a report in Nature in June, 2020, sleep disturbances show impairments in both metabolism and memory consolidation.  It doesn’t matter that I am a sloppy dancer, but it does to a bee!`


Although honey bees don’t mirror the exact sleep patterns of humans, there are many similarities. Like honey bees, humans tend to sleep at night so we can have the energy to do demanding jobs during the day. Both human’s and bee’s body temperatures decrease during sleep, they move less, and it is more difficult to wake them when they are in a deep sleep stage.  The lesson for humans is that rest builds a potential for work that can be utilized when our personal professional and personalized lives are challenged, not to mention the implications for our lifespan. 


The term multi-tasking initially defined the ability of microprocessors to do more than one job at a time.  It works well for computers but not so well for people - switching contexts leads to inadequate focus and thus human error.  One example will suffice : auto accidents are four times more likely when driving while talking on a cell phone, which is the same rate as driving while drunk.  


Honey bees also perform many functions during a lifetime, but they do them one at a time, from cleaning out the birth cell to foraging for resources.   They may not be intelligent in the conventional sense, but they are single minded.  The obvious lesson for us in our stressful world is to be present in the moment, much as many beekeepers are when they are in the apiary - calm, focused and without distraction. 


In a chapter titled Bees in the City, Mark Winston describes his appreciation for that ‘sweet spot where nature on one hand and human ingenuity and commerce on the other are in equilibrium.  Bees literally connect one generation of plants to the next … but also pass on values and a sense of belonging to each other and to the generations to come.”





| Reply

Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my