Dead Swiss Bees

Dead pollen-collecting bees

Something odd was killing bees in Switzerland. It was sudden. It was peculiar. It was devastating. This past spring – in April, 2014 – beekeepers in the Zäziwil and Möschberg region found almost 200 colonies dying. They quickly recognized signs of poisoning. Local farmers denied using neonicotinoids or other insecticides. They were honest. They had not. Yet nearby bees were in rough shape.

Swiss investigators moved in. They demanded the farmers’ receipts. What had the farmers bought? What had they used? The investigators discovered that orchards in the area had been treated with the fungicide Folpet, which is allowed in Switzerland. Folpet is not an insecticide, it is a pesticide. The pests that it attacks are fungi. This fungicide is closely related to a much older fungicide, captan, which some of my more ancient readers will recall from their childhood. I do. I fondly remember running in a white cloud of dust, chasing after the family tractor as my father planted long rows of captan-treated seed potatoes. Because of the treatment, our potatoes did not suffer from Rhizoctonia, and neither did I. Recently, the EPA stated that captan and its sister fungicide Folpet are non-carcinogenic, except in “high doses and prolonged exposure.” Interesting. Used in orchards, captan and Folpet enhance the outer beauty of fruits – making them spot-free and shiny. This may be why I was allowed to follow in captan’s shadow when I was a child.

I have brought you no closer to finding the Swiss bees’ killers. But we’ve learned something about the fungicide Folpet. And so did the Swiss inspectors. They learned that the Folpet came from a factory is Israel. The factory also makes a non-neonicotinoid insecticide called Fipronil, which is banned in Switzerland. Just before making the Swiss batch of the fungicide, the factory had filled American and Brazilian orders for Fipronil. Allegedly there was still some insecticide in the factory’s system when the fungicide was made. It seems that the equipment was not cleaned before they started to produce Folpet. The Swiss government removed the suspect batches from their local market.

This story points out how tough it is to avoid poisoning our honey bees. The farmers were not using insecticides (or so they thought); the Swiss government had outlawed Fipronil and it could not enter the country (or so they thought); and the bees were pollinating fruit trees and collecting life-sustaining pollen (or so they thought). If this is the story in its entirety, it also suggests that even a small amount of poison (the residual left in a system when the factory switched from fungicide to insecticide) can kill a lot of bees.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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