Beekeepers Agree: The Biggest Threat to Honeybees Isn't Pesticides

May 18, 2017

What is the biggest threat to honeybees in Washington state? The answer from two experienced beekeepers who testified before the Senate this week was unequivocal. The varroa mite, not pesticides, is the primary cause of increased hive mortality in recent years. Further, both agreed that the threat from pesticides has actually declined in the past decade. One reason is that newer pesticides, like neonicitinoids (neonics), are less dangerous than what came before.

It is a message legislators and those in the environmental community, like Environment Washington, should heed when they push to ban neonics. They are likely to do much more harm than good.

First to testify was Eric Olson, a Yakima commercial beekeeper, who was very clear about what is causing increased mortality. “It is not pesticides. It is not neonics.” He noted the primary problem is the varroa mite, which attaches itself to bees, weakening them and is also a vector for diseases. He offers a nice three-minute explanation of the problem in the video below.


He did note that pesticides have been a problem in the past for beekeepers. Discussing a major hive loss he suffered in 2011, he said he believed the problem was a pesticide known as pyrethroids. This highlights the danger of banning alternative pesticides like neonicotinoids.

Europe has banned neonics and the European Commission reports the result is an increase in the use of pyrethroids. In the UK, for example, the percentage of farmers using pyrethroids increased from 60 percent to 95 percent and the frequency of treatment increased nearly 500 percent. For honeybees, this is a significant step backwards.

Testifying with Mr. Olson was Tim Hiatt who agreed that mites were the primary threat to honeybees. He said pesticides can harm honeybees but that the threat from pesticides had diminished significantly in the past decade.

Although varroa mites are the primary cause of increased hive mortality, there is no single cause of hive death. USDA studies find a range of causes. Mindlessly banning neonics simply because they are the environmental cause du jour, however, will make life harder for farmers and may make it harder for beekeepers as well.