Bees Poisoned by Pesticides

Happy bee and a pesticide free tree dahlia

Happy bee on a pesticide-free tree dahlia

I think all of the colonies will survive.

I start with that sentence because it wasn’t what I always thought. There was a 24 hour period where my husband and I were sure we were overseeing the death of the apiary because we’d done something really stupid. Or, more likely, not done something really obvious to more experienced beekeepers.

One morning, about a month ago, I was looking at the apiary – something I do pretty much every day, often multiple times in a day. One of the hives had a huge pile of dead bees in front of it. I came in and told my husband and he confirmed he’d seen the same thing the afternoon before. I breathed a sigh of relief thinking they’d been building up since autumn is here and maybe there were a lot of drones and… Then my husband said he’d cleaned away all the dead bees when he spotted them which means the many handfuls of bee carcasses I’d seen had appeared in a 12 hour period.

The morning pile of dead-bees. More were added throughout the day

The morning pile of dead-bees. More were added throughout the day

There was a lot of soul searching, running too and from the apiary, external hive inspections (we were afraid to open a sick hive when it was cold outside)… There were maybe 6 of the 23 hives affected – 2 really badly. We started to wonder what kind of illness was sweeping through the hives, could we save any of them, what we should do?

Then we did what all newish beekeepers should do, if they can, when they have a problem they’ve never come across before, we talked to a couple of experienced apiarists and they were both convinced that the hives had been poisoned. The main reason for their conviction was that all diseases that affect honey bees affect the brood, not the adult bees. Hence, our worker bees were going somewhere and eating something that was killing them.

The second thing I did was the other thing newish beekeepers should do when confronted by a new concern, I searched the internet. I found that one symptom of bees dying of poisoning is that they die with their proboscis extended. I went back and checked and, sadly, most of the poor little bees died just that way. I don’t want to know why they do that, it’s just too sad.

Dead bees with proboscis extended

Dead bees with proboscis extended

We took several steps at this point:

1) We asked one of the local farmers if he knew of any spraying in the area. He didn’t and said it’s a funny time of year to spray.

2) We phoned the Department of Primary Industries, they’re the government body that covers honey bees, who passed us to their vet who asked us to collect samples of the bees and post them in a normal envelope to their lab. They would check for diseases. We’ve received the report and our bees are disease free (phew).

WP_20140416_0113) We called the EPA, they are the government organisation who worries about environmental poisons. They asked us to freeze some honey comb and dead bees for them to collect for testing. A few days later, Dave, came by and did just that. He got all the pertinent details and told us he’d let us know in a month if they’d found out what had killed our bees. The reality is that there probably isn’t anything he can do even if he determines what has happened except maybe the data can be used to tighten labelling laws, recommended usage and even possibly add to the weight of knowledge about the negative side effects of chemicals. We’re still waiting for this report.

4) A very experienced apiarist came out and checked every one of our hives and found them all healthy and he’s confident they are strong enough to survive the winter even with the field bees killed off.

All of this was happening when we were preparing to requeen the hives. They’ve since been requeened, all queens are laying and the hives are looking good. There are still way more bee deaths than we’d like (new hives seem to be suffering now) but those little ladies are soldiering on and, fingers crossed, will get through the winter with no major side effects of the poisoning.

One interesting observation is the way the bees take care of their dead. In the morning the board in front of the hive is basically empty. Then, by about 10, when the bees are very active, a pile of dead bees appears. The house bees must sweep the bottom of the hive in the mornings. Then, by about 3:00 pm, the board is almost clean again. In front of the board, in the grass, is a new pile of dead bees. It looks like they clean the inside of the hive with the highest priority and then work on the surrounding area. Some of the hives aren’t as finicky about cleaning the surrounding area, but most like to keep an area about one foot in front of the hive free of dead bees. Sounds totally sensible to me.

Morning with dead bees on the board and yesterday's dead in the grass

Morning with dead bees on the board and yesterday’s dead in the grass

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’m thinking it takes a community to raise a colony of bees. Without the blogosphere, apiarists who are generous with their time and the government organisations who actually roll up their sleeves to investigate the problem, we’d be pulling our hair out. I’m not sure how much the government agencies would be doing if it weren’t for the fact that the bees we care for are owned by The Wheen Bee Foundation, an organisation established to promote honey bee health and success in Australia, but they have been incredibly helpful, sympathetic and I’m reassured by their comments that it is NOT okay for farmers to spray pesticides in a manner that will kill bee colonies. Now, we just need to find a way to close the gap between that assertion and the reality that is killing so many bees around the globe.

Here’s a photo of the apiary taken this morning. It’s late May (think about it, that’s like saying late November for you in the Northern Hemisphere) and the hives are really active. I just wish there was more for the girls to collect on their foraging flights.

The apiary in late May

The apiary in late May





About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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18 Responses to Bees Poisoned by Pesticides

  1. wendy says:

    I’m so sorry for you and your bees. I’m sad for all your hard work & for your beautiful bees.

    • Thanks. The truth is, my “work” was mainly to sit around worrying. The bees work hard 7 days a week and died in their selfless efforts to bring back food for the colony. It is very sad.

  2. Lee Griffin says:

    Thanks Laura
    very informative
    cheers Lee

  3. Hope all goes well. My beekeeper friend Michel had a similar problem a couple of weeks ago. He had masses of his bees returning and dying. Others were acting strangely and going into neighbours houses and stinging people. A farmer had been spraying a nearby field in the daytime. This is against the law in France. What good is it passing laws when there is no compliance? Does it just satisfy the campaigning that “there is law” – success! success! Amelia

    • I feel for Michel. It’s so much worse in Europe where you have Varroa mite to worry about on top of all the manmade bee dangers. I haven’t bothered to look at the size of the fine for breaking the kinds of laws you’re talking about here in Australia. I’m sure it’s at the level where a farmer would rather pay the odd fine than modify his practices. Our only real hope is for farmers to understand that they need the bees more than the bees need them. We won’t have melons or cucumbers or tomatoes or… without bees. What self-respecting farmer would put our food security at risk?

      • I think a farmer that doesn’t really understand what all the fuss is about. Media coverage and more understanding and empathy need to go hand in hand with laws that are difficult to enforce.

        • Agreed. In Australia honey bees are getting a lot of press but it’s mostly about the bad climate, fires and floods which have cut honey production. I think we’ve got a long way to go before farmers sit up and make a change on their own.

  4. Reblogged this on luzdeaurora2012 and commented:
    What pesticides are doing…not just USA

  5. I’m sorry about your bees. I’m also sad to hear the news about Michel’s bees. Our family uses a lot of honey, and we know that’s just one of the services bees provide.
    Around our home here in southern Ontario, the large bumble bees seem to be flourishing. Either that, or they just really like my garden.
    Herbicides are banned here, and some pesticides, but still allowed for certain (non-household) uses.

    • The “problem” (one of their benefits actually) with bees is that they can travel several miles when foraging. We’re so careful to make a nice little environment for them here. A large variety of plants, lots of flowers, no chemical, yet still the little girls fly and fly and find pesticides elsewhere. I’m glad you take such good care of your bumblebees. I don’t think they fly nearly as far as honey bees and so they probably really benefit from your lack of poisons.

  6. kerry regan says:

    Compliance! I live by compliance. But it goes to far sometimes. You can not write compliance laws to cover all aspects of farming or other industries. If you do try then the net gets cast to wide and it effects many inosent people and animals. It is very difficult dealing with greed and selfish behavior. A true farmer should be in touch with the earth not destroying the very things that enrich it. Thank you for a very informative blog. The world is a better place with your care and attention. All the best. Kerry

    • I know what you mean about laws going too far, being too numerous, sometimes even contradictory. I really think it’s best if farmers wake up to the realities that their short term “fixes” can cause long term problems and modify their behaviour in spite of compliance laws.

  7. So sorry to hear about this! I can imagine how distressing such a sight would be, especially as you have no real explanation for it.

    • We were totally freaked out and sure we were committing some atrocity. You’ve no idea what a relief it was to find out it wasn’t our fault and that the colonies all should survive. I do my best to think of each hive as a colony and steel myself against individual deaths, but the scale of this was more than my not-calloused-enough heart liked.

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