Blog | Vermont Farm to Food
BARDA, Department of Defense, and SAb Biotherapeutics to Partner to Develop a Novel COVID-19 Therapeutic
Published by Medical Counter Measures
A therapeutic to treat novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is moving forward in development through a partnership between BARDA, the Department of Defense Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense (JPEO – CBRND), and SAb Biotherapeutics, Inc. (SAb), of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Using an interagency agreement with JPEO’s Medical CBRN Defense Consortium, BARDA transferred approximately $7.2 million in funding to (JPEO – CBRND) to support SAb to complete manufacturing and preclinical studies, with an option to conduct a Phase 1 clinical trial.
Bovine plasma donors genetically engineered to produce human antibodies are in the front lines of the struggle against coronavirus.
SAB Biotherapeutics, a Sioux Falls, S.D., biotechnology company that has been successfully testing use of antibodies from cows to fight diseases such as another coronavirus, Middle East respiratory syndrome, now is engaged in developing a treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Chestnuts harvested from high branches on a chilly fall morning look typical: they’re marble sized, russet colored and nestled in prickly burs. But many are like no other nuts in nature.
In a feat of genetic engineering, about half the chestnuts collected at this college experiment station feature a gene that provides resistance to blight that virtually wiped out the American chestnut tree generations ago.
For centuries, physicians have been controlling human diseases using all the tools available to them: proper nutrition of patients, sanitation, early disease diagnosis and intervention through medicines, including those derived from natural sources, chemicals and with more recent innovations, such as gene editing.
Likewise, farmers also control plant and animal diseases using the same approaches — proper plant and animal nutrition, sanitation, early disease diagnosis and intervention through natural, chemical and genetic sources.
Renegade bakers and geneticists develop whole-wheat loaves you’ll want to eat
BY VERONIQUE GREENWOOD BOSTON GLOBE
riving up through the rolling farmland north of Seattle this July, I was thinking about my next meal. I arrived in the small industrial park, home to the Washington State University Bread Lab, for a gathering of wheat geneticists and other grain professionals. I’d missed the explanation of the items on the buffet tables, made by attendees. I loaded my plate with about a pound of cookies from the dessert end and steadily consumed the lot. They were soft and nutty, with a rich ruddy color and a delicate crumb. I wiped buttery crumbs from my fingers. I went back for more.
“What are these?” I asked the volunteer by the coffee pots, brandishing a blondie bar. “I’m not sure,” she said. They must be made from some delicious heirloom grain, or something, I thought, surreptitiously loading my pockets.
They’re whole wheat, the lab’s head, Stephen Scott Jones, later told me. One hundred percent. That was a surprise; whole wheat baked goods are often eaten more out of obligation than pleasure. They are not known for their can’t-stop-eating flavor. And yet, the Bread Lab is making its name by doing something that is almost unique in the industry: Breeding wheat — especially wheat for whole wheat flour — for taste. They and their collaborators across the country have quietly launched an effort that they hope will create something new — a whole wheat loaf that people would actually like to eat.
Wheat breeders who develop new strains for the global market aim for traits like the right height for mechanized harvesting, the right texture for mechanized baking, and a high yield. As odd as it sounds, flavor more or less faded from breeders’ awareness somewhere along the line. Jones says that for most of his decades-long career as a breeder, it was not discussed. At the same time, knowledge of the importance of whole grains has been on the rise: Eating whole wheat and other unrefined grains correlates with better heart health, healthier weight, and even longer life, according to epidemiological studies.
So maybe the time is right. At the Bread Lab’s headquarters this summer, a plucky group of about 40 bakers, millers, breeders, and others met to test-bake a loaf they’ve been discussing and fine-tuning for the last two years. They call it the Approachable Loaf.
The loaf they’re all dreaming of has a simple recipe. Start, first of all, with the right wheat for the job. The lab grows thousands of newly generated strains of wheat every year to test them. Steve Lyon, the Bread Lab’s head technician, took me out to one of the experimental fields this summer, where the stalks stood in a patchwork of yellows and tans, all different heights and shapes. The researchers make the same basic test loaf from the freshly milled flour — whole wheat goes rancid quickly, so using fresh-milled is important — and then they taste it. They have identified one new wheat, which they’ve dubbed Skagit 1109, that makes a reliably tasty whole wheat bread. For the moment, a bakery making the Approachable Loaf will likely have to use commodity wheat, but ideally, they’ll develop better options.
The story of bread as we’ve known it is the story of our food system as a whole: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the advance of technology on farms, in mills, and in factories allowed the mass production of foods from an ever-longer list of ingredients, both natural and artificial. The Approachable Loaf symbolizes something else — the possibility that, through the application of science, even a food as humble and maligned as whole wheat bread can be both simpler and tastier.
Nutritionally, whole wheat flour is better for you than white. The germ and the bran, the portions of the wheat kernel with the most fiber and other nutrients, stay in whole wheat flour when it’s milled, giving it its distinctive dark color. But they usually curb your desire to put it in your mouth. Compared to the seductive quality of a good white sourdough — tangy and just a little stretchy — or even the gentle squish of a soft white grocery store loaf, melting seamlessly into a slab of grilled cheese, the ashy, faintly bitter whole wheat loaf is no competition.
The battle between light and dark in the matter of bread is longer and weirder than most people realize. While many might assume the rise of whole wheat bread as a health food started with the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, anthropologist Aaron Bobrow-Strain traces it back far earlier. Over thousands of years, the color of bread has carried various meanings, he writes in his book “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.” Hearty dark loaves were better for building a society than wimpy white ones, Plato argued in “The Republic”; Socrates, on the other hand, felt whole-meal bread was essentially animal food.
By the 19th century in the United States, activists claimed whole wheat would bring people closer to God, and thus to health. One influential obsessive was Sylvester Graham, the New England minister who gave his name to the graham cracker. A sickly child, he eventually turned to vegetarianism as an adult. Today, he might have started a blog about clean eating. Eating foods in their most natural form, like whole wheat, was what God intended man to do, Graham argued in lectures that caused riots in Boston and New York, and anything that was wrong with you could be taken care of with whole wheat bread and water.
Grahamism had adherents of all stripes: Educational reformer Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” founded a farm commune northwest of Boston to live in the manner prescribed by the movement. It lasted only seven months. Louisa May, who was 10 at the time, later lampooned the endeavor in her satire “Transcendental Wild Oats.” She noted that the vast majority of the labor fell to women and children, while the men sat around discussing the philosophy of food. “About the time the grain was ready to house,” she wrote dryly, “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away.”
Today, the benefits of eating more whole grains are among the rare things that virtually all nutrition experts agree on. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends that half of all grains should be whole. But 2015 numbers show that almost nobody eats that way.
Past efforts to make virtue a little tastier have achieved the opposite. The food historian Maria Trumpler visited the Bread Lab recently and demonstrated whole wheat bread recipes from the 1970s and ’80s — an era when adding molasses, powdered milk, and other substances to try to hide the whole wheat was in vogue.
“They were just absolutely horrible,” says Jones, nearly awed by the badness. “If you have a bread book from the ’70s, you should burn it! I’m not into book burning, but, God — you should just get rid of it.” There must, he and colleagues think, be a better way.
Wheat breeder David Van Sanford, a professor at University of Kentucky, recalls when he first learned of Jones, who had become fed up with the situation and helped found the Bread Lab in 2011. I’ve gone to scads of meetings, Jones had told a reporter, and never heard the term “flavor” used once. “That really resonated with me,” Van Sanford says. Wheat flour can, in fact, have a taste: For a good bread wheat, “the words we use are nutty, chocolate tones, and a bit of spice tone,” Jones says. A wheat used for cookies and pie dough has a different, more mellow profile.
When most wheat breeders assess the outcomes of their efforts and decide what to do next, however, they evaluate what the wheat is like without the bran and germ. The bran and the germ are what give whole wheat much of its taste. As a result, a wheat that’s bred for an inoffensive-tasting white flour might make a whole wheat flour that’s depressingly like sawdust. When no one is breeding for a whole wheat that tastes good, Jones argues, it is not all that surprising that it winds up bad. Jones’s savvy as a scientist and his conviction are persuasive; his lab has relationships with well-known companies such as King Arthur Flour, Clif Bar, and Chipotle.
If a whole wheat loaf has a good flavor, is affordable, and meets the needs of those who don’t frequent artisanal bakeries — which have a dedicated but small clientele — it wouldn’t be nearly so hard for people to eat more of it, think the people behind the Approachable Loaf, many of whom have attended annual gatherings at the Bread Lab over the last few years.
One of them, Louie Prager, who runs the Prager Brothers bakery in Carlsbad, Calif., has noticed that some of his own employees prefer a soft brown supermarket loaf. It has no holes for mustard to leak through, it’s good for sandwiches for packed lunches, it doesn’t go bad very quickly, it’s familiar, and it’s inexpensive, something you can’t say about some artisanal loaves. But it often has many stabilizers, colorants, and dough conditioners that artisan bakers avoid, as well as a surprising amount of sugar.
Other than better wheat, the only other ingredients in the Approachable Loaf are sourdough starter, salt, small amounts of oil and sugar, and water. Using starter to leaven the bread gives it a longer shelf life than a standard yeasted bread; the sugar and oil give the bread a flavor and texture that’s closer to the supermarket loaf.
Experience and skill on the part of the baker helps in getting a good product, of course: Those bizarrely delicious cookies I tasted at the Bread Lab’s headquarters did involve a good choice of wheat, but the flour was also probably freshly milled and the bakers knew what they were doing, notes Van Sanford. The loose network of people testing and fine-tuning the Approachable Loaf includes professional bakers in Washington, California, and Vermont, working to bring their technical knowledge of artisanal bread making to bear on something closer to the supermarket loaf. Jones estimates that at least eight bakeries are currently making some version of it.
Can the Approachable Loaf go big? Bringing together breeding, farming, processing, and food production to make something that both satisfies the consumer and is nutritious is not a simple process, says Tim Griffin, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University who collaborates with Bread Lab researchers. But for the past year and a half or so, he and colleagues have been discussing it in the context of the Approachable Loaf. “We’re seeing bread as our first test case for that,” he says. “What would the system have to look like if we successfully used whole grains?” They are investigating what businesses would need to exist, how the supply chains for bread would need to change, and other logistical barriers to a loaf that’s both nutritious and legitimately attractive.
If the bakers can come up with a tasty loaf, then the millers will need to come up with a procedure to mill large quantities of whole wheat flour while keeping it from going bad, and farmers will need to learn to grow and profit from breeds of wheat that make whole wheat worth eating. These are the kinds of challenges he’s considering.
In Montana, wheat breeder and Flathead Valley Community College professor Heather Estrada has her eyes on the near term: using wheat she and her students have grown to bake the Approachable Loaf together. “We were able to clean all our grain and it’s ready for milling,” she said gleefully when I spoke to her October. The loaf is a way for her students to see all the pieces of the food system they’ve been studying all semester, from field to lab to kitchen, come together in a way that’s more than glancing. “There’s a lot of cultural depth,” Estrada says, “to the story of bread.”
Food is going high-tech — policy needs to catch up with it
BY THE BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL BOARD
or generations newspaper editorials have been the “eat your spinach” part of the operation. But what if that spinach can now be organic baby spinach, or hydroponically grown? What if we can eat it year round — and from just around the corner?
With a warming planet, the need for high-tech food and high-tech food policies is undeniable. Both are going to play an increasingly vital role in the planet’s future — and the way we eat. Here are a few ways to use science to steer food into a more sustainable path.
Learn to love GMOs, and resist efforts to demonize or prohibit them. Genetically modified food sets off alarm bells for purists, but crops designed to last longer or resist disease are increasingly necessary.
The good news is that new federal labeling regulations, which could become final by Dec. 1, will preclude the kind of state-by-state labeling regulations that Vermont had already indulged in and that Massachusetts has been perpetually on the cusp of enacting.
The even better news is that the science of food — of producing fruits with a longer shelf life, wheat that requires less water or fertilizer — is advancing so fast that even the foodie fearmongers can’t keep up.
First on the federal role: While moving at a glacial pace, the US Department of Agriculture has at long last brought forth a final set of regulations designed to implement a law passed by Congress in 2016 to deal with standards for disclosing bioengineered ingredients. Not surprisingly the new regs generated a huge amount of controversy — more than 14,000 comments received by the agency during the public comment period.
Assuming the regs are indeed finalized Dec. 1, they won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2020. What consumers are likely to notice is that GMO labeling will become “BE food,” or “bioengineered food.” And since at least two-thirds of all foods sold in the US contain some ingredients in that category — consumers are indeed likely to see it everywhere.
What it will accomplish is to prevent every state and locality from drafting its own labeling laws and, in the process, making the free movement of good products from state to state difficult if not impossible. And it will let innovation continue unhindered.
The future of seafood in the United States is aquaculture. Even the king of seafood, Roger Berkowitz, acknowledges that. “The technology has gotten so good with submersible pens,” said Berkowitz, chief executive of the Legal Sea Foods empire. “It’s a game changer.”
Berkowitz is particularly excited about the prospect of fish farms in federal open waters. Aquaculture in Massachusetts is largely confined to shallow waters; think oyster beds on Cape Cod. Of course, this country for years has talked about offshore fish farming, but the time has come, with wild fish stocks dwindling. In 2017, the US imported a record amount of seafood, more than 6 billion pounds, and exported only about 3.6 billion pounds.
While Massachusetts and some municipalities have regulated aquaculture, what’s needed now is a federal regulatory framework to support aquaculture in the ocean. It hasn’t been easy navigating the concerns of environmentalists, fishermen worried about their own livelihoods, and ships attached to particular routes. The ocean may be big, but surprisingly not big enough to accommodate everyone’s needs.
Congress can play a big role: Get a bill that everyone likes. Here’s another thought: How about supporting aquaculture as part of the farm bill, something US Representative Seth Moulton would like to see. With Democrats taking back the majority in the House, maybe this could get done next year.
Clear federal policies could enable the prospect of fish farming using the infrastructure of offshore wind turbines. Without such policies, the future of fish farming will remain murky, because these operations are expensive and investors don’t like uncertainty.
“No one would spend a dime on that,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has been closely following the development of aquaculture in the ocean. “It makes Cape Wind look like a sure bet.”
Assume change. Farm and food policies tend to deal with what we eat and grow now, but climate change should end that way of thinking. The government and industry need to anticipate disruption, and be ready to adapt, rather than pour money into trying to preserve vanishing industries that can’t be sustained any longer.
Rising temperature of oceans, for example, have forced the cod and lobsters to flee north to colder waters. We lament the loss of cod in Massachusetts, but Southern fish species are flocking to us now. In other words, we need to get used to “Cape Mahi-Mahi.”
Warmer temperatures in New England could extend the growing season for blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and corn. That could be a silver lining for consumers and farmers’ markets.
Food policy is often inherently conservative: organic food fans and proponents of farm subsidies want different versions of the same thing, which is to cling to the way food’s always been. But food is going to change whether we like it or not — and our food policies should try to direct those changes, not stop them.
Posted by Mike Frett | Aug 17, 2018
St. Albans Messenger
FRANKLIN – The University of Vermont (UVM) Extension’s 2018 Summer Farm Meeting brought farmers and state officials to Franklin last Thursday with presentations highlighting some of the ways area farmers are stymieing the flow of phosphorous into their respective watersheds.
Organized by UVM Extension’s Northwest Crop and Soils Program in collaboration with watershed groups like the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), the Summer Farm Meeting is an annual gathering of farmers, researchers, environmental groups and state officials.
The meeting serves as a forum for some of those groups to present projects and research related to conservation-minded agricultural practices, as well as a way to connect farmers with resources that may help pursue some of those practices.
This year, farmers and officials collected at Bridgeman View Farm, where owners Tim and Martha Magnant had applied many of the best agricultural practices encouraged, and in some cases required, by the state.
FNLC led the morning’s presentations with a report on a two-tier ditch system that was discussed in a Messenger article last Friday. By carving flat benches into the banks of a ditch that cut through the Bouchard Family Dairy, the system essentially created an artificial flood plane between the ditch and abutting fields, creating a safety valve that, FNLC hypothesized, should reduce the threats of erosion and runoff during periods of high flooding.
Discussion about the ditch would bookend Thursday’s meeting, with an opening presentation from FNLC and Agrilab’s Brian Jerose in the morning and a closing visit to the pilot ditch at the Bouchard farm in the afternoon.
Jerose and FNLC’s chair Kent Henderson encouraged farmers to consider similar installations on their own farms, with Jerose asking that farmers “be thinking about your own fields” when presenting information about the ditch during last week’s meeting.
The stream cutting across the Bouchard farm eventually drains into the Rock River, where, according to Department of Environmental Conservation biologist Angela Shambaugh, phosphorous levels had remained steady since at least 2011.
The Rock River Watershed was recently declared by the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) as an “impaired watershed,” meaning the watershed was identified for “accelerated and targeted agricultural practices” to address its water quality.
The river weaves between Franklin, Highgate and Quebec before ultimately draining into Lake Champlain, meaning that many of the farmers present during Thursday’s meeting have farms within the river’s watershed.
Shambaugh, who followed FNLC’s presentation on the ditch with a more stats-minded depiction of that watershed, reported to those farmers that phosphorous levels held steady in the watershed, something that didn’t really reflect “all the hard work you’ve done.”
That the phosphorous levels were steady rather than spiking, however, was reportedly good news for the watershed, as it meant that some of the watershed’s excessive runoff was being managed.
“There’s been a lot of work done in the watershed,” Shambaugh told the farmers at Thursday’s meeting. “We’ve been seeing that.”
Meanwhile, she reported that they were tracking other sources of phosphorous more closely now, such as roadways and forestry, meaning their phosphorous tracking “was no longer solely dedicated to agriculture.”
As a lifelong dairy farmer, I bring a unique perspective to my work with the Governor’s Climate Action Commission. My family and I work with the land each and every day, and we value Vermont for its natural beauty and resources. We could not do what we do without clean water and healthy soil. Other members of the Climate Action Commission bring vital perspectives, too. This diverse group of 21 Vermonters is comprised of leaders in commerce, transportation, construction, energy and forestry.
On Aug. 20, we will present our year’s work to Gov. Phil Scott, highlighting our findings and outlining recommendations to meet Vermont’s climate goals of using 90 percent renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050.
Overall, our recommendations constitute a multi-pronged approach for reducing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions from homes, businesses, transportation, communities and industries, such as forestry and agriculture.
Notably, some of our recommendations also focus on “negative” emissions – removing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that agriculture can reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by storing it in plant biomass and soils, contributing to a climate change solution.
Here in Vermont, farmers are at the forefront of understanding and meeting these challenges. Many of us are adopting practices and investing in technology to improve both water quality and soil health. Throughout the agricultural sector – whether dairy, beef, berries or vegetables – farmers are finding the critical balance of producing high-quality products and being good stewards of the environment.
How are we doing this? Farmers have increased planting of cover crops by over 60 percent since 2015 and have reduced tilling of the land. By keeping fields covered with plants all year long, farmers not only reduce soil erosion and prevent nutrient runoff, but also increase the amount of carbon the soil can hold. Combined with manure injection, such practices enhance the role that agriculture can play in helping Vermont to achieve its climate goals. Modeling estimates from the EPA Lake Champlain Phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) project a 40-50 percent increase in agricultural practices that protect water quality and sequester carbon over the next 10 years.
Vermonters understand that global climate change is a fundamental threat to the sustainability of natural systems and species diversity, and to the peace and safety of humanity. Given the magnitude of this challenge, we must all be a part of the solution. As a member of Vermont’s agricultural community, I believe all farmers are up to the challenge of continuing our efforts towards a clean, green Vermont.
Are bees endangered because of the use of insecticides, and in particular the class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids, which are used on many crops?
It’s a debate that’s played out in research laboratories and in the media over the past decade since the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder roiled the bee industry in California and elsewhere in North American and Europe beginning in 2006-7.
Needless to point out to those who have followed the neonics controversy, this is a highly politicized issue. Most people with a stake in this debate, including entomologists, farmers and beekeepers, are genuinely struggling to understand the complex factors behind why bees face a host of problems, from attacks from the killer varroa destructor mite to the overuse of insecticides to kill them and the pervasive use of agricultural pesticides. But in the media and in cyberspace, hyperbole and ideology have come to eclipse rational discussion and the sometimes plodding pace of science. The highly-charged debate now pits activists, including some advocacy-minded scientists, against the agro-chemical industry and many scientists who view neonics as a relatively minor driving force in the health issues confronting honeybees and bumble bees.
One resource that has often been looked upon by the media as an objective source is the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP)—a US Department of Agriculture project developed in cooperation with University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp. Each year in the spring it releases an annual U.S. ‘bee hive loss estimate’. Each year, it seems, the report frames the debate over whether the ‘bee crisis’ is accelerating or abating.
Media v Science?
The popular narrative among journalists and on the Internet in recent years has been that honey bees and wild bees face impending doom—it’s been dubbed a beepocalypse or beemageddon, with most of the ire focused on a class of pesticides, applied mostly as a seed coating, known as neonicotinoids. The insecticide was introduced in the 1990s in large part to replace chemicals that were demonstrably hurting bees and posed human health dangers as well.
Bee health is a genuine concern. After all they are trucked around from farm to farm as insect livestock. And entomologists and the USDA say that varroa mites have been infesting bee hives at an accelerating rate over the past few decades, and present a serious and on-going threat. Pesticides rank low as a likely cause of bee health problems, contend most entomologists, but that’s not the way the issue has played out in the media and online.
Anti-pesticide campaigners have long rejected the conclusions of government agencies and scientists, deciding that bee health issues could not be driven by something as prosaic as a well-known parasite, and have focused instead on neonics.
The question of the relative role of neonics in bee health is fascinating because of the split in the science—some lab studies point to potential serious problems linked to one or more of the neonics but field research, meta-studies and the hard numbers worldwide—bee hives are at record numbers globally—tell a much different story.
The release of BIP’s death count has become a spring ritual followed closely by those invested in beepocalypse narrative; in years when the BIP loss numbers have been high, the media has generally taken them as confirmation that the disaster has finally arrived. Activists fill the social media echo chamber with scare blogs, which they often use as an anchor issue for fund raising or campaigns.
But the most recent year’s survey results didn’t exactly support that narrative. Over-winter losses, which is when bees face severe threats from cold weather, were 21.1%, the lowest in the 10 years the survey has been in existence. Taken together with previous years’ findings, the 2016-17 number continues a downward trend of over-winter losses that, on the current path, will reach the 15% goal set in the 2015 National Pollinator Strategy by 2024.Seven years ago, however, BIP began collecting survey responses on in-season (summertime) honeybee losses as well. However, combining in-season and over-winter losses can result in an alarming and spectacularly misleading loss number. For example, in 2016, it was 44%, making it appear that nearly half of all US honeybees had died, which is exactly how most of the media reported it.
In the latest reporting year, 2016-17, the combined result was lower: 33.2%. This was the second lowest in the seven years of reporting combined statistics, but it was still an occasion for apocalyptic headlines: “A third of the nation’s honeybee colonies died last year,” headlined USA Today. Time, which ran a scare cover story years ago pondering “A World Without Bees”—an article criticized by numerous scientists—stayed true to form, headlining: “Honeybee Deaths Are Down, But the Beepocalypse Continues.”
That’s shallow journalism. While the Bee Informed Partnership’s combined loss numbers generate media attention, they provide a very thin sliver of the picture bee health, and the numbers themselves are easily manipulated to fit a narrative. There are three major reasons why:
The first reason is that the macro statistics of the total bee population tell a different story than the BIP numbers. The previous year, when it was reported that “a third of the nation’s honeybee colonies died”, the US honeybee population actually reached a 22-year high. The untold story in the popular media, although reported on science-based websites like the GLP and on university and bee expert sites, is that despite some ups and downs, the number of honeybee colonies has remained remarkably stable since the mid-1990s, when neonicotinoids were introduced.
They’ve hovered around 2.5 million hives in the US, even through the challenges of Colony Collapse Disorder from 2006-2010, with the last five years seeing significant growth in bee numbers. There was indeed a sharp dive in US bee numbers in the eighties and early nineties, when the Varroa mite invaded the US, but those declines leveled off and eventually reversed in the years neonics have been on the market. Overall numbers are steady or increasing in Canada, Europe and on every continent except Antarctica (where there are no honeybees), over the last 20 years—the entire period that neonicotinoid pesticides have been on the market.
USDA annual report on honey-producing colonies in the U.S. (USDA publishes its final statistics one year after preliminary estimates); Canada; Global/FAO 1/FAO 2
Based on government statistics, bee population worldwide trend has been positive for over half a century. Between 1995 and 2014, we have seen the following increases in honeybee populations:
- North America: +8%
- Europe: +10%
- Africa: +19%
- South America: +43%
- Asia: +43%
- Ocenia: +30%
Despite these rising trends, inflammatory media stories and the NGO social media echo chamber have won the day in Europe, where politicians have put aside the findings of entomologists and appear to be preparing to not only extend their “temporary” 2013 ban, but expand it to almost all uses, even on crops bees never visit. The same activist groups – and of course the media – continue to exert enormous political pressure in the US to follow suit. So far, EPA appears to be resisting, as their recent draft assessments of the three largest selling neonics suggests, but many close observers of the agency believe the process has been touch and go for some time.
How and why bees naturally die off and beekeepers replenish hives
A new Bee Informed Partnership report will be out in a few months. It will be interesting to see if reporters make the distinction between the normal seasonal bee colony losses experienced by beekeepers, which have been a factor in beekeeping since time immemorial, and overall population trends.
Bees reproduce very rapidly—the normal life-span of a worker bee in the summer months is only 6 weeks—and so beekeepers can rebuild their hives very rapidly as well. Not long ago, many beekeepers in northern latitudes, particularly in Canada, where intense cold makes keeping bees over winter a challenge, would empty their hives of bees, harvest all the honey in them, and start over with new queens and purchased ‘packaged bees’ the next spring. They had a self-inflicted 100% loss rate. But they had healthy, thriving bee populations throughout the summer and a stable, thriving beekeeping industry as well.
Colony losses, whether overwinter or in the spring, represent an economic cost to beekeepers, and they can provide clues to overall hive health. But the numbers we see in recent years do not portend calamity. In fact, they can, and do, rise and fall with little effect on the total number of beehives in the country, or in the world—which is almost entirely determined by how many bee colonies beekeepers decide to “grow.” This, in turn, is largely determined by economic considerations—the price of honey or the going rate for pollination services.
Predictably, however, every time the Bee Informed Partnership releases its headline-grabbing annual loss number, the media prophesizes doom. A rough analogy might be if a stock market survey only reported those stocks that had experienced losses at some point during the year, without bothering to mention that overall the market was steady or rising.
One might argue that it’s not BIP’s responsibility to ensure that the media doesn’t misinterpret or misuse its statistics. Fair enough. There’s also no question that Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who initiated the BIP, is someone dedicated to the welfare of honeybees and beekeepers. It was vanEngelsdorp and a co-author who conducted the first research into the mysterious disappearance of worker bees from the hive, a phenomenon they dubbed Colony collapse Disorder”, and he has been one of the nation’s foremost investigators of the many diseases afflicting bees today.
All of this, however, simply casts the problems with the bee loss survey into starker relief. Any scientist—or indeed any competent science reporter—taking a close look at the BIP’s methodology would have to acknowledge that it suffers from numerous limitations, and some of them are so severe that they make its results practically meaningless as a guide to the true state of bee populations.
Not all bee health data are created equal
This brings us to the second big problem: the BIP’s numbers are drawn from a voluntary survey, to which most beekeepers don’t bother to respond. In fact, BIP data typically represent only a small fraction of all beekeepers in the US—about 13% for 2016-17. That would be a large enough sample for a scientifically randomized poll, as we’ve grown accustomed to in politics. But BIP simply mails its questionnaire to beekeepers and tallies up the results of those who send it back. As the respondents are self-selected, one would intuitively assume that the results would be biased toward beekeepers with serious loss problems.
And indeed, this appears to be the case. The vast majority of respondents are small or hobby beekeepers, with only a vanishingly small fraction of commercial beekeepers—1.4%—participating. There are in fact many more hobby beekeepers in the US than commercial bee keepers, but they represent a small fraction of the overall bee colonies.
Why does this matter? It’s well known that many small and hobby beekeepers have the worst bee problems, most likely because of inexperience. They often neglect to treat for varroa and other diseases and can have much higher losses. BIP’s survey, however, has no mechanism for adjusting for these biases and it performs no analysis of the data to make its conclusions more representative.
One sees this clearly as well in the enormous regional disparities. Twice as many honeybee colonies are located west of the Mississippi as east of it, but twice as many beekeepers are located east of the Mississippi. In other words, larger beekeeping operations in the west; smaller and backyard/hobbyist beekeepers in the east. But the over-concentration of BIP respondents in one region —or even in certain states within regions—can easily skew the results. In the 2015-16 BIP survey, for instance, Ohio and Pennsylvania were heavily over-represented (with some colonies from those states being double-counted for Florida as well).
And the spotty, inconsistent nature of the survey can create huge distortions. In one case, a single queen breeder in California reportedly engaged the BIP investigators to survey his operations in California and Montana – yielding more than 10 times the number of BIP data points from his operations alone than for the entire remainder of California. In another instance in Montana, a single large operator who experienced devastating losses (due to error, carelessness or bad luck) caused the state to be depicted by BIP as a ‘heavy loss’ state even though none of the other beekeepers in the state experienced abnormal losses.
Given the BIP survey’s limitations, and particularly its skewed representation of the size and geography of the beekeeping operations responding, perhaps its findings would be more useful if they were portrayed not as national honey bee colony loss statistics, which they are not, but rather as the losses experienced by those sectors of the beekeeping industry that actually respond to the BIP survey.
Do other US bee hive data present a similar, problematic picture?
A third reason to be skeptical of the value of the BIP survey is that we have a more comprehensive survey conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Not surprisingly, it paints a very different picture of honeybees, and yields a much more dynamic picture of beekeepers’ operations over the course of the year. Unlike BIP, the NASS constructed a stratified sample of honey operations with which the Department has regular contact, backed up by telephone calls and, when necessary, enumeration for non-respondents. USDA charted colony losses, colonies added or renovated and total honeybee colonies in the U.S. by quarter, January 1, 2015 through March 1, 2016.
Over the course of those 15 months, the total number of U.S. honeybee colonies fluctuated dramatically from a high of 3.1 million to a low, in the survey’s last quarter, of 2.6 million, with most quarters registering more than 2.8 million colonies. Along with losses, the NASS also charts additions. For examples, a total of 662 thousand colonies were added and 693 thousand colonies were “renovated” in just the one quarter of April-June 2015.
In other words, normal beekeeping operations, in which operators decide to add or shed colonies in response to market conditions (demand and price, domestically and abroad, for different types and grades of honey, and/or anticipated commercial pollination needs and opportunities) can easily cause the total number of U.S. honey bee colonies to fluctuate by almost 20% within a 15-month period—even while populations compared year to year are steady or growing.
This underscores the mistake of imagining U.S. honeybee colonies as a sort of natural population subject only to declines caused by environmental factors (e.g., pesticides). Rather, state-by-state and nationally, farmers and beekeepers are constantly adding to, fine-tuning and sometimes deliberately reducing their numbers of honey bee colonies in response to economic incentives. BIP’s self-selected and less-inclusive survey data needs to be compared with more comprehensive USDA data to be seen in proper perspective.
One fortunate upshot of all of these survey efforts to assess honeybee losses of recent years is that they have thrown into relief the real, critical problem facing honeybees. It’s varroa mites—not pesticides, and particularly not neonicotinoiod pesticides that consistently rank among the least detected residues in honeybee colonies. Recent years’ Bee Informed Partnership surveys have correctly highlighted parasitic varroa and the dozen or more viruses and diseases that they vector into honey beehives as the #1 threat to honey bees.
USDA’s NASS survey points to the same conclusion. So, does the practical experience of beekeepers in Australia, where there are no varroa mites, and Alberta, Canada, where authorities have made varroa control the overwhelming priority for beekeepers. This conclusion has been further reinforced by the 2016 multi-year study of disease incidence in honeybees co-authored by none other than vanEngelsdorp. It found varroa prevalence (as well as the bee gut fungus/parasite Nosema ceranae) among U.S. bee colonies far more extensive than previously thought and identified these, along with Deformed Wing Virus, as the principal scourges of honeybees today.
So, why aren’t we concentrating on addressing the acknowledged parasite threat? One reason is that the varroa mite problem is very hard to address—trying to ‘kill a bug on a bug’, keeping one of them safe, is incredibly challenging. That’s especially true since varroa have shown a remarkably rapid ability to develop resistance to different treatment methods as they’re developed. For another, pesticides, and the large corporations that manufacture them, make a convenient and tempting target.
One other thing is very clear from all these surveys—whether from the BIP, NASS, or various European efforts: bees are not facing an apocalypse or serious endangerment as the result of pesticide poisoning.
Jon Entine is the Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project. His biography is here. Twitter: @jonentine.