Any time the topic of Colony Collapse Disorder comes up, expect the suggestion that pesticide use could account for it to follow shortly. Seventy-year-old Joe Tarwater, a professional pollinator with 500 to 600 colonies he keeps in Maryville, Tenn. and winters over in South Georgia, allows that he can only speak for himself, but says he thinks chemicals are part of the CCD explanation. And maybe a big part.
He and his daughter Stephanie Tarwater, who also inspects bees in Florida, have contracts to pollinate in Crossville, Dunlap, and on up into Virginia, for watermelon, squash, and zucchini crops. He estimates that they lose 15-20 percent of their bees each year, including last year, well below the national or state average. He's been in business 50 years, and remembers the days when losses were pretty much "none," he says. "It used to be everybody grew their own food and had their own bees and there were wild bees and no one had to hire pollinators."
He and Stephanie took up pollination contracts about 20 years ago, and he says most of his losses are attributable to the hazards of transporting bees for migrant contracts. He thinks his numbers are lower than other beekeepers' because he won't get near chemicals if he can help it, though he does use a fungicide on nosema, and treats for tracheal mites with formic acid.
"I will not do an orchard, because they'll spray in the middle of the day and kill your bees," he says.
Nor will Tarwater run his bees as far as Florida; there are too many pesticides in use, he says, and you never know where bees in that state have come from, or what the regulations are in their state of origin. "A lot of them commercial boys in Florida use a lot of strong chemicals," he says. "And a lot of the migrant beekeepers, you'd be surprised at the stuff they use to treat bees, the chemicals. They've got to, to keep them alive to travel, from Michigan to California, Florida to Maine to pollinate blueberries and cranberries and then back again. The chemicals may not kill the bees this year, but they get in the wax in the hive, and that builds up, and it may kill them next year. This is my opinion, just my opinion."