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The Chemical Treadmill

It has been well known since Rachel Carson first wrote “Silent Spring” in the early 1960s that agriculture has been getting deeper into trouble with continued pesticide use.

Today within our beekeeping industry, this has never been more apparent. Yet, strangely, many beekeepers are uneducated in the field about what pesticide resistance is and how it escalates into a pesticide highway to hell and eventual colony destruction. In the past in the 1960s and 1970s forward, it was often described as a pesticide treadmill, because once you are on it with your agricultural field management, it is virtually impossible to wean your self off. Herein therefore is the danger, namely a growing resistance, creating a growing chemical dependency, requiring stronger and stronger treatments of various dopes.

Someone sent me a perfect example, when they wrote, “I have the gut feeling this is how it is as when you have treated with acid, (referring to chemical resistance we had corresponded about with honeybees and parasitic mites), you get a feeling the colony is like a magnet on mites or starts producing more. I have an example from a beekeeper, he treated and treated different kinds, different acids, culling dronecomb, Apistan, everything, and saved all mites and counted them. Though he treated like a maniac, he managed to produce 10,000 mites from that colony in a year. And it was in a miserable state the next spring, but still alive, which surprised me. After all these chemicals. Amazing.”

Well, this could be described as a perfect example of a chemical treadmill in action going full steam with a high degree of resistance to chemicals by the parasitic mites, now totally – out of control!

For understanding, Pesticide resistance or “pest” resistance should be simply stated, – that some insects within each given species are naturally more resistant to certain chemicals. You never can kill 100% of the little trouble makers with any given dope treatment. There is always an exception. Has to be or evolution would stop!

Within our beekeeping community as those treating with various dopes try to kill parasitic mites infesting their colonies, most are not aware that as the dopes do their job and make the susceptible parasitic mites die, the survivors multiply, passing their resistance onto the next generation for that particular level of doping (strength of chemical used).

When the pesticides are perceived to “no longer control” (beekeeper sees a growing body of prolific mites) at normally recommended rates (strength of chemical used), a pest resurgence occurs, when the parasitic mites killed by the dopes return in larger numbers.

Basically, what this is, is the reproduction of those little trouble makers, the exceptions, the dopes could not kill in the first place, now reproducing without chemical effect, their next generations. We say the pesticides no longer control at normally recommended rates, instead of saying we need more killing power to now go back and refight the exceptions that were stronger in the beginning and really needed more dope to finish the job, but now the insect, somehow knows what to expect; and it also requires a higher dosage. Our problem is figuring out how much and of course, here we go again trying to get another 100% kill, which we know is technically impossible. Consequently a circle of treatment or a pesticide treadmill is created.

Now during this treatment, some of the parasitic mites will develop what is called cross-resistance. This is basically where resistance to one chemical means resistance to a second chemical with a similar mode of action (method of killing) as the first. Multiple resistance also is known to occur, where there is resistance to several classes (different chemical groups). This is now currently accomplished, by beekeepers all using different types of treatments within a given area and then as the honeybees co-mingle in the field or drift from colony to colony, the mites transfer rides on the backs of the bees themselves and cross mate, passing each others resistance on to the others linage.

Now to add insult, beekeepers need to understand that depending upon the type of resistance (type of dope used) and the species of parasitic mite (trachael or varroa or ?), resistance tends to last in the absence of the dopes when control measures are stopped. What this means, is that the breeding accomplished through survival (surviving the various dopes thrown upon their bodies) is now considered inherent within the linage of the parasitic mites.

Now, as beekeepers use stronger and stronger dopes other problems begin to set in to complicate the already growing bad situation created. Many times other problems created involve not only pest (mite) resurgence, but also the creation of secondary pests/insects now becoming serious primary pests not known to effect colonies i.e. beetles, ants, earwigs, moths, and also secondary diseases.

This happens because when we attempt to kill what we consider our primary pests, namely parasitic mites, we also inadvertently also kill their natural enemies that would help to keep them in balance around our hives. Two things normally happen here. Either the natural enemies of our pests are killed or they leave the area since their food source is no longer available. This leaves opportunity for the treated surviving parasitic mites to reproduce before their natural enemies return (other insects, or birds, etc.).

Secondary pests become serious primary pests when their natural predators are killed. The whole class of mites is very widely studied for this vary reason for the havoc caused when dopes kill their natural predators. This adds to the pesticide treadmill. Then the corresponding treatment of the secondary pests i.e. beetles, moths, ants, etc., add to the problem of our mites and our ability to contain their damage. Look at beekeepers here in the USA currently treating for parasitic mites, now also being forced to treat for beetles with chemicals, now used not only within the colonies, but now all around the colonies on the ground. This is nothing more than a serious speeding up of the treadmill to disaster because you have increased the scope and width of the playing field for chemical management.

Add to this now, besides external dopes, internal dopes like oxytetracycline that blow out the bees internal gut for beneficial digestive bacteria and you now create not only eating disorders, but internal susceptibility to various secondary diseases and shorten the life of our poor honeybees at the same time.

Yet to stop the dopes both external and internal is pure hell. For now there is no natural backup help to be found, the bees are in a weakened state not able to digest natural food, they, for the most part can no longer defend themselves, and then we wonder why colonies collapse.

What are we left with? I would say a lot of empty equipment growing in quantity each and every year as the treadmill, now worldwide accelerates, persistent residues in soil and living tissue for those stupid enough to eat this wholesome food we still call honey, and more and more decreased pollenation service sure to effect our global food supply in the future. Yet, if I may be so bold to state – very few are willing to do what it takes to go back to full biological to correct the problem. But in the end I really feel in my heart they may be forced to, and what a price we are all going to pay as a worldwide global community.

- Dee Lusby