Project Apis m. Funds Dr. Judy Wu-Smart to investigate the impacts of pesticide-treated seed recycling in Nebraska.
Beekeepers have been re-locating their apiaries from Nebraska for years. Well before the public became aware of an ethanol plant producing pesticide-laden by-products, there had already been a concerning trend of beekeepers leaving Nebraska.
Dr. Marion Ellis, head of the Bee Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) saw the pattern begin during his tenure. Beekeepers were migrating out of the state as more pastureland in the area was planted with corn, and especially when that corn was treated with organophosphate insecticides to control corn rootworm. Organophosphate insecticides are persistent in the environment and are highly toxic to bees, but beekeepers were reluctant to complain to friends and family who farmed the land. As Ellis said, “It became really hard to keep bees in the Corn Belt.”
More recently, large-scale career beekeepers with thousands of colonies have continued that exodus from Nebraska because they cannot afford the high bee losses year after year.1 A new publication representing a major collaboration across state and federal organizations puts some concerning data behind the trends. It highlights that bees in Nebraska are dealing with a disproportionately high number of pesticides detected at higher levels than most other states and the neonicotinoids clothianidin and thiamethoxam contributed significantly to the hazard quotient (the risk) posed to bees in Nebraska.2
Bees were rapidly dying at a University of Nebraska research apiary.
After Ellis retired from the bee lab in 2013 and his successor, Dr. Judy Wu-Smart started at UNL, a historically productive research apiary began to go downhill at an alarming rate. In 2017 Wu-Smart started noticing consistent bee losses at the apiary-colony survival fell to zero over winter and has remained at zero ever since.1
Not only was this a costly circumstance when considering the time and money spent on an unusable research apiary, but Wu-Smart had to figure out what was causing these losses. The apiary was in an agricultural setting, so Wu-Smart began looking at on-farm practices, such as pesticide applications to surrounding crops, and watching her bees more closely. “We're trying to use these (dead bee) traps to figure out the duration of loss and to figure out what kinds of on-farm practices are occurring during the times that we see these losses happening,” she said.
From left to right: the way this dead honey bee’s wings and legs are “stuck”, outstretched, and rigid, are signs of possible pesticide intoxication. Another honey bee on a nectar frame is paralyzed with her head facing into the cell. Closer examination reveals that her tongue is stuck in the extended position as if she is drinking, another sign of possible intoxication.
After determining that the bee losses did not correspond to any farm activity, Wu-Smart cast a larger net and called the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Working off of a tip about an ethanol production company, AltEn, located in Mead, Nebraska, just north of the troubled UNL apiary (and within foraging distance for her bees), Wu-Smart expanded her investigation and started putting the pieces together.
Based on her observations, she concluded it’s likely that pesticides stemming from the ethanol plant were leaching insecticides into the waterways and the air. Clothianidin can move from the water into the surrounding vegetation, including milkweed, the habitat and food source for monarch butterflies. Pollen and nectar from affected plants are one potential cause for the bee losses Wu-Smart and her team were seeing.
Left: Mounds of post-processed material called wet-cake, stockpiled and applied later as field soil amendments. Right: A diagram showing the proximity of a wet-cake stockpile to the UNL apiary1. According to Wu-Smart, application of material containing these levels would result in roughly 85 times the amount indicated for field applications on the label of the product.
Rapid Response Research. Late last year, Wu-Smart applied to Project Apis m. for funding to run a coordinated risk assessment for pollinators in the area, mapping the contamination and working with local authorities and beekeepers to gain a complete understanding of the situation. PAm funded the project using funds from the National Honey Board, and the work is already underway. “We've been able to get started because PAm’s funding was so quick and allowed us to receive the funding immediately. We're hiring a project coordinator to help us coordinate across all of these (state) agencies,” she said. Because the impacts to the apiary were not the result of an intentional pesticide application, Wu-Smart has been unable to secure additional state or federal support to help investigate the bee losses. Determining the route(s) of exposure for her bees is one of Wu-Smart’s goals and is important for mitigating the risks of exposure going forward.
Project Apis m.’s mission is to fund and direct research to enhance the health and vitality of honey bee colonies while improving crop production. This project not only fits within PAm’s mission but clearly demonstrates how PAm can help with urgent issues by funding high priority work quickly and efficiently.
Recycling of treated corn seed results in contaminated stockpiles and industry response. At the time Wu-Smart began investigating the AltEn ethanol plant in 2019, they claimed they were processing nearly 98 percent of the unused pre-treated corn seed in the United States. It is unclear where most of the treated seed was being processed prior to the location in Mead, who, as recently as last august advertised itself as the industry’s “number one choice” for treated seed recycling.
The pesticides used in seed coatings are subject to the same environmental risk assessments as other pesticides and are evaluated as such by the EPA. However, treated seeds, like treated lumber, are treated articles not explicitly regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Thus the field applications of wet-cake material must not exceed the pesticide application rate allowed by the label of the compounds coating the seed.
A representative of Corteva, one company that produces treated seeds, told the Journal Star, “It is essential that those who treat, handle, transport and dispose of treated seeds manage them properly and in accordance with label instructions,” and Susan Luke, Deputy Director for External Communications with Bayer said, “We share the concern alongside Dr. Judy Wu-Smart regarding the losses experienced at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln research apiary. At Bayer we are deeply committed to biodiversity and the area of bee health and are keenly interested in finding answers to these and other important questions and ensuring their outcomes are shared with the community. We welcome the attention and involvement of the bee health community on this matter and look forward to playing our part in addressing these concerns,” Luke also said that the Bayer stopped sending seed to AltEn early this year, and Bayer is providing assistance to AltEn to deal with recent events and identify long-term solutions. 3
PAm receives support from many sources including companies that produce treated seeds. A complete list of our donors and a link to PAm’s statement of independence can be found here.
Community impacts from pesticide contamination. Pesticides designed to protect crops against insects have other wide-ranging impacts when they enter the environment inappropriately. What has happened in Mead is an extraordinary example of pesticide contamination. To date, residents living near the plant have complained of alarming illnesses, terrible smells, sickened pets, and dead or dying birds.
From left to right: Wu-Smart pulls an impaired butterfly off a milkweed plant; she picks up an impaired monarch from the ground; a small bird gets abnormally close to researchers in the apiary. Paralysis is a symptom of insecticide intoxication in insects, and a sign that this milkweed plant, on which the butterfly was feeding, could be contaminated.
The State of Nebraska has tried for years to work with the ethanol plant, and it is currently suing for failure to address multiple violations for improper storage of the pesticide-laden materials. Issues identified by the state include faulty lagoon liners and overfilled lagoons-two issues that could lead to contaminated water leaching into waterways and away from the facility into the surrounding environment. In mid-February, a burst pipe caused wastewater from a storage tank to leak water up to four miles from the plant. The water has been sampled for pesticides, and recent state communications (made public through a portal for the public to access information) indicated some pesticides related to corn seed have been found in those samples.
New legislation and the ideal outcome. The issues with the ethanol plant have prompted two new bills that are currently before the Nebraska State Legislature. One is designed to restrict use of the ethanol production byproducts, and the other aims to make seed companies liable for unsafe disposal of treated seed. (Table 1)
The state is trying to keep the public informed, and their communications indicate that the ethanol plant is running some of the contaminated material through a “biochar unit.” Biochar is a material similar to charcoal that is known for binding other molecules, such as pesticides, to it. Samples have been taken to assess if the resulting product still contains the pesticides. It’s possible the biochar unit could be one step toward a clean-up. Officials in Nebraska have also begun sampling wells that provide water to the public, and soil from a public park near the facility. In the coming months, it’s apparent that the state, and investigators like Wu-Smart will work to determine the extent of the contamination and its impacts. Until that is known, the ultimate plan for remediation remains unclear.
What beekeepers can do to monitor their colonies. Despite the concerning circumstances, Wu-Smart considers this a sort of success story. “It gives people hope that you know you can figure out what is causing bees to decline in a particular area, but we have to be more strategic about it,” she explained.
Groups such as the Honey Bee Health Coalition and programs such as BeeWhere focus on preventing pesticide exposure to bees by providing tools for communication and creating awareness between growers and beekeepers. The situation in Nebraska falls outside of those efforts, but that does not mean beekeepers are helpless. “You have to be able to do something to protect your apiary,” Wu-Smart says. “That's why we've been trying to create tools, methods and guidance for beekeepers who struggle with these issues.” She emphasizes that good note taking, along with a simple dead bee trap, can show beekeepers a lot about what is happening with their bees. The UNL bee lab is an extension service for beekeepers in addition to a research lab. Unfortunately, Wu-Smart has seen beekeepers who would normally help provide colonies for research leave the area. Many of the bee lab’s programs, including this research and student projects, are supported by donations and honey sales.
Honey bee losses are discouraging and figuring out what happened can seem overwhelming. “We have to be a lot more open minded about the various stressors that bees are facing,” said Wu-Smart. While the discovery of the pesticide contamination in Mead is a good example of scientists and regulators working together to figure out a problem, it does not bring back the beekeepers who have already left. The unfortunate pattern working against many beekeepers is losing ground that is never won back.
Citations and Footnotes:
Urgent concerns regarding potential pollution in water ways and possible impacts on ecological systems and research programs at Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center (ENREC) in Mead, Nebraska. August 2020.
2)Kirsten S. Traynor, Simone Tosi, Karen Rennich, Nathalie Steinhauer, Eva Forsgren, Robyn Rose, Grace Kunkel, Shayne Madella, Dawn Lopez, Heather Eversole, Rachel Fahey, Jeffery Pettis, Jay D. Evans, Dennis vanEngelsdorp,
Pesticides in Honey Bee Colonies: establishing a baseline for real world exposure over seven years in the USA,
2021, 116566, ISSN 0269-7491,
3)Statement from Bayer provided to Project Apis m.:
“Bayer was one company - among others - that provided AltEn with obsolete treated seed corn for disposal through a unique process that promised to produce ethanol and biochar for use. When directed properly, we believe this is a novel way to upcycle otherwise wasted seed into useful byproducts. However, Bayer stopped sending our obsolete treated seed to the facility early this year, after our review in 2020 of the operation of the AltEn facility.
We share the concern alongside Dr. Judy Wu-Smart regarding the losses experienced at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln research apiary. At Bayer we are deeply committed to biodiversity and the area of bee health and are keenly interested in finding answers to these and other important questions and ensuring their outcomes are shared with the community. We welcome the attention and involvement of the bee health community on this matter and look forward to playing our part in addressing these concerns.
While more questions than answers prevail at this time, we firmly believe it’s more important to address what can be tackled now as we work to learn more. This is why we are providing assistance to AltEn and other workers with on-the-ground support as they work to assess the situation, take steps to clean up the wastewater breech that occurred last month and consider long-term solutions for the facility ahead.
As we pull together around this topic, we commit to playing our part in helping find answers to these and other important questions regarding the AltEn facility.” - Susan Luke, Deputy Director for External Communications with Bayer