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Wild Side: It's hard to be a bee in Wisconsin

A honeybee approaches an apple blossom. (Photo from the University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Pierce County was once famous for its beekeepers and honey production. Hives around here averaged more than 80 pounds of honey each year. Light basswood tree flower honey was particularly prized. Hayfields with clover provided plenty of forage for bees. Fruit orchards were buzzing during blossom time and pollination was not a problem.

Now both domestic and wild bees are in trouble. Last year the honeybee colony die-off rate in Wisconsin was among the highest in the nation, over 60 percent. In addition to the domestic honeybee there about 500 species of wild bees in Wisconsin that pollinate not only crops but many species of native flowers, trees and shrubs.

Wisconsin pollinator populations have been declining, threatening production of apples, cranberries, blueberries, cherries and other fruits and vegetables that rely on bees, butterflies and other pollinators to produce seeds and fruit. In addition to pre-existing stresses on honeybees including viruses, varroa mites, nomadic beekeeping practices and extreme weather, now bees are being poisoned with insecticides that interfere with their navigation systems. They are losing their ability to locate and pollinate millions of dollars of crops in Wisconsin each year.

Introduced in the 1990s, the neonicotinoid group of insecticides was intended to reduce risk of the formerly used organophosphate broad-spectrum insecticides. Despite acceptance of neonic insecticides by the U.S. EPA as low-risk, two decades of increasing widespread use has resulted in insecticide resistance issues, impacts on native and domestic pollinators, and other environmental impacts.

Neonics are systemic in that they are absorbed and remain in the tissue of the plant. They are potent neurotoxins designed to attack the nervous system of insects that eat the crop plants. Neonics are persistent in the environment with high leaching and runoff potential, readily transported into groundwater and streams.

Neonics are highly toxic to a wide range of invertebrates. An international review of neonic concentrations in surface waters from 29 studies in nine countries, coupled with published data on toxicity to aquatic macroinvertebrates found that neonics present a significant risk to the diverse aquatic fauna that river ecosystems support. Strong evidence exists that water-borne neonic exposures are frequent, long term, and at levels toxic to many aquatic invertebrate species. Mayflies, caddisflies and midges appear to be the most sensitive. These are the insects that feed trout and many other fish species in our streams.

While it’s good that people in cities refrain from using neonic insecticides for home use and plant flowers for pollinators, the rural landscape has become hostile to pollinators. Now nearly every corn and soybean seed planted in this region is coated with neonic insecticides. The wild turkey I killed earlier this spring had a crop filled with green-colored neonic-coated seed corn.

Industrial farming of corn and soybeans in Wisconsin is a $2.6 billion dollar business. It seems that the commodity crop growers don’t care much about pollinators, given that corn and soybean crops don’t need them. Powerful lobbying by business interests seems to have hamstrung the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and the U.S. EPA in supporting continued use of neonic insecticides despite the fact that there are clear adverse environmental effects, there are substitutes and there are alternative ways to grow crops.

We are increasingly living in a corn/soybean desert around here. With all the bulldozed fencerows, plowed up grasslands, fewer bees, butterflies, and mayflies in the streams, our lives are diminished.

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--Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist