The stakes are high for honeybees.
A survey conducted by the USDA shows apiaries continue to lose nearly one third of hives each year.
That has led some environmental activists to push for further restrictions on a pesticide used to treat seed corn.
As Peter Gray reports from the WUIS Harvest Desk, two central Illinois beekeepers are seeing very different results as they work to keep bees healthy in the Midwest Corn Belt:
61-year-old Arvin Pierce has been preventing calls to the exterminator for seven years. Each colony removal is a discovery:
“You’ll get these open and it’s kind of like a present. You know, ‘cause you open it up and it’s a little surprise…”
We’re standing in the dark, cave-like basement of a cabin at a hunting club near Chandlerville. The owner - severely allergic to bees – called Pierce to remove the buzzing colony under his floor.
Pierce hands me a veil. On top of his is a red light, which shines down on his long beard - and a wide grin. He’s short in stature and his brown-gray hair is tied back in a ponytail. He’s not wearing gloves. Instead, he has duct tape wrapped around the cuffs of his shirt. He climbs a metal scaffold and begins prying open the ceiling:
“I started doing these cutouts – and taking survivor bees out of trees and houses and barns – and my bees are doing really well. It’s certainly not anything I’m doing. I don’t have any special secret or talent.”
Pierce calls these colonies especially valuable. He believes natural selection makes these bees - thriving in the wild - stronger than those treated with chemicals to ward off pests and infection:
“I don't like chemicals. I grew up on a little black dirt farm and it is just the principle I have that the less chemicals you use, the better off you are.”
Pierce lives in the rural community of Lowder, in south Sangamon County. But he has 58 hives scattered across central Illinois - in backyards, orchards - even the rooftop of a restaurant in downtown Springfield.
While beekeepers around the nation report losses of bees around 30 percent, Pierce's winter loss rate is closer to three percent.
Another central Illinois beekeper - who, like Pierce, collects swarms of live bees - has not been that lucky:
"As a beekeeper, bees are like a member of your family. And when you go out there and you find them dead, its very disheartening."
That's Rick Nuss of Rantoul. In May, Nuss filed a complaint with the EPA and the Illinois Dept. of Agriculture, claiming a farmer planting pesticide-treated seed corn triggered a massive die-off in his backyard.
“I went out after he got done planting and looked, and there were piles of dead bees out in front of my hives. The next morning when I went out and looked it was like a carpet of bees.”
Nuss says he'll be lucky if he can produced a tenth of the honey he did last year. His local beekeeping association alerted him of the suspected danger of pesticides used to treated corn known as neonicotinoids:
“It's one of the worst chemicals I've ever seen for killing things. I mean it's instant.”
So how dangerous are neonicotinoids? If the following records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act are any indication, not enough to warrant much reporting to government regulators:
Ill. Dept. of Agriculture Pesticide Misuse Complaints
Only Rick Nuss and one other Illinois beekeeper have filed incident reports in the past four years. Two beekeepers in a state with 2,000 registered apiaries.
"Screaming about it to the media and reporting it to the EPA, who can actually do something about it are two very, very different things."
Randy Oliver is a veteran beekeeper, biologist and contributor to the American Bee Journal. He says petitions circulating on the internet and alarmist news reports linking neonicotinoids with dying bee colonies will not help his fellow environmentalists.
Oliver says instead of grabbing headlines, beekeepers concerned about chemicals should get in touch with regulators:
"If it's not reported onto paper somewhere, it does not exist, as far as the regulatory system is involved. So beekeepers have only themselves to blame about this."
Rick Nuss of Rantoul defends Illinois beekeepers, saying they simply haven't had enough information:
“They're not reporting because they don't know what's going on. Now that we're aware of it, in our Association, next year when it happens they're going to get all kinds of reports.”
While the debate over honeybee health continues, Arvin Pierce presses on with his colony removals. He started preventing calls to the exterminator for a very personal reason:
"I really like them and I really don't like the idea of them being killed. They are really beneficial, they're helpful to all of us and… I think I like the challenge of it too.”
Pierce says just because his bees are thriving while others are dying doesn’t mean he has any answers. If anything, he only has more questions.
But Pierce says the unknown - and the unexpected - are just part of the job:
“If you like flying by the seat of your pants, you will make a good beekeeper. Because you never know what you gonna find when you open a hive.”
CLICK HERE TO READ 2013 IDOA PESTICIDE MISUSE REPORTS