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Honey bee deaths hit 40%, losses $1.6 billion

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

As the Environmental Protection Agency nears approval of another deadly new pesticide, the honey industry is revealing that the mysterious disease snuffing out bees, blamed in part on advanced pesticides, killed 40 percent of the nation's hives last year, bringing the total lost to at least $1.61 billion over the last six years.

Industry officials told the EPA this week that honey bee operators who travel the country pollinating the nation's vegetable, nut and fruit crops like apples orchards from Winchester, Va., to Thurmont, Md., are on the verge of extinction and that the further use of new insecticides in the neonicotinoid class could be their end.

"We have to conserve bees, we have to value them," pleaded Bret Adee, the nation's largest bee keeper at an EPA pollinator summit this week. Adee, who lost 60 percent of his hives last year, added, "If we were talking about cows, this would be all over the news."

While the EPA is worried about the plight of the honey bee, responsible for pollinating about 70 percent of the world's organic foods, it is set to OK a new neonicotinoid called Sulfoxaflor, sought by southern growers of grain and cotton.

Several groups have joined beekeepers to beg the EPA to reverse course. The Center for Food Safety, the Pesticide Action Network, American Bird Conservancy and Friends of the Earth, are worried that Sulfoxaflor will kill bees, birds and some saltwater fish. They also claim that it hasn't been tested enough.

The honey industry believes that advanced pesticides are largely responsible for the curse called "colony collapse disorder," in which bees simply stop returning to their hives.

Kim Flottum, the editor of Bee Culture, the industry magazine, said that the "trainwreck" occurs mostly in commercial hives where bees are placed near pesticide covered grain fields. "The poison is everywhere corn is," he said.

Adee revealed that the industry has lost 5,650,000 hives over the past seven years. Each hive cost about $200, putting the loss at $1.13 billion. Add in the lost honey production from those hives, and the loss grows to $1.61 billion. "The problem is pretty large," said Adee, co-owner of Adee Honey Farms in Bruce, S.D.