After a massive bee kill, a scientist challenges pesticide policies

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Entomologist Judy Wu-Smart at the U.S. Capitol. (Credit: Judy Wu-Smart)

In 2016, Judy Wu-Smart saw every sign that her career was off to a great start.

She was starting a new post as leader of the bee lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Her doctoral dissertation, on the health of queen bees, had made headlines. Her students were kicking off some intriguing new research.

Then all her bees started dying.

“We would walk into our bee yards,” she said, “and your heart would just sink.”

In colony after colony, the bees were shaking and seizing. They were “dying in this horrendous way,” said Wu-Smart, who is an associate professor of entomology.

Since her investigation started in 2017, about 90 colonies have died, each of which contained 20,000 to 30,000 bees. She said her typical work day involved seeing “piles and piles of dead bees.”

Their symptoms, she said, were consistent with exposure to toxins.

The likely cause: Not far from the bee yards, a plant was converting excess crop seeds coated with neonicotinoids – a pesticide that’s chemically similar to nicotine – into ethanol.

The role of neonicotinoids in the health of bees and the collapse of colonies is the subject of significant scientific debate. Researchers are also studying multiple factors that may affect bee health, including genetics, Varroa mites, poor nutrition due to the loss of crop diversity, the presence of fungus, and bacterial infections.

Wu-Smart’s experience with the dying bees led her to rethink the role of scientists, who are typically encouraged to educate – not advocate. She has decided to advocate.

In the years since she encountered the bee die-off in her research hives, she has testified and consulted on legislation to limit pesticides – specifically neonicotinoids, which coat the outside of corn seed. She has taken her case to Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, California and New Jersey. In all these jurisdictions, she has told the story of what happened to her hives, and she has consistently provided testimony in states that are considering banning the treated seeds. Because of the high bar for federal regulation of pesticides, she is focusing on efforts in statehouses.

She knows that bans may not gain traction in many states. However, she consults with legislative staffers on the issue whenever they call.

A Dicey Proposition

Even in the extreme case of a scientist who has suffered the losses of millions of bees, crossing the line from hard science to advocacy can be a dicey career move. However, Wu-Smart does not believe that her political activity has cost her any credibility. If anything, other scientists are looking to her for pointers, she said.

“I think these efforts have been well-received by many colleagues and even university leadership,” Wu-Smart wrote in an email. “Many of the researchers and the non-profit organizations I have been working with have asked for advice on testifying and training tips for engaging with policy makers themselves so there’s a definite demand and need.” 

To build on those efforts, and to introduce the next generation to the notion of advocacy in science, she has started taking science students to the state capitol as well.

Her advocacy in Nebraska helped state Sen. Carol Blood secure $1 million for research in 2022 on the presence of neonicotinoids in people’s homes near the ethanol plant.

“I can say that the reason she and I work together so well is because I believe in science, facts and data,” said Blood, a Democrat who represents Bellevue and Papillon. “She doesn’t come in and preach. She comes in and educates.”

Bringing the Slideshow

It’s safe to say that Wu-Smart stands ready to educate. If you sit down to talk with her, she’ll run a slideshow.

Wu-Smart became fascinated with the mysterious ways of wild bees nearly two decades ago, during a research project on orchid bees in South Florida during a posting for the Student Conservation Association for Americorps. She described the creatures as an “amazing little bumblebee-like bee” that collects oils from orchids. What she learned: The bees could synthesize their own perfume to attract mates even without feeding on pollen from orchids.

“That was about the same time as colony collapse disorder was highlighted in Florida,” she said. “One moment, I’m just blown away by these incredible wild bees, and then the next moment, I’m learning all these bees are dying.”

Although her bachelor’s degree had been in zoology, she entered a master’s program in entomology to study bee health and pollination in Washington state, where apple pollinators support the state’s top crop.

At Washington State University, she studied how pesticide residues accumulate in honeycombs.

What she learned: Beekeepers are creatures of habit – to the extent that some of them held onto legacy combs that had been handed down by their grandparents. The oldest combs held traces of the oldest pesticides, including the highly toxic DDT, which was banned in 1972.

Wu-Smart holds a bee frame. (Credit: Judy Wu-Smart)

Researchers recommended that beekeepers remove old combs so that pesticide loads would not accumulate.

“We saw a big shift in beekeepers’ willingness to cull old combs,” Wu-Smart said. “It was definitely kind of cool to see that your research results ended up changing a practice in the industry.”

Her posting for her Ph.D. in entomology proved to be more politically charged.

From 2010 to 2015, at the University of Minnesota, Wu-Smart’s research dropped her into the scientific controversies surrounding the effects of neonicotinoids on bee health.

For her research, Wu-Smart compared the health of queens in honeybee and bumblebee colonies when they were exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides. Honeybee queens receive food that’s processed and filtered by the worker bees. They are less likely to come into direct contact with contaminated nectar or pollen. But bumblebee queens may forage directly from flowers, especially in spring, when they are just starting nests. Wu-Smart was testing whether the direct contact with toxins affected the bumblebees’ egg-laying cycle.

“These queens were more sensitive to these contaminants,” she said.

Her research showed that the bumblebee queens that consumed neonicotinoids experienced a two-week delay in the initiation of their nests. In a three- to five-month cycle, two weeks makes for a substantial delay.

“The study showed some really alarming concerns,” she said, “but it didn’t necessarily say that the colonies won’t ever recover.”

The nuance in her findings – that exposure to chemicals affected hives, but did not result in permanent loss – underscores the divide in the scientific community over whether to restrict neonicotinoids. Regulators at the EPA ban substances that kill, or that can contribute to killing bees or disrupting reproduction. However, if those substances show lesser effects, such as impairing communication and foraging, those findings do not necessarily reach the level that spurs regulation.

Scientists in the field, she said, are working to reach consensus on appropriate benchmarks for regulation: Should it happen when a queen stops laying eggs? Or when a substance is lethal to a colony?

The debate over whether sublethal effects of neonicotinoids threaten hives and honeybee health, and, ultimately, the ability to pollinate crops, remains one of the most significant areas of debate in the field. A subset of the research focuses on the pesticide’s potential effects on communication in colonies and behavior of individual bees – and whether those effects threaten hives.

Healthy bees in a frame used for research. (Credit: Judy Wu-Smart)

Wu-Smart, for her part, knows where she stands.

“Death is not an appropriate end point for honeybees,” she said.

Environmental Disaster in Nebraska

She’s seen enough death.

In 2016, in Mead, Neb., not far from her lab, Wu-Smart set up hives with a student in the doctoral program to find out if trees would provide a barrier for bees in specially designed “pollinator habitats” from potentially toxic dust that was produced by an ethanol plant.

The plant, owned by a now-bankrupt company called AltEn, converted surplus crop seeds into ethanol. The seeds had been treated with pesticides, including neonicotinoids. The neonicotinoid levels in the vicinity were extremely high, recorded at thousands of times the levels considered safe by the EPA.

In a story by U.S. Right to Know in 2021, Carey Gillam wrote that the “environmental catastrophe” attracted nationwide attention and raised questions about why regulators were “unable or unwilling to rein in years of questionable activities” by the company. In another story, Gillam wrote that the plant had been contaminating the area for years at unsafe levels.

In the midst of that disaster, during her experiment, Wu-Smart found that trees did not protect the bees that were nested nearby.

After repeatedly finding piles of dead bees, Wu-Smart’s team checked the vegetation in the area, the liquids, and the dust from dust traps. The closer to the plant they tested, the higher the levels of pesticides.

“I think the dust was immediately causing deaths of the bees that were foraging,” she said.

After witnessing such massive losses – between two million and three million bees – Wu-Smart has experienced some catharsis in lobbying the Nebraska Legislature on issues that relate to bee health.

She said that she engages in frank discussions with students about the nature of the research in the bee lab, and that many students don’t want to go into the field of pollination and bee health, because it’s hard to kill bees for research.

“Students have a hard time with the process of poisoning bees,” she said.

Knowing that, and knowing how difficult that process has been in her own career, she makes sure to schedule “wellness events” for her students, such as crafting and archery.

“You have to build in these moments when you can decompress,” Wu-Smart said.

Now, she is also walking them up the steps to the Nebraska Legislature. Through a new internship program, she takes science students from a wide range of disciplines to the capitol to meet legislators.

According to Nikki Klosterman, an undergraduate and former intern in the program, the science students, at first, felt “out of our element a little bit” because none of them had any experience with the policy side.

“The trip helped make the idea of science communication and policy training a lot less of a daunting task,” she wrote in an email. It was an “amazing experience,” she wrote, and “we were all able to get good takeaways and understandings of processes that play a very important role in our careers.”

When they walk up those steps for their first encounter with the policy world, Wu-Smart no longer feels the despair of the bee kills. What she feels is excitement.

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