Beehive owners investigating mass bee kill



Three Minneapolis beekeepers are trying to find out why thousands of their honeybees were killed en masse earlier this fall.

The beekeepers have determined that deadly pesticides were used but they don’t know who applied them near their hives. The beekeepers are informing the public about the potential dangers of using these chemical agents near beehives.

Katherine Sill, a first-year urban beekeeper who lives in the Lowry Hill neighborhood, found a majority of her honeybees twitching and dying outside of her hive.

“It was a big kill at the doorway [to the beehives],” Sill said.

To run a test on affected bees Sill contacted the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and University of Minnesota Bee Squad, a mentorship program to educate and assist local beekeepers.

The lab result surprised Sill. “It was riddled with fipronil,” she said. “Whatever the event was must’ve been huge that took out all these [bees].”

The lab found two substances: fipronil and a presence of carbendazim, a fungicide that could not be applied by a homeowner.

Fipronil is a commonly used insecticide to control bugs such as ants and Asian lady beetles by applying to the foundations of homes, said John Peckham, MDA pesticide and fertilizer management program supervisor.

The twitching symptoms showed “a characteristic of a pesticide kill,” said Marla Spivak, a McKnight professor who specializes in apiculture/social insects, in the Minneapolis Bee Kill Update report.

“Small amounts of fipronil might not be acutely toxic, but higher amounts can be,” Spivak said.

Fipronil levels as low as 2 parts per billion (ppb) have been found to interfere with the bees’ ability to forage and there was 15 times the amount found in the samples, the report said.

MDA said there were no records of public entities that applied pesticides near the affected beehives at the time of the incident. It is nearly impossible to find the source because of Kenwood neighborhood’s high residential density, the report said.

MDA said further investigation would be made if more information was gathered.

Erin Rupp and Kristy Lynn Allen, owners of Beez Kneez, a honey and education company, lost bees as well and said they assumed insecticides were used at that location on the day of the incident.

Rupp and Allen said they had just transferred their beehives from another location prior to the bee kill.

“That [Insecticide kill] is something that doesn’t happen very much in urban settings, so this is pretty big that we were able to notice this that day still evident in some bees still alive.

“We don’t know if they are going to make it or not. The chances are not, ” Allen said. 

Rupp said they lost many hearty bees that had survived this past winter. She said that hurts their business because stronger bees provide more and better production of honey.

A bee’s ability to pollinate fruit and vegetables are what keeps produce prices relatively low for consumers, Rupp said.

Bees are also important pollinators of wildflowers. This bee kill, Spivak said, should serve as a “a big wake up call” for people to pay close attention to what they are spraying.

“We are not happy our hive died, but we are excited for the opportunity to hopefully speak to why it happened in a way that would hit people harder,” Allen said.

Spivak said before applying insecticides, one should carefully look at the label and avoid spraying on flowers where bees forage during the day.

“Protection of pollinator insects is necessary and important for the nation’s food supply. The health of pollinators is directly related to the health of the environment,” MDA’s Peckham said. 

Anna Lin is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.