Judy Wu-Smart has witnessed bee colonies collapse, but never one after another after another in the same location.
Sometimes, a one-off event like a wayward pesticide application may trigger an acute bee kill, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of entomology said.
Sometimes, environmental factors will create a chronic loss of bees over time, requiring lengthy studies to eventually determine a cause.
Wu-Smart’s mystery, as it would turn out, was both. Every hive she has deployed at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead since 2017 — 36 in all, each with between 40,000 and 60,000 bees — has collapsed.
“It’s heartbreaking to see all these bees dying despite all the management you know you’re doing correctly,” Wu-Smart said. “They are still spilling out of the hive en masse, and you can’t slow it down.”
As Wu-Smart would discover over time, the dying bees were a proverbial canary in the coal mine, a signal of a larger, slow-moving environmental calamity unfolding in Saunders County that she and others would trace back to AltEn Ethanol, which began operating in 2015.
After starting as the manager of the UNL Bee Lab in the same year, Wu-Smart was eager to begin working with graduate researchers studying how tree lines and vegetation may be used as a buffer against pesticide-laden dust coming off of fields into pollinators' habitats.
In particular, Wu-Smart was interested in how bees naturally come into contact with neonicotinoids, pesticides similar to nicotine that overstimulate insects’ nervous systems and eventually cause paralysis and death.
The bees in each of the four hives she placed at the research center in 2017 died off before adequate data could be collected. The speed with which it occurred led her team to shift their research focus into discovering the cause.
All nine hives put out the next year also collapsed, but Wu-Smart and her graduate researchers were ready, gathering nectar and pollen from the hives to send to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Science Laboratory in Gastonia, North Carolina.
The autopsy of sorts showed the presence of neonicotinoids, but the results did nothing to explain where the bees had come into contact with the chemicals before they brought it back to the hive.
Wu-Smart made the decision in 2019 to put the hives out after spring planting, to avoid any pesticide-laden dust blowing in from surrounding fields. She also spoke with the UNL research center about its pesticide management to rule out on-farm practices.
The hives died once again, signaling that something bigger and more systemic was creating a persistent stressor on the colony, likely existing in the environment.
Along with food samples, Wu-Smart’s team clipped milkweeds — a favorite food source for pollinators — from a nearby waterway and sent those samples to the USDA lab for study.
As a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, she had studied the effects of neonicotinoids on the behavior of a bee colony, deliberately exposing them to a concentration of up to 100 parts per billion.
Residue on the milkweed leaves showed concentrations of clothianidin, a pesticide commonly used to coat seeds, ranging between 3,000 and 5,000 parts per billion, far exceeding the level of 70 ppb deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency for food and water.
The results were so shocking, Wu-Smart and her team contested their validity. “We literally thought that they had some kind of lab spill and contamination.”
It was the highest level of clothianidin ever collected from natural field vegetation, Wu-Smart said. Neonicotinoids had only ever been recorded in those concentrations in injected trees, but never clothianidin.
The lab results only added to the scope and scale of the mystery.
“There was a sense of urgency to figure this out,” Wu-Smart said.
'Chemicals don't just disappear'
Living a few miles north of Mead, Paula Dyas said it’s not uncommon for Buddy, Athena and Scout — her dogs — to begin gnawing on something they shouldn’t.
When two of her dogs became violently ill — showing symptoms like shaking, dilated pupils, vomiting and lethargy — just hours after eating a substance dumped on a nearby field, Dyas became worried.
And, as a senior research scientist for the pharmaceutical company Merck, curious.
Neighbors informed her the material being spread in the fields near her home in late March and early April of 2018 was a new soil conditioner produced and sold by AltEn Ethanol to farmers.
Dyas called the plant and asked them if there was anything in the product that could explain her dogs getting sick. As a byproduct of the ethanol-making process, a plant official responded, it’s likely some residual alcohol ingested by the dogs had made them ill.
“Nobody said anything about pesticides; I had to find that out talking to people,” Dyas said. “When I finally called (AltEn) and asked them about the pesticides, they said, 'That would have all burned off.’”
Any residual pesticides in the soil conditioner being applied to the fields would not be at levels measurable to make her dogs sick, an AltEn official told her.
Dyas said their response sounded like a “long shot,” scientifically speaking.
“Chemicals don’t just disappear,” she said.
Dyas collected samples of the material that had been flung into a grassy area near her home and, with the help of a local veterinarian, sent them to Iowa State University for testing.
The lab in Ames, Iowa, determined the sample contained at least six different fungicides and one pesticide, all chemicals commonly used in corn and soybean treatments. But the analysis only showed the presence of those compounds, not how much was in each.
Attaching the lab report to a pair of seed tags, she sent them off to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (now the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy). But without a quantitative analysis, she was told it would be impossible to draw any conclusions.
“Nearly all of the pesticides listed on the ISU report are classified by (the Environmental Protection Agency) as having relatively low toxicity to mammals in field application concentrations,” wrote Tim Creger, the Ag Department's pesticide and fertilizer program manager.
“(A)nd there is no way to determine if they were carried through the ethanol manufacturing process in concentrations that were high enough to cause symptoms in dogs,” Creger added.
That was a plausible explanation, Dyas said, but after her dogs got sick eating from a different pile of soil conditioner the next year, she became even more convinced pesticides were present in the soil conditioner — and at higher concentrations than many suspected.
“The argument the state gave me was the level in the residue wouldn’t be high enough to cause the symptoms I’ve seen in my dogs,” she said. “Until somebody at the state looks at the actual concentration, nobody knows what you’ve got.”
The town of 569 about 40 miles north of Lincoln on U.S. 77 advertises itself as the perfect bedroom community on its website: “If you’re ready to escape the city, come join us in Mead, Nebraska!”
Darsey Zwiener and Alberto Silva said they chose to settle in Mead with their children for that very reason, but that the “horrible odor” that had started emanating from AltEn in 2015 after the plant emerged from bankruptcy with new owners had them considering leaving.
“As professionals we recognize the importance of a business making a profit; but as community members we also value the quality of life that this small town provides,” they wrote in a letter to the village board. “The fact that this business interferes with our quality of life needs to be known and expressed.”
Likewise, Katie Ballue-Dommel said the smell kept her small children indoors when they otherwise would be playing in the nice weather.
“It was so stinky and so disgusting that when it was bad, which was pretty often, and it was a nice day, you couldn’t have your windows open or go outside,” said Ballue-Dommel, who lived in Mead between 2015 and 2018 before moving out of state.
While some in her family battled allergies before the plant went into operation, the whole family developed a series of respiratory issues, including bronchitis, sinus infections and asthma. “We all struggled,” she said.
Julia Fries graduated from Mead High School and returned about six years ago. She’s used to the feedlot smell wafting into town from the south, but added the odor that blows in from AltEn is “something totally different, far more pungent.”
Her children refuse to go outside when the odor is really bad, the high school youth group she leads opts to stay inside for their Wednesday evening gatherings, and Fries said she’ll avoid heading south toward the plant when she runs so she doesn’t get a coughing attack.
“When we moved to Mead, there was just a cattle smell, which in my mind is bearable. You get used to it after a while,” Fries said. “This you don’t get used to.”
Residents living as far away as Wahoo — about 7 miles to the west — say they, too, can get a whiff of the plant when the wind is blowing the right direction.
Dead and dying raccoons
A new delivery of AltEn's byproduct left in a pile adjacent to Dyas' property in January 2019 raised new concerns about the material sold to farmers to improve the condition of the soil.
Eric Nelson, who lives about a half-mile away from Dyas, witnessed a dozen or so raccoons dead or dying near the pile, which was situated about a football field away from the Upper Clear Creek.
“They couldn’t walk, couldn’t see, couldn’t stand up,” Nelson said. “They were in pain.”
A lifelong hunter and trapper, Nelson said he did not see any signs of distemper, a virus that infects raccoons’ breathing and digestion. These raccoons near the pile of soil conditioner, Nelson said, were “nice, big, fat, healthy raccoons.”
Whatever they had eaten near the pile of soil conditioner had “affected them pretty darn fast,” he added.
Nelson and Dyas called the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Wildlife officer Rich Berggren investigated and relayed his findings to both the state Department of Environmental Quality and Ag Department.
An analysis of the sample showed a “broad spectrum of pesticides typically found in seed treatments,” the Ag Department’s Creger wrote in a report.
The results showed concentrations of clothianidin at 7,270 ppb, as well as six pesticides that had showed up in Dyas’ sample a year earlier: Imidacloprid, metalaxyl, fludioxonil, imidacloprid, tebuconazole and trifloxystrobin.
After some discussion, officials from several different agencies decided to collect a sample directly from the AltEn site.
Creger did so in late March, and received the results from the South Dakota Ag Labs on April 19, 2019.
The sample showed the soil amendment contained concentrations of clothianidin as high as 427,000 ppb, and thiamethoxam — another neonicotinoid used in seed treatments — at 85,100 ppb.
At those levels, the byproduct sold by AltEn was being applied at the suggestion of an agronomist to area farm ground at more than 85 times the maximum recommended by the seed company, according to the state Ag Department's report.
Dead bees and data
Shortly after the 2020 planting season concluded, Wu-Smart once again deployed honey bee hives at the UNL ag research center south of Mead.
Less than a week later, however, she observed the telltale signs of pesticide exposure in bee colonies — shaking and trembling that signaled impairment caused by a nerve toxin — before yet another hive collapse.
Once more, along with pollen samples and food stores from the hive, Wu-Smart’s team reexamined milkweed samples from several locations near UNL’s Insect Field Building where they had observed paralyzed butterflies on flowers and bees stuck in milkweed stems.
The samples cut from closer to the middle of a ditch running through the research center had registered clothianidin at levels between 1,600 and 3,600 ppb, while samples from a few meters outside the waterway measured a more modest 36 ppb.
The results ran counter to the hypothesis Wu-Smart and her team had been working under. They expected the samples collected closer to the edge of the crop field where the pesticides had been applied to have higher concentrations of neonicotinoids.
Wu-Smart said the new data points to some level of contaminated water moving through the research farm, creating hot spots of concentrated pesticide in flowers and plants the bees are naturally drawn to.
But there isn't yet enough data to determine whether the water was from wastewater runoff, or groundwater translocating into the plants.
“I have dead bees and some very limited pesticide data that suggests there is something going on,” she said.
When she called the Ag Department in May to ask if there had been any accidents applying pesticides in the area or a mosquito abatement program by Saunders County, Wu-Smart began connecting the dots.
She was told a June 2018 inspection of AltEn by the state DEQ found numerous violations of the state’s stormwater control systems, including poorly maintained lagoons that overflowed, with the runoff flowing directly toward the research center to the south.
Samples of wastewater from the lagoons showed levels of clothianidin ranging between 5,000 and 31,000 ppb, thiamethoxam at 24,000 ppb, as well as other pesticides and fungicides at concentrations far exceeding standards deemed safe by the EPA.
While being careful to not draw conclusions or make a direct connection back to the ethanol plant without enough data, Wu-Smart said wastewater, groundwater in vegetation, or even bees inhaling pesticides while foraging near the AltEn plant about a mile away from the research farm are all potential suspects in the death of UNL's bee colonies.
Still, there is little the Ag Department could do when Wu-Smart called. Without a solid lead on where the pesticides might be coming into contact with the bees, she was told the investigation was more research than regulatory in nature.
“The pollinator protection laws that govern bee kills are in place for situations where there is a misuse of a pesticide application, which this is not,” she said. “This is the result of a potentially systemic pesticide pollution.”
Wu-Smart is organizing research efforts to determine the potential long-term impacts pesticide contamination may have, both on the bees as well as the larger community.
“It’s not about the bees dying,” she said. “It’s about the fact that we constantly talk about how honey bees are a bio-indicator species, and this is a perfect case showing something is going on.”