Stricter regs for neonicotinoids supported by Valley beekeepers, activists

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 08, 2017, by Rebecca Mullen

Pioneer Valley beekeepers and activists cheered a proposed State House bill limiting the sale of a pesticide class that scientists say is harmful to honey bees and other pollinators.

House Bill 2113, “An Act to protect Massachusetts pollinators,” would put stricter parameters on the sale and application of the neonicotinoid (also called neonic) pesticide class. If the bill passes, property owners would need to be made aware of the risks of the pesticide prior to use on the land.

“Neonicotinoids are destroying a lot of the honey bee colonies across the country and here in Massachusetts,” said State Senator Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, who filed a Senate version of the bill. “It could have a real damaging effect on the growing of crops and fruits and vegetables in Massachusetts.”

The bill has 130 co-sponsors, including John Scibak, D-South Hadley; Peter Kocot, D-Northampton; Donald Humason, R-Westfield; Solomon Goldstein-Rose, D-Amherst; and Eric Lesser, D-East Longmeadow.

State Rep. Carolyn C. Dykema, D-Holliston, who proposed the bill, made it clear in an interview with the Gazette that the bill is not a ban, but rather imposes some restrictions on the use of neonics.

Numerous scientific studies have linked neonics to bee death. A multi-year study conducted in Hungary, Germany and the United Kingdom indicated that longterm exposure to neonics led to lower success rates in hives surviving the winter and reproduction in honeybees and wild bees.

According to the June 30 issue of Science Magazine, where the study was published, “These field results confirm that neonicotinoids negatively affect pollinator health under realistic agricultural conditions.”

Dykema said that though some neonics are helpful — for example, they can help fight invasive species like the Asian longhorn beetle — that they have “a very damaging effect on bees.” Her goal with the bill is to “make sure that everyone who does use them uses them as sparingly as possible.” Ultimately, she added, “the science clearly supports my bill.”

Ann Rein, president of the Plymouth County Beekeepers Association, said she is worried about the ubiquity of the pesticides. Many seeds are treated with neonic, including some plants sold at commercial garden centers, she said in a phone call with the Gazette Monday.

“They’re all listed on labels, but are you going to know what a neonic is? Not likely,” she said.

Rein owns a small 15-hive apiary in Hanson that she calls her “bit of Earth.” She worries about the impact that neonics have on all pollinators, including other bee species and butterflies.

“We’re affecting the whole environment,” she said. “The honeybee is the canary in the coal mine.”

Rorie Woods, owner of Abundant Harvest Apiary in Hadley, said she is protective of her beehives. She used to rent out her hives to help pollinate commercial farms, but when she saw her bees get sick, she chose to move to a remote location to limit their exposure to the pesticide.

“I’m avoiding farmers and crops, which is ridiculous,” Woods said. “When my hives get exposed, I pick them up and move them.”

Bill Crawford, owner of New England Apiaries and Billy C’s Raw Honey, said that he is less worried about individual usage of neonics than he is about industrial use of the pesticide in Midwestern states. He has bee farms in Massachusetts, Georgia and Ohio, and said he notices differences in bee health depending on how close their hives are to industrial agriculture.

“You can definitely tell the difference between a bee that’s next to a big patch of corn versus one that’s next to forest or hayfields,” he said.

Crawford compared bee neonic poisoning to “having a belly ache.” He said that the pesticide interferes with bees’ immune systems and makes them more susceptible to disease and mites. This makes them less productive. Because the symptoms can take a while to show up, it can be hard for beekeepers to know how bad the situation is, he said.

“It’s kind of scary, because you don’t know the extent of the damage until quite a while down the road,” Crawford said.

He first noticed the issue in the early 2000s and he has not seen it improve. Most beekeepers, he said, lose about 30-40 percent of bees every year due to neonic exposure and other factors.

Even so, Crawford says he does not blame the farmers who use these pesticides.

Industrial farming practices, he said, prioritize high-yield crops — sometimes at the expense of the safety of bees.

“They only have what’s available to them,” he said. “To have things change, things need to be done with legislation — banning neonics. Corn and soybeans seem to be more important in the eyes of the government.”

Currently, Maryland and Connecticut have successfully banned neonicotinoids. The European commission has also recommended their ban in the European Union.

The bill will reach a public hearing in late September.

“We’re far from a vote on the floor,” Dykema said, but she’s “hoping to get it done by this session,” by the end of July 2018.

Although the proposed State House bill would not totally ban neonics in Massachusetts, some activists are still optimistic.

“We think this is a pretty good step,” said Peggy MacLeod, a Western Mass Pollinator Network member. “It’s sort of like recycling. After a while, it just caught on and a lot of people started doing it.”