2.23.2018 – Pollinator Protection and What We Can Do
For several years, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee has been pondering the decline and challenges faced by some of our pollinators, in particular, native bees and honeybees. In 2016 the Legislature passed a bill that created the Pollinator Protection Committee (PPC). While the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets had been working on a Pollinator Protection Plan, recommended by the United State Environmental Protection Agency, it was felt that a committee with a wide variety of people would be helpful. Folks from all aspects of the field, including beekeepers, scientists, and farmers were appointed to the PPC, which was tasked with studying and evaluating the state of native pollinators and honeybees in Vermont. The results of the work of the PPC indicated interesting results.
While some want to blame pollinator decline entirely on pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics), there are actually several other factors that may be important contributors to the problem. One major problem is the loss of forage. Urbanization has resulted in a huge loss of habitat for pollinators. Agricultural practices have changed and hay that used to be harvested twice a year may now be harvested four or five times in a season. This eliminates the opportunity for flowering to occur, also reducing the amount of forage available. Beekeepers have noticed an increased cultivation of corn, which is self-pollinating, but this, too, has reduced the forage area.
An additional factor is the influx in the 1980s of mites, in particular, tracheal and varroa mites. The tracheal mites have been somewhat contained but varroa mites infect honeybees and other pollinators with viruses that weaken and kill them, and they have been hard to beat.
Pesticides such as neonicotinoids have also taken their toll. Neonics were introduced to replace a class of pesticides known as organophosphates that were significantly more toxic to mammals. Neonics are safe enough for mammals that they are used on cat and dog flea collars. They are, however, extremely toxic to insects and if a bee lands on a rose bush that has been recently sprayed with neonics, it will die.
Several years ago, we discovered that flowering plants that were being sold at big box stores had received a routine spraying of neonics, even if they were advertised as being attractive to bees! This practice has been curtailed but it wouldn’t hurt to ask before you, as a consumer, buy any plant that you hope will attract bees.
Perhaps, one of the most common uses of neonics in agriculture is in seed coatings. The vast majority of corn and soybeans planted in Vermont are coated prophylactically, whether it’s needed or not. While coatings have gotten much better in terms of generating lethal dust as the seed is planted, it still creates a problem because the neonics are absorbed and become part of the system of the plant. At the same time, some is released into the soil. As mentioned above, corn is self-pollinating and bees are not particularly interested in it, but the fact that it is going into the soil and running off into the waters of the state is a problem. It is having a negative effect on other insects such as benthic macroinvertebrates – dragonflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. When we disrupt the web of life, we are, potentially asking for trouble. A very interesting TED Talk by MacArthur Fellow, Marla Spivak, is available online.
H.688, an act relating to pollinator protection, is in our committee and we have been taking testimony from a wide variety of witnesses. The bill includes a number of provisions including the prohibition of the retail sale of products containing neonics unless the person has a pesticide dealer license and it is sold to a person with a Class A applicator license. This would mean that many products for home use would not be allowed for sale in Vermont. The challenge with this is our proximity to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. People could buy the products there and bring them back to Vermont – they are also available online. In order to enforce such a ban, someone would have to complain to the AAFM and they would then take action.
The bill allows for the use of neonics for farming only, but as mentioned above, the use of treated seed is contributing to higher concentrations of these chemicals in our waters. Part of the challenge with this is that there is a lack of untreated seed available for purchase. We took testimony from seed dealers and heard that if someone wants to purchase conventional untreated seed they have to order it by the middle of October before the planting season.
We have been very fortunate to have two extremely accomplished beekeepers in to testify. Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans has been keeping bees for 45 years and is internationally-known. He has 1,500 colonies in Vermont and New York and feels that while neonics have had some impact, more importantly the loss of forage has had a greater effect. He believes that if we could increase the amount of pollinator-friendly plants in utility rights-of-way, green strips, conservation easement areas, municipal green spaces, and under solar arrays, we could improve the situation greatly. Mike’s bee yards are surrounded by corn and soy fields and he hasn’t seen large losses.
Charles Mraz of Champlain Valley Apiary is a third-generation beekeeper in Middlebury. His hives are all in the Champlain Valley from Whiting to the Canadian border and he has suffered significant losses during some years. He is concerned that neonics are having a negative effect on his business.
I think that one of the most important things we can do is to provide education regarding the products that are available and being used. If you see imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, acetamiprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid or clothianidin, just to name a few, on the label, please use the product only as directed and not on plants when they are flowering. Even better would be to find other products or methods to use in place of neonics.
Also important is for people to understand the critical role pollinators play in our lives. Many of the fruits and vegetables we eat are reliant on pollination and even if vegetables like broccoli aren’t, the next generation of broccoli seed is.
As a result of our pollinator work several years ago, I got a beehive. I don’t recommend it for everyone because it requires a lot of attention. I am in awe of people like Mike Palmer who have hundreds of hives and thankful for my local bee mentors. It gives me great joy, however, when I see my bees out pollinating my garden and when I am able to harvest honey, give it for gifts, and enjoy it during the winter months. I am also filled with joy as I pick my raspberries with native tri-colored bumblebees going about their work right next to me as I do mine. I think if we all do a little, like plant a pollinator-friendly garden, we can help to protect our pollinators and ourselves in the bargain.