When bees are in trouble, so are we. At least one out of every three bites of food we take depend on bees for pollination. Berries, apples, cherries, broccoli, almonds, cucumbers and a host of other plants, including the alfalfa fed to cattle for our meat supply require the services of buzzing bees.
And bees are definitely in trouble. For the past 15 years or so, honeybee populations have been crashing – a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Some species of wild native bees and bumblebees have also declined.
There are multiple causes, including the parasitic Varroa mite, virus diseases, and pesticides. One study found over 100 chemicals, pesticides and insecticides in dead bees, including some used by beekeepers to combat mites.
One particular class of pesticides – neonicotinoids – is of particular concern. When used as a soil drench or injected into trees, these pesticides are taken up by every cell in a plant, making the plant toxic to any insect, bird or other creature who takes a bite of a leaf or a sip of nectar.
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Last year, the European Union banned three of the most powerful “neonics” for two years so they could be studied further. The cities of Eugene and Spokane have also banned their use on city property, and there are growing campaigns for statewide and national bans.
A few weeks ago, County Commissioner Sandra Romero wrote to Bud Hover, the director of the Washington state Department of Agriculture, to ask that the state take action to ban or restrict the use of neonics.
In a June 6 letter (available on the Department of Agriculture’s website), Hover acknowledges that in lab tests, neonics “can have adverse effects that are lethal or sub-lethal to bees, depending on the level of exposure” and that the sub-lethal effects include “impaired learning behavior, short and long term memory loss, reduced fecundity, altered foraging behavior and motor activity.”
Those are pretty alarming sub-lethal effects.
But, he says, there is not yet enough evidence for a ban, because there are so many causes of bee deaths, and neonics haven’t been proven to be a critical factor. Instead he says he will urge the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reassess neonic safety and use restrictions, ask for pollinator protection information on product labels, and request more training for licensed pesticide applicators, especially those who focus on ornamental plants that are attractive to bees.
Hover also calls for the publication of brochures on pollinator protection to be distributed at retail outlets that sell pesticides directly to consumers, and “encouraging the news media to print timely articles on pollinator protection in their home and garden sections.”
We’re flattered that Hover thinks the print media is still the most effective way to communicate with the public. But we doubt that the recommendations in his response to Commissioner Romero’s request will result in much protection for bees.
In today’s chemically saturated world, apparently it takes overwhelming evidence – and a truly major public outcry – for a pesticide to be banned.
So bring on the public outcry.
And while we’re waiting for that to be effective, we can all help bees by planting more flowers, and avoiding pesticides with neonicotinoids.