This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Bees and Pesticides Edition

Flickr | Wendy Seltzer | CC
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Planning pesticide application around the arrival of bees for pollination would seem like something that growers and beekeepers should be able to work out among themselves. Unfortunately, all too often, that hasn’t been the case. As someone who covers beekeeping explained to me, many large growers would rather spray when its optimal for them and then find a new operator next year if a beekeeper complains. The beekeepers don’t have sufficient bargaining power in that relationship to advocate for the health of their bees. Now the EPA is stepping in.

A federal rule to be proposed Thursday would create temporary pesticide-free zones when certain plants are in bloom around bees that are trucked from farm to farm by professional beekeepers, which are the majority of honeybees in the U.S. The pesticide halt would only happen during the time the flower is in bloom and the bees are there, and only on the property where the bees are working, not neighboring land.

The rule applies to virtually all insecticides, more than 1,000 products involving 76 different chemical compounds, said Jim Jones, EPA’s assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention. It involves nearly all pesticides, including the much-debated class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, he said.

The idea is “to create greater space between chemicals that are toxic to bees and the bees,”

… The new rule “doesn’t eliminate (pesticide) exposure to honeybees, but it should reduce it,” said University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum. “It may not be ideal, but it’s the best news in about 120 years. In concept, in principle, this is a big policy change.”

[Update] This is a move that is part of the Obama administration’s push to protect pollinators, but this specific move originated with the beekeepers. NPR reported on this last spring:

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Reports say up to 80,000 colonies were hurt in almond farms throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Eric Mussen studies beekeeping at the University of California Davis.

ERIC MUSSEN: This is not normal. We haven’t been seeing this for years and years and years. We used to see a touch of it here and there. But it’s becoming more frequent.

SANDERS: Beekeepers are blaming the most recent die-offs on something called tank mixing. Mussen says that’s when farmers apply more than one pesticide or insecticide at once.

MUSSEN: Growers don’t want to go through the fields time after time after time, putting on different pesticide materials. So they basically tank mix them all together and put them on.

SANDERS: Beekeepers met recently with the Environmental Protection Agency. They’re asking the agency for more thorough labeling on pesticides. And they want more restrictions on the times of day pesticides are spread. The EPA says they’re considering changes.

The Almond growers in California adopted voluntary guidelines last fall.

The importance of honeybees is now written across a first-ever set of public guidelines for almond growers and beekeepers, released Thursday by the California Almond Board. The guidelines are meant to safeguard bees, whose winter numbers have been plunging.

“We would not have an almond industry if we didn’t have bees,” said Richard Waycott, CEO of the Almond Board of California. “We’re joined at the hip with the beekeeping industry.”

What happens during almond pollination – especially when pesticides are applied – has a significant impact on beehives, experts say. As a result, the Almond Board guidelines focus on pesticide use, and especially how it is applied during almond bloom.

… In California, beekeepers in orchards from Fresno to Bakersfield encountered extremely harsh losses to colonies last season. A likely culprit: tank mixing of insecticides that are highly toxic to bees, said Eric Mussen, apiculturist with UC Davis Cooperative Extension. He said an estimated 80,000 to 87,000 bee colonies were damaged.

The guidelines, which are voluntary, seek to create a dialogue between almond growers and beekeepers, especially over pesticide use and the mixing of pesticides and fungicides.

… Phippen brings in 2,400 hives from as far as Montana and Texas to pollinate his trees. He said he has developed a close relationship with the beekeepers, but that such relationships are not always the norm.

“There are a lot of new people that have come into the industry, especially with the almond industry being so successful,” Phippen said. “There are former cotton growers and former wine grape growers that have become almond growers, and these practices are not familiar to them.”

The new guidelines were warmly received by those in the beekeeper community.

“I’m impressed with how well it addresses all the issues that have arisen over the past few years,” said Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at UC Davis. “The writers made it clear that there is research to be done concerning larva and young bees. They have also stressed the dangers of mixing insecticides and fungicides.”

The Food and Farm Discusion Lab conversation on this topic can be found here.

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