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Protections for Honey Bees Killed by Farm Lobby

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Populations of honey bees have been falling over the last decade, eliminating pollinators necessary for the farming of many fruits, vegetables, and nuts. 

Scientists have concluded that one of the likely contributing causes of the bee deaths is the growing use of insecticides on farms and gardens.  Chemicals called neonicotinoids – or neonics, for short -- contain a form of nicotine that is intended to kills pests.  But neonics also cause subtle damage to the nerve systems of bees, intoxicating them so that they can’t find their way back home to their hives. The bees wander off and die.

Researchers say other factors may be involved in the bee declines, too – including a virus, parasites, the destruction of flowering trees and meadows, and stresses from modern industrial farming practices, which require truckloads of bees to be hauled thousands of miles to pollinate fruit and nut farms.

But the disease  and parasite problems may be worsened by the application of insecticides, which weaken bees.   So in 2013, the European Union imposed a two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids.

In Maryland, a bill in the General Assembly would take steps toward restricting the use of neonics. Senate Bill 163 would ban the sale of the insecticides to homeowners who spray the chemicals on their gardens. 

The bill would also require that all flowers and other plants sprayed with neonics and sold in garden stores and nurseries to bear warning labels. The labels warn consumers that the chemical contribute to the die-off of bees.

Jay Feldman, executive director of an advocacy group called Beyond Pesticides, testified in favor of the bill in a recent hearing of the Maryland Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

“We are seeing very serious declines in pollinator populations,” Feldman said. “This isn’t just bees. We are seeing declines in virtually all of the pollinators – bees, butterflies, and birds. And as a result, we are asking, why did this happen?  Why have we seen this dramatic decline since 2006?  In fact, in Maryland, over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a bee declines in the 50 to 60 percent range.”

Potentially at risk in the disappearance of pollen-spreading insects is not only a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, but also one in every three bites of food that people eat.

Dr. Eric Schott, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that neonics persist in the environment and are washed by rain into streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

“Neonics are neurotoxins. That’s what they are designed to be,” Schott said. “And they are very effective – they are very effective against insects and other arthropods –and that includes crustaceans.  And I would include in those crustaceans, blue crabs, as well as some of the smaller zooplankton that live in the Chesapeake Bay that form the foundation of the food web on which striped bass, menhaden, and shad all depend. “

The manufacturers of the insecticides, including Bayer, defend the use of the chemicals, arguing that they revolutionize the ability of farmers to control pests and are not harmful when applied in appropriate amounts.  “Laboratory research focuses on the response of individual bees to different pesticide application rates – including deliberate overexposure,” Bayer said in a written statement. “Such research is useful for product evaluation, but results do not imply that they are transferable to ‘real world’ field exposure conditions.”

During the hearing in the Maryland General Assembly, the Maryland Farm Bureau testified against the neonic control legislation, even though it would not affect farmers – only gardeners and garden stores, as a first step.  

Colby Ferguson, government relations director for the Farm Bureau, said that growing flowers and shrubs for sale at garden stores is a $200 million a year industry in Maryland that could be hurt if customers are scared away by warning labels about neonics.

“I don’t like when people just say, ‘Oh, it’s just a label. We’re just putting on a label,’ Ferguson said. “ It specifically says, ‘Warning. Bees are essential to many agriculture crops.  This product has been treated with neonicotinoid pesticides found to be a major contributor to bee deaths, and the depletion of the bee population.  Any time I’ve ever talked to a consumer who sees a warning label on something such as a plant, an annual or a perennial, most likely they are not going to purchase that.  So that is a direct negative effect to our farmers.”

Governor Larry Hogan’s Department of Agriculture opposed the bill, saying it would require the agency to hire three inspectors at a cost of almost $195,000 a year. That is money the agency says it does not have.

“This bill comes with no funding source,” said Joe Bartenfelder, Maryland’s Secretary of Agriculture (MDA). “ You can debate it back and forth. But the reality of the situation is our resources at MDA are stretched absolutely thin.”

With the opposition of the state agency and the influential farm lobby, the chairs of the senate and house environmental committees declined to even bring the bill to a vote.

So the effort to protect honey bees died last week in committee.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.