Feb. 3, 2016
by Mike Polhamus
Vermont beekeepers and environmental advocates say it’s time to ban a class of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, but farmers say the chemicals are important for a number of crops, such as the roughly 1 million acres of corn Vermonters grow.
The chemicals have been implicated in dramatic bee die-offs over recent decades as their use has increased.
Legislators are considering a bill that would ban neonicotinoid pesticides in Vermont.
Defenders of the pesticide say bee die-offs are the result of many factors. Industry representatives and some legislators say it’s premature to ban a useful product with fewer toxic effects than other similar chemical treatments.
A professor at the University of Vermont College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ extension espouses that view.
“My understanding is that most scientists studying bee decline have pointed out that there’s many factors involved in the decline of, certainly honeybees, and possibly native bees — such as mites, disease, nutritional deficiencies, habitat losses and certainly pesticide exposure,” Sid Bosworth, an agronomy professor at the university, told legislators Friday.
Neonicotinoids are known to cause harm to bees, he said. But it’s important to wait for results from an Environmental Protection Agency study on the chemical before instituting a ban, “in order to make rational decisions based on sound science,” Bosworth said. The EPA plans to release a preliminary risk assessment on imidacloprid, the most popular of the neonicotinoids, by the end of this year.
Some academics and activists say the EPA study will only confirm what’s widely known among researchers already.
“One thing you hear is that the jury’s still out on the relative harm to bees, but a huge amount of research shows that (neonicotinoids) cause lethal and sublethal harm to bees,” said Leif Richardson, a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. Richardson’s area of research concerns bees, crops and the effects of chemicals on bees.
The body of data he refers to includes thousands of studies showing that neonicotinoids harm and kill bees, Richardson said.
Farmers use neonicotinoids because they very effectively kill insects, and there’s no question the chemicals kill bees, Richardson said.
Even in doses that aren’t enough to kill, neonicotinoids disorient bees, cause changes in their foraging habits, depress their reproductive rates, reduce their overall fitness and diminish the populations of their colonies, he said.
Sublethal doses also decrease bees’ resistance to other harms, such as mites and disease, Richardson said.
That weakening effect is a flaw in the reasoning that a number of causes are associated with bee declines, some say.
Ross Conrad, former president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association and owner of the Middlebury-based honey operation Dancing Bee Gardens, said he’s heard the entire line of argument before, from defenders of the tobacco industry.
“Most beekeepers, especially the larger ones, consider (neonicotinoids) an issue,” Conrad said.
Chemical industry representatives invest a great deal of effort convincing the public that numerous causes, including mites and diseases, contribute to widespread bee die-offs, Conrad said.
“That’s a classic Big Tobacco tactic, to dilute the blame and point the finger elsewhere,” he said.
Lawmakers should approach the problem holistically, Carsten said, and recognize the numerous causes of bee declines, instead of focusing on a single contributor to the problem.
A similar sentiment came from the chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products, whose panel is exploring forming a committee to study the effects of neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids are perhaps part of the problem, said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, but so are a number of other factors, including loss of habitat and diminished forage opportunities.
For instance, Partridge said, farmers used to cut hay twice in a season, and between cuts the hay would flower, allowing bees and other pollinators to forage. Today, farmers cut hay four or five times in a season, and since this schedule doesn’t permit hay to flower, pollinators suffer, she said.
Partridge said a ban is out of the question.
Legislators need to “evaluate all the issues affecting bees” before making any such decisions, she said.
Legislators must also consider what alternatives to neonicotinoids exist, because farmers will need to resort to something else if Vermont bans the chemical, Partridge said. That “something” could be older types of pesticides that were much more harmful to mammals, she said.
Bosworth told legislators that the older pesticides, called organophosphates, were applied manually and damaged all sorts of fauna that encountered the airborne poison, including the laborers who applied them.
Neonicotinoids, by contrast, come in the form of pretreated seeds, which draw the poison into the growing plants without dispersing it through the air, he said.
They do emit poisonous dust when they’re planted, and the plants themselves remain poisonous to invertebrates throughout their lives, but pretreated seeds contain that poison to a far greater degree than did previous treatments, he said.
Neonicotinoids are the only pesticide approved for pretreating seeds, Carsten said. They’re used to kill pests such as wire worms, seedcorn maggots, white grubs and black cutworms, all of which live in the soil, eat germinating seeds and are hard to spot and difficult to predict, she said. That makes a prophylactic pesticide such as neonicotinoids especially useful, she said.
But their prophylactic application may be unnecessary, legislators heard Friday.
Although 98 percent of corn sold in the United States is pretreated with neonicotinoids, studies have shown the treatment is unnecessary around 80 percent of the time, Peter Jenkins, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety, told lawmakers Friday in the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“It’s kind of like taking antibiotics every day to make sure you don’t get an infection: It doesn’t make sense,” Jenkins said later.
Crop yields haven’t suffered where these chemicals have been restricted, Jenkins said. That includes the European Union, where 27 countries have instituted a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, he said.
In fact, he said, the EPA conducted an analysis on soybean production and found that, on the whole, the pesticides’ use on that crop in the United States wasn’t producing any economic benefit to farmers.
Given the ubiquity of pretreated seeds today, Vermont farmers could suffer if they were required to find untreated seeds, several legislators said.
Partridge said a ban would be problematic for farmers for that reason. Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, the vice chair of the Agriculture Committee, said he’s wary of a ban for the same reason.
Carsten said untreated seeds are considered a specialty item in the seed industry. Other seed company representatives said told legislators their companies don’t even stock untreated seeds except in their lines of organic products.
Untreated seeds won’t necessarily cost more, but they’ll need to be ordered earlier in the year to ensure availability, Carsten told the Agriculture Committee.
Zuckerman said that could hurt farmers, who would need to plan and pony up the money in advance.
But current practices with neonicotinoids simply shift the cost elsewhere, said Conrad, the honey purveyor.
Beekeepers are experiencing ever-increasing rates of loss among their colonies, he said. Decades ago, bee losses of 3 percent to 5 percent a year were common, he said. In the 1990s, it became normal for beekeepers to lose 10 percent to 20 percent of a hive each year. Since 2006, around the time pretreated seeds became common, beekeepers frequently experience losses on the order of 30 percent to 40 percent, he said.
“The bottom line is, beekeepers are basically subsidizing the chemical industry, because we’re taking the hit for the substances they’re using,” he said.