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Wash. state pressed to save honey bees by restricting pesticides

Tom Banse

This is the time of year when local farmers count on bees and other insects to pollinate orchards and vegetable and berry fields. The change in the seasons is not the only thing creating a buzz in the world of beekeeping.

This week, the European Commission put a moratorium on the use of three popular pesticides judged to pose high risk to bees.

Beekeepers have started to push Washington State's Department of Agriculture to go in that direction, too. And that could have an effect on what's available at your local garden center.

Credit Tom Banse
Honey bees can forage up to 5 or 6 miles from their hive.

'When they die off, you feel that you’ve failed’

For about seven years, many Western beekeepers have been plagued by unexplained die-offs in their hives. It happened recently to Mark Emrich.

“Well, I was doing great until about five weeks ago. Then I came down and opened up the hives, and I had five dead boxes of bees. That was a huge hit,” said Emrich, who lost one-third of his production. 

Emrich sports a bushy beard and a ball cap with the logo of the Washington State Beekeepers Association. He's the group's president. Emrich shows no fear of being stung as he gently lifts a lid to check on his remaining bees. They shelter inside hives on his small farm near Olympia.

"It is very hard to deal with bee losses,” he said. “They are kind of like your little livestock and you try to really manage them and take care of them the best you can. When they die off, you feel that you've failed."

No plan to impact big agriculture

Even before the die-off in his hives, Emrich was writing letters to government officials. He wants some potentially-risky and widely-used pesticides pulled from store shelves.

But here's a twist. The Washington beekeepers propose to leave big agriculture alone. Rather, they're targeting home and garden use of common bug killers, rose and flower treatments, and grub controls.

“We have people who are using it who don't understand all the implications and the labeling is inadequate as far as what it actually will kill. So basically, the idea is at least we'll get it out of the hands of the general public,” Emrich said.

Credit Tom Banse
The neonicotinoid pesticide imidacloprid is the active ingredient in many retail insecticides.

Not harmful, say pesticide makers

The insecticides in question belong to a class called neonicotinoids. "Neonics," for short, appear in more than a hundred different garden products sold under brand names such as Bayer, Ortho and Scotts.

A range of studies have shown significant adverse affects on bees exposed to high doses in the lab, but separate studies using more realistic field conditions show minimal harm or are inconclusive. 

Pesticide makers argue banning neonics would not save a single hive.

"If we use these products according to the label, then we don't see an effect on pollinators—or honey bees—that are contiguous to these fields where we're using these products,” said Barb Glenn who oversees science and regulatory affairs for an industry association called CropLife America.

Glenn says it's in her industry's best interest to safeguard bees because agriculture needs pollinators to thrive. In her view, many factors conspire against bee survival. Glenn ticks off a list.

"Diseases. Parasites. It includes the availability of habitat and also cultural practices and nutrition. Pesticide use is also a part of that continuum,” she said.

'There's not a consensus’

For what it's worth, her list looks almost the same as what I get from independent researchers at Oregon and Washington State Universities.

WSU entomologist Steve Sheppard says a lot of new research is focusing on the pesticide angle.

"There's not a consensus, I think, in the scientific community that the levels that are found in agricultural crops for example have been directly linked to colony losses,” he said. “But some countries, in Europe for example, have taken a more prudent approach to not use those pesticides until they feel all of the data are in."

That's also the gist of the petition for rulemaking before the Washington State Department of Agriculture. The agency's initial response was to ask all affected parties to send in their best science. The state plans to announce in early June whether it sees enough evidence to draft tighter rules for home and garden bug killers.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.