PESTICIDE TARGETED IN BID TO PRESERVE DWINDLING BEE COLONIES [+ AUDIO]
By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 3, 2017....Beekeepers, scientists and horticulturalists swarmed lawmakers Tuesday, bearing studies, anecdotes and dire warnings that a popular pesticide is killing off pollinators essential to the food supply, but a farm group warned their proposed cure might lead to worse outcomes for the bees.
Bees pollinate the key Bay State crops of apples, cranberries and corn, and pollinators have a role in about a third of the food that people eat, according to Rep. Carolyn Dykema, a Holliston Democrat.
Scientific studies have found bees are put in danger by neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that entomologist Richard Callahan said were developed from the addictive chemical found in tobacco and gained popularity in the early 1990s.
Legislation (H 2113) filed by Dykema would require people to be licensed or certified to use neonicotinoids. She said Maryland and Connecticut have passed legislation to restrict neonicotinoids and major retailers are limiting access to those products, too.
The Mass. Farm Bureau Federation warned that tightening restrictions on that class of pesticides could lead people to use more dangerous bug-killers.
"Without access to neonicotinoids the most likely replacements are two classes of pesticides known as carbamates and pyrethroids," Brad Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Farm Bureau, wrote to lawmakers. "Interestingly, while there has never been a bee kill in Massachusetts associated with neonicotinoids, there have been four bee kills associated with carbamates and pyrethroids in recent years."
Rep. Keiko Orrall, a Lakeville Republican, said nicotinoids should be studied by the Department of Agricultural Resources before lawmakers take a step to restrict them, a move supported by the Farm Bureau.
"I don't feel as a legislator I know enough about the chemical nature of the pesticides to make legislation. I don't think that's good policy," Orrall told the News Service after testifying before the committee. "I think that we should let the state agencies that are tasked with that and the experts look into it, and if they come up with a finding, that's where we should act."
Orrall represents an agricultural district and she told the environment committee that the department of agriculture is already at work on one of her legislative priorities (H 457) to develop a list of locally appropriate plants that provide "effective forage for pollinators."
Supporters of Dykema's bill said their warnings about nicotinoids are based in science, and Robert Gegear, an assistant professor in biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute said his research has shown that when bumblebees were fed with 10 parts per billion of neonicotinoids half of them died in under a week. Other species of bees are "even more sensitive" to the chemicals, he said.
"Eventually we're going to reach a point where we have a system collapse and the biodiversity will go along with it," Gegear told the committee. He said some Canadian provinces have outright banned neonicotinoids and Mary Duane, who is a master beekeeper in Worcester, told the committee that the European Union has imposed a "partial ban."
The Legislature has never passed a law related to the registration of a pesticide, according to the Farm Bureau, which said registration decisions should be handled by a Pesticide Board Subcommittee administered by the agriculture department. However Massachusetts was one of several states to outlaw DDT except under emergency conditions, according to an Environmental Protection Agency history of the toxic pesticide that was banned nationwide more than 40 years ago.
The Department of Agricultural Resources "recognizes the vital economic and agricultural contributions of the Commonwealth’s beekeeping industry" but has not taken a position on Dykema's bill.
More than 45 percent of the state's agricultural commodities rely on "our rich diversity of pollinators for crop pollination," according to the state's agriculture commissioner, John Lebeaux.
The state's Pollinator Protection Plan reports that the number of honey-producing bee colonies in the U.S. dropped from a high of 5.9 million in 1947 to 2.3 million in 2008, and Massachusetts beekeepers reported an annual loss of 55.75 percent of honey bee colonies in the 2015-2016 season, placing it among the states with the greatest losses around the country.
"It's not easy these days being a honey bee," said Ed Szymanski, president of Norfolk County Beekeepers Association. He said a friend had shown him a photo of a cherry tree in full bloom without a single bee on it.
The state has a chief apiary inspector and a team of seasonal inspectors who inspect colonies for parasites, pathogens and pests, according to the plan, which said there is also a pesticide inspection team that investigates "allegations of pesticide misuse."
Wild bees and managed bees face similar health stressors, including parasites, loss of habitat, climate change and pesticides, according to the plan, which said unlike agricultural bees that live in colonies, 90 percent of wild bees are "solitary ground nesters."
In Australia where "neonicotinoids are widely used, bees are thriving; yet in Switzerland, where there is little use of these products, bee health is generally poor," said Pete Vujovich, director of state government relations & public policy for the Consumer Specialty Products Association, in written testimony. He said the "weight of scientific evidence shows no correlation between bee health and the use neonicotinoids" and the chemicals are also used to protect pets from fleas, mites and ticks, to fight ant infestations and to mitigate lice and bedbugs – applications where there would not be interaction with pollinators.
Some local agricultural groups backed Dykema's effort to restrict use of the chemicals.
"This challenge requires a multi-pronged response," said Jim Stucchi, president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association, who supports the thrust of Dykema's bill.
Requiring certification to apply neonicotinoids makes "a lot of sense," said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association. He said, "Overall we're supportive of that effort."
The National Association of Landscapers opposes restrictions on the chemicals, saying beekeepers can keep their hive clear of neonicotinoids by talking to nearby farmers about what pesticides are being used on crops.
Jeffrey Doherty, of the Massachusetts Flower Growers' Association, brought a pot of purple asters to the hearing to advocate for Dykema's bill. He told the lawmakers that it’s the responsibility of garden center managers such as himself to educate the public about pollinators.