Pesticide deadly to honeybees could see a requiem in Vermont

By Staff
7 Min Read

A push to restrict a class of pesticides toxic to bees has reached the U.S. as states begin to contend with the disappearance of pollinators essential to biodiversity.

Corn and soybean farmers, along with Vermont beekeepers, have been keeping a close watch on a bill making its way through the state legislature. The bill would restrict the use of a class of pesticides that have contributed to the decimation of up to 50% of the hives in the state.

The bill, which passed the Vermont House of Representatives earlier this month, would largely ban seeds coated with neonicotinoid pesticides in the state. Under the legislation, the prophylactic treatment of corn and soybean seeds with neonicotinoids would be banned in Vermont, starting in 2029.

If the bill becomes law, Vermont joins Quebec, New York and the European Union as territories that have banned the pesticide.

Crop benefits of neonicotinoids minimal

Farmers frequently coat seeds with neonicotinoid pesticides as a guardrail against invasive pests. Still, researchers have found that the chemical does little to move the needle of crop yields, and neonicotinoids hurt pollinator behavior and reproduction, which impacts their population size.

Neonicotinoids are known to be highly toxic to bees, says Scott McArt, an associate professor of pollinator health in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. His lab analyzed more than 5,000 studies comparing fields planted with treated and untreated soybean and corn seeds and found that, in most cases, treated seeds didn’t appear to increase crop yields. But even a tiny amount of the pesticide could result in a bee eventually dying.

“The biggest surprise for me after compiling this report was realizing how there is skimpy evidence for the benefits of these pesticides for field crop growers and yet they are used on practically all corn seeds in the country and a large proportion of soybean seeds,” McArt says.

Farmers often use neonicotinoids as “inexpensive crop insurance,” McArt said.

“It reassures farmers because they say, ‘OK, maybe I’m not going to need it, there aren’t any mites right now, but boy, it would be really nice to have it on my seeds just in case something happens,’” he added.

Ontario, Quebec and the European Union have already adopted restrictions on coated seeds, and New York state is working towards phasing them out by 2029. Vermont is proposing a similar timeline to the New York bill. No other state has proposed legislation to restrict neonicotinoids.

The Vermont House committee added a last-minute exemption for fruit growers, who testified that they apply the pesticides once or twice a year and need them to combat apple maggot, according to Vermont Public Radio.

‘We’re producing one-third of the honey we used to’

Beekeepers such as Curtis Mraz, president of Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury, Vermont, welcome legislation that will help curb the colony collapse disorder he’s been seeing in his hives since 2013. While the reason for the deaths of honeybees is complex and nuanced, their interaction with pesticides continues to exacerbate the problem, he says.

“No one bee is in charge of the hive and all of them are working together and communicating with each other through wiggles, waggles and pheromones,” he adds, “and when you throw a neurotoxin into mix, realizing that no bee is out of range of corn and soybean fields, these bees are handicapped, and it’s like they are trying to survive with both knees broken.”

Mraz estimates his apiary has faced a loss of honeybees ranging from 30% to 50% in the past decade, and a honey production drop of more than two-thirds. He also shares added the in cleaning out piles of dead bees is both costly and emotional.

“It’s like a dairy farmer going into their barn and close to half of their cows are dead,” he says, “and those corpses just don’t disappear. You have to deal with them. It can take up three weeks to complete that whole process, and then there’s the emotional impact, too.”

Bianca Braman, co-owner of Vermont Bees and vice president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, says any regulation of pesticides is a step in the right direction.

“Realizing that neonicotinoids have a 20-year half-life, we need to make some changes now and do it fast if we want the next generation to have any semblance of an improved food system,” she says.

Alternatives to neonicotinoids are available but expensive, McArt says, pointing to anthranilic diamides as one example. “They may cost around three times as much as neonicotinoids but they are around 20 times less toxic to honeybees,” he adds.

As beekeepers and farmers wait for the bill to move past the House floor, Mraz is hopeful the bill will sound the alarm for other farming sectors.

“Vermont has a chance to make a strong stance on this issue,” he says “Honeybees are not only ones who get sick in this environment due to pesticide use, and we see ourselves as the canary in the coal mine. We’re facing the implications first with honeybees, but look around and you’ll see that bumble and mason bees are no longer as populous as they used to be. Some birds aren’t perching as often on the telephone wires, as well.

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