Pollinator Policy and “Colony Collapse Disorder” in Honey Bees

May 2, 2014

Bee pollen reutersWhether you love bees so much that you can see your hives from your living room window, or, like me, prefer your personal bubble stinging-insect-free, the fact of the matter is we are desperately dependent on pollinating insects, and recent numbers are starting to raise some serious concerns.

Here comes your weekly dose of Perspective: Insects pollinate over 150 food crops in the United States alone – from apples to almonds, corn to cucumbers, nearly every fruit and grain crop requires pollination for production. Roughly every third bite of food you ingest was made possible by pollinators. Currently the USDA estimates the value of the United States fruit and nut industry at about $18 billion (not including the melon industry). Add to that the pollination sustaining feed crops such as alfalfa and clover, which literally bring home the bacon, and it’s hard to imagine a food product that isn’t, in some way, dependent on pollination. In total, these “pollination services” are valued between $20 to $30 billion annually in the United States alone; globally we’re looking in the neighborhood of $125 billion.

Ok, now let’s get a healthy dose of science rolling. “Colony collapse disorder” (i.e. the fatal collapse of honey bee colonies) is occurring at record rates – in fact, winter 2012-2013 saw 45.1% of privately owned colonies fail. The Department of Agriculture estimates that the success rate of honey bee colonies is currently too low to support our current pollination demands. And scientists have linked at least part of this destruction to a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

You may or may not have heard of neonicotinoids. A ridiculously complicated word (lovingly shortened to the much cuter, hipper “neonics”) that has come to represent all that is wrong with pesticide use. So what’s so “wrong” about this seemingly innocuous substance that doesn’t apply to its fellow pesticides? A) It’s awesome at killing beneficial bugs. B) It’s probably in your landscaping, your neighbor’s garden, and my flower boxes. But wait, you say, I’m not a farmer; I’ve never sprayed my yard! That’s the kicker.

We are increasingly finding that some of the best plants for feeding, sheltering and otherwise sustaining some of our most important pollinators have been “vaccinated” with neonics as seedlings but he efficacy of neonics for commercial production is questionable at best, and terrifying at worst: a single kernel of treated corn is sufficient to kill a songbird. Now as these grown plants display their flowers loud and proud for the world to see, they are in fact infusing their pollen with the same chemical the nursery infused them with, and killing the bees, butterflies and other oh-so-important pollinators that come to visit. It gets better – in the absence of labeling requirements, many plants that have been labeled “pollinator-friendly” have in fact been inoculated.

Ready for the good news? We’re getting wise to this act! Over the last 6 months no fewer than eight states have proposed or enacted legislation dealing directly with neonicotinoids and their ilk (search in proposed and enacted legislation: adv: neonic neonicotinoid)

Polinator policy

AND, the Federal Government, after watching the European Union categorically suspend use of neonics, has thrown its hat in as well. If your eyebrow needs some raising, check out the “Findings” of the Federal Legislation. See 2013 Cong US HR 2692.

My own home state of Minnesota has bipartisan legislation making its way to Governor Dayton’s desk as we speak that would ban the labeling of inoculated plants as pollinator-friendly. The Minnesota House passed neonicotinoid legislation with bipartisan support (118 to 10) just this last Tuesday, April 29th. The best part of many of the bills such as the one cruising through the Minnesota State Capitol, is not only that they acknowledge the importance pollinators play on both state and national stages, but most create a recognized class of insecticides flagged as poisonous to these increasingly valuable insects.

“Pollinator lethal insecticide. “Pollinator lethal insecticide” means an insecticide absorbed by a plant that makes the plant lethal to pollinators. Pollinator lethal insecticide includes, but is not limited to, the neonicotinoid class of insecticides that affect the central nervous system of pollinators and may cause pollinator paralysis or death.”

2013 Minnesota House File No. 2798, Minnesota Second Regular Session of the Eighty-Eighth Legislative Session

Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of consumers like you and I, the legislation goes an invaluable step further by creating specific labeling requirements! This is key as most consumers have absolutely no way of knowing, nor any right to know, whether a plant has been treated with neonics in the absence of such requirements.

(e) A person may not label or advertise an annual, bedding plant, or other plant, plant material, or nursery stock as beneficial to pollinators if it: (1) has been treated with and has a detectable level of a pollinator lethal insecticide; (2) has a pollinator protection box on the insecticide product label; or (3) has a pollinator, bee, or honey bee precautionary statement in the environmental hazards section of the insecticide product label. The commissioner of agriculture must develop a list of pesticide active ingredients that are lethal to pollinators. The commissioner may consult with interested parties in developing the list. The commissioner shall enforce this paragraph as provided in chapter.

2013 Minnesota House File No. 2798, Minnesota Second Regular Session of the Eighty-Eighth Legislative Session

One last note – here in the Twin Cities metro, local nurseries including Bachman’s and Gertens are anticipating passage of the labeling legislation, and proactively committing to ban plants containing neonics effective as of the 2014 growing season. If you’re concerned that that new flowering hedge you’d been envisioning may be tainted, I encourage you to call your local nurseries before hitting the pavement this spring to enquire as to whether they have committed to providing pollinator-safe plants. Unfortunately, the battle isn’t won until nursery goliaths such as Home Depot and Lowe’s make similar commitments. That said, in Minnesota at least, they may not have a choice for very much longer.