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In The Country

Bee Informed

Tim Iverson

(5/2016) Recently in Maryland both the House of Delegates and state Senate passed legislation that would ban the sale and use of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Maryland is the first and only state to pass such legislation, but it still awaits Governor Hoganís pen for either approval or veto. As of this writing he has not indicated whether or not he will sign the bill. The legislation saw wide bipartisan support and could withstand a potential gubernatorial veto to be enacted. While the bill assuredly sailed through both chambers opposition was voiced with healthy skepticism over the merits of such a ban.

Most of the bill's focus highlights the duress suffered by honeybees. When the issue is raised it includes statistics like, "40% of Honeybee colonies were lost between April 2014 to April 2015." While, that is both alarming and true neonics (as theyíre frequently called) affect other pollinators as well. These insects include bumble bees, leafcutter bees, butterflies, etc. Most research has focused exclusively on honeybees. Because this is where most of the data falls and the limited focus prevents a comprehensive picture on pollinators as a whole. As a result of the bias, honeybees are mostly what is reported on and almost all we hear about.

Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticide that was widely introduced in the 1990ís. It was introduced as an alternative to organophosphate (an insecticide) which is highly toxic to humans. Neonics are safe for human use and consumption. This type of pesticide provides protection from a wide variety of pests and is generally applied to a seed or seedling, as opposed to a fully mature plant. A report from the Maryland General Assembly was drafted detailing pollinator health and the effects of neonicotinoids. An excerpt succinctly describes what they are and how they work, " Neonicotinoids are a synthetic form of nicotine. Neonicotinoids target the same nervous system receptors as nicotine, causing nervous system stimulation at low concentrations, but overstimulation, paralysis, and death at higher concentrations."

Over the past few years neonics have been under intense scrutiny and examination as a potential factor in declining bee populations. Most research scientists agree that a host of factors are creating the perfect storm that is crippling bee populations. However, the link between this type of pesticide and the affect it has on pollinators is beginning to be understood. Pollinators are intricately interwoven into our food system and economy. Simply, their importance canít be overstated. Pollinators are directly responsible for 85% of flowering plants, 35% of global food production, add more than $24 billion to the US economy, and provide $26 million worth of pollination services in Maryland alone.

Consensus amongst the scientific and natural resources community is that pollinators are being exposed and real harm is occurring as a result. This is where consensus ends. Despite sensationalist newspaper headlines there is no significant data or statistical link that shows exposure leads to colony collapse disorder or drops in pollinator populations overall. An interview excerpt with Professor Charles Godfrey (an Oxford entomologist) in an October 2015 Guardian article reads,

"There is a pretty good consensus that pollinators foraging in agricultural landscapes, where neonicotinoids are used, will get exposed... There is [also] a pretty strong consensus that, at the levels they are likely to encounter in the field, there will be some effects, possibly on their longevity or their foraging...That is pretty much established...But Godfray said that pollinator populations might be able to compensate for the premature deaths of individuals, so that the overall number did not decline over time. ĎThe really big and difficult question we need to know is, are these sub-lethal effects compensated for by the buffering one gets in natural populations or are they forcing down populations of pollinators?í"

Itís around this point in the argument that opinions begin to differ and voices raise. The Xerces Society (an insect conservation organization) released a comprehensive report on the issue in 2012. Echoing the scientific community at large they summarize the resounding data that at levels used in agricultural settings the amount of neonics pollinators are exposed to is unlikely to cause premature death by itself alone. However, long term exposure of these sub-lethal levels is enough to cause serious detrimental effects on pollinator health. Sharp cognitive declines affecting communication, memory, learning, along with impaired fine motor skills such as foraging are all associated with long term exposure to low and moderate levels. Home use seems to be of the biggest immediate concern to pollinators. In home applications levels are found to be at or near toxic levels because of over application. The Xerces Society highlights that in some surveys over 120 times the recommended application dose had been used.

During hearings on the proposed bill the Maryland Department of Agriculture opposed the passage of the bill. Overall, consensus seems to be murky on just how much of an effect these pesticides have on pollinators. The MD Department of Agriculture testified that here in Maryland there are no documented cases of neonics harming Maryland bees and offered a US Department of Agriculture survey indicating that no neonics were found in Maryland pollen samples.

Arguments can be made in favor or opposition of why the legislation may or may not be necessary or government overreach. What you cannot argue is the data we currently have, and it resoundingly declares that neonicotinoids are negatively impacting pollinator health. If the legislation is adopted into law legal suits and appeals are likely in tow and eventually a replacement will be found and used that may have similar effects of pollinators anyway.

By planting native plants in home gardens, which is where the most immediate lethality is found, homeowners and gardeners can sidestep the issue entirely. Native plants require no fertilizer or pesticide. As a result, they protect both pollinators and a homeowner's budget. These plants have evolved to live right here in our local ecosystems and require little attention for survival. They have grown accustomed to weather and climatic patterns and have natural defenses against predators and disease. The Maryland Native Plant Society (www.mdflora.org) and the US Fish & Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov/chesapeakebay) offer resources on native plants for our region and locations where they can be found for purchase.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson