Honey bees play a critical role in agricultural production. One in every three bites of food we eat depends on a crop that is pollinated by honey bees! As a reminder, pollination is what happens when a pollinator (often a honey bee) visits a flower and transfers pollen from the male parts to the female parts. By doing this, the pollinator fertilizes the plant and allows the plant to reproduce and create a seed or a fruit.
Despite their importance to our food system, honey bees are dying worldwide at record high numbers. In 2013, commercial beekeepers in the US reported average annual hive losses of around 50%, with some suffering losses as high as 100%. If this troubling trend continues, the impact on our food supply could be disastrous.
While other countries around the world have begun to take action to save the honey bees on which our food depends, the US Environmental Protection Agency has been slower to heed the warning signs. So individual states as well as high-profile retailers are stepping in to take action themselves. Keep reading to learn why honey bees are under threat and what actions Massachusetts’ legislators are proposing to help curb this potentially devastating problem.
What’s causing the decline in bee colonies?
An increasing number of studies point to a certain class of pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, as a primary culprit in the global pollinator crisis. Neonicotinoids are synthetic chemical insecticides that are used to control crop and plant pests such as aphids or leaf beetles. These insecticides are absorbed and transported throughout the plant to protect against harmful insects. But that also means that beneficial insects that rely on nectar or pollen from these pesticide-laced plants have increased oral exposure to neonicotinoid residues. Honey bees exposed to heavy doses of neonicotinoids die immediately. You may have heard about the incident in Oregon when 50,000 bees died because of a high dose of neonicotinoids sprayed on blooming linden trees in a Target parking lot. But honey bees exposed to even small levels of neonicotinoids can experience problems with flying and navigation, reduced taste sensitivity, and slower learning of new tasks, all of which impact their ability to pollinate.
Neonicotinoids are used widely across New England, both commercially and around our homes. Blueberries, potatoes, apples, and certain vegetables are often treated with neonicotinoids. Homeowners apply products with neonicotinoids to their lawns and gardens, often without knowing that they are harming nearby pollinators. A recent study found significant traces of neonicotinoids in 70% of Massachusetts’ honey samples taken from 10 out of 14 counties.
Neonicotinoids aren’t the only problem facing honey bees. Disease, parasites, and fungicides are also impacting their health. But, says Anne Averill, a professor of entomology at the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, “While no one knows for sure what is causing the [honey bee] die off, addressing even one of the factors could help stabilize and revitalize the population.” And increasingly, the factor being addressed around the globe is the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Many countries across the globe have stepped up and taken preventive actions to protect bees and other pollinators from the adverse impacts of neonicotinoids. The EU issued a two-year ban, which will expire this December, on the use of three common neonicotinoids on crops attractive to honey bees so that scientists could conduct further studies.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has been slower to act on restricting neonicotinoid use. But certain states and retailers are acting through laws and policies to prevent further harm to our pollinators. For instance, the Minnesota Legislature recently passed a bill that limits a retailer’s ability to label plants and nursery stock as “beneficial to pollinators” if they have been treated with a systemic insecticide (like neonicotinoids) that is known to be harmful to pollinators.
On the retailer side, Lowe’s Home Improvement announced in April that it would phase out the sale of plant and nursery stock treated with neonicotinoids in the next two years. And Home Depot recently announced that it will start requiring its suppliers to label any plants treated with neonicotinoids by the end of the year.
What is Massachusetts doing to protect pollinators?
In Massachusetts, the Legislature is considering three bills to help boost pollinator health. Here’s a quick summary:
- This Act would establish an advisory committee to evaluate the effectiveness of existing state regulations and policies in protecting the health of honeybee populations and make recommendations for changes to the Legislature and the Department of Agricultural Resources.
- The advisory committee would be made up of two beekeepers and three farmers appointed by the Commissioner of Agriculture, as well as a representative of the MA Farm Bureau Federation, the MA Beekeepers Association as appointed by the board of directors of those organizations, and a representative of UMass Extension.
- Within 18 months of bill passage, the committee would present a report on its findings to the Legislature.
- So What? At the end of the committee’s process, we’ll know whether and where there is room to improve existing state regulations.
- As the name suggests, this Act would establish a committee to investigate methods and solutions to prevent bee colony collapse.
- The committee would be similar in composition to that described in H. 731, but there would be a few seats for legislators as well as several positions for Governor-appointed representatives from environmental and pollinator health advocacy organizations, and one seat for a master gardener representing the public.
- Among other activities, the committee would: study pesticide regulations from other states and countries that are more protective of pollinator health than those of the EPA; evaluate the effectiveness of pesticide applicator licensing; identify possible funding streams for efforts to promote or protect pollinator health; investigate the means used by other states to gather data on populations of bees or other pollinating insects; and evaluate existing best management practices for applying neonicotinoids in a manner that avoids harming pollinating insects.
- The committee would report to the Legislature the results of its investigation and its recommendations, if any, together with drafts of legislation necessary to carry its recommendations into effect on or before June 30, 2016.
- So What? By investigating best practices across the world, the committee will learn what rules and research methods Massachusetts can import to better protect honey bees here at home.
- Rather than creating a committee to assess or study ongoing efforts to protect pollinators, this Act would actually establish several new legal requirements to protect pollinators, including:
- Neonicotinoids could only be applied by a certified or licensed applicator who has completed a state-developed training program on the risks associated with their use.
- Neonicotinoids could only be applied for agricultural or horticultural uses during blooming season (as opposed to ornamental uses, e.g., home gardens).
- Applicators would have to notify any property owner on which neonicotinoids will be used of the risks associated with its use.
- Any product sold in MA that has been treated with neonicotinoids would have to be labeled, including a brief description of the risks.
- The MA pesticide board subcommittee must biannually review neonicotinoid use in MA and recommend ways to further limit its use.
- So What? We’ll be able to better track the use and application of pesticides that contain neonicotinoids.
CLF is carefully tracking the progress of these bills – because healthy pollinators mean New England farmers can grow healthy local food. Stay tuned for a future blog post where we will share our perspective on the three bills and the date for an upcoming public hearing on the issue of pollinator health, where you can voice your support for pollinator protection in Massachusetts.