WASHINGTON, May 18, 2016 - Farmers and beekeepers have worked together for generations, but widespread concern over the health of agriculture’s smallest livestock has placed strains on that relationship and left some beekeepers on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
The latest evidence that commercially raised bees are in trouble comes in the form of two reports released this month. The first was a survey of beekeepers released by the Bee Informed Partnership, in which they reported losing 44 percent of their colonies during the year ending March 3, up from 40.6 percent the year before (Agri-Pulse, March 11, p. 9). Then USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in its first-ever foray into colony health, reported an 8 percent decrease in colonies for calendar year 2015.
Pesticide impacts, real or perceived, and the effectiveness of state plans designed to protect pollinators are among the issues sparking disagreement in the ag industry. And the discord isn’t likely to just fade away. Just last week, a federal judge cleared the way for a lawsuit by beekeepers, environmental groups and farmers who claim EPA illegally avoided the rulemaking process when it exempted neonicotinoid-treated seeds from the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
Neonics and honey bee declines have been linked frequently in recent years. The lawsuit proceeding in California says that 150 million acres of cropland have been planted with neonic-coated seeds and claims “uncontained dust and contamination from these coatings is killing honey bees by the many millions.”
Bayer CropScience, however, a major purveyor of neonic products to farmers and gardeners, says that while laboratory studies and other studies that use artificial exposure conditions have found “sublethal and other effects, no adverse effects to bee colonies were ever observed in field studies at field-realistic exposure conditions.”
The debate over neonics will continue. In the meantime, farmers and beekeepers are working to find ways to coexist, with lots at stake. USDA says honey bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion of crops each year, ranging from almonds to zucchinis. Interviews with individuals representing a cross-section of the agricultural industry reveal disagreements, but also broad areas of accord.
Perhaps chief among those: Communication is key.
“In general, most beekeepers get along with their farmers,” says Randy Verhoek, a Texas beekeeper and past president of the American Honey Producers Association, who plants his bees in North Dakota canola fields in spring and summer.
“I’m not saying I haven’t had issues (with farmers) because I’ve had issues,” Verhoek says, but he disagrees with “some environmentalists and hobby groups and sidewinders who are not so dependent on having a relationship with farmers.”
“We’re guests on the farmer’s land,” he adds. “We need to work around his operations.” Asked to name the biggest challenges facing beekeepers, he lists queen failure, varroa mites and nosema, a fungal disease.
Steven Coy, who raises queens and makes honey in central Mississippi, agrees with Verhoek on at least one point. “Farmers are the landowners, beekeepers are the guests,” he says.
But Coy – described by Verhoek as “one of the radicals,” albeit “a mellow one” – is also an officer of the Pollinator Stewardship Council (PSC), which was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that questioned EPA’s approval of sulfoxaflor (trade name: Transform), a sulfoximine class insecticide that was used on a wide range of crops – from citrus to sorghum. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cited concerns about the effects of the Dow AgroSciences product on pollinators before EPA canceled the registration in November and began reviewing more data on the effects of the product on pollinators.
Applying pesticides “is a privilege, not a right,” Coy says.
He gets along great with Jason Schmidt, who hosts Coy’s bees in the cotton and corn fields he farms with his father in east-central Mississippi. “He’s a nice guy,” says Schmidt, who describes himself as “pro-bee.”
Schmidt relates a story from last summer, when bees that Coy had placed too close to a swimming pool ended up taking a dip. “The bees were swarming all over the place. They started having a big time in the pool,” he said. When the kids started emerging from the pool with bees on their head, Schmidt called Coy.
Coy came the next day and moved the bees. “Nobody got testy, and we worked through it,” Schmidt said. “It’s a two-way street.”
Where Coy and Verhoek disagree, at least in tone, is over pesticide use. Verhoek doesn’t discount the possible impact of chemical use, but says he’s been raising “awesome bees” in canola fields in North Dakota. “I don’t see the correlation” between chemical use and a decline in bee populations, he says.
But Coy and Michelle Colopy, the PSC’s program director, have a different view. “Pesticides don’t increase yield, they conserve losses,” she says. “Pesticides do not pollinate.” She is particularly critical of confusing directions on pesticide labels and unregulated tank mixes. “When they are poorly labeled, that’s bad information for the farmer, and it’s setting up the farmer to be pitted against the beekeeper.”
But she also comes back to the importance of talking with one another. “We must improve communication within agriculture because farmers who need pollination know the value” of beekeepers and bees, she says.
Becky Langer, head of Bayer CropScience’s North American Bee Care program, says problems arise when pesticides are improperly applied. “When they’re used according to the label, they don’t affect colony health,” she says.
Don Parker, manager of the National Cotton Council’s Integrated Pest Management program, told a group at the CropLife America spring conference last month, “My producers would be happy not to buy your products. If they could grow a crop without spending extra money on it, they would be happy to do so.”
At the same time, he said, “We have insects that will destroy our crops so we have to have crop protection.” He said he’s worried about losing products such as sulfoxaflor. “We are very concerned about having multiple tools, multiple modes of action so we can manage resistance,” he said. “I think we have to be very cautious as we move forward to understand the long-term implications and the precedents that are being set.”
The National Cotton Council and National Corn Growers Association have sent a letter to CropLife America and major pesticide registrants seeking ways to protect pollinators short of pulling products off the market.
“We have urged the companies to recognize there are not managed bees on every acre of crop production” and consider “alternative language to remove exposure” to bees, Parker said. “There are solutions other than just removing the product.”
For more news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com