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Pesticides threatening pollinators, lawmakers punt on limit to bee-killing poisons

MIDDLEBURY BEEKEEPER CHAZ MRAZ, shown checking on one of his hives in Shoreham last year, is worried that inaction to stop or even slow the use of neonicotinoid pesticides could result in a mounting loss of pollinators, which are key to our food supply. Photos by Caleb Kenna

“The industry created this problem, not farmers … I think, personally, if dairy farmers truly understood how dangerous these pesticides were, they would not want any part of it.”
— Chaz Mraz

MIDDLEBURY — This past winter, third-generation beekeeper Charles “Chaz” Mraz of Champlain Valley Apiaries sat down with two state lawmakers and tried to figure out what could be done about the neonicotinoid pesticides that are killing honeybees, wild bees and other pollinators in large numbers.

In January, Democratic Reps. Amy Sheldon of Middlebury and Joseph “Chip” Troiano of Stannard introduced a bill based on those conversations, H.626. It proposed prohibiting the use of these highly toxic poisons until the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture could come up with some rules to regulate their use in the state.

While the bill as filed had some teeth, the version that the Vermont House and Senate passed last week was watered down in many ways and did not ban neonicotinoids — even temporarily. Mraz was disappointed.

“Vermont talks about the future of ag in Vermont, and when they’re concerned with ag in Vermont they put a lot of words on paper,” he said. But he’s not sure how much longer his business can continue without some action to curb these poisons.

The problem was laid out clearly in H.626. As introduced, the bill listed a number of findings:

  • Roughly a third of the global food supply and 75% of all agricultural crops — including many of the fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds we eat — depend on pollination by bees, birds and other wildlife.
  • Native pollinators are vital to Vermont’s agricultural systems, and protecting their health is essential to preserving the viability of farming in the state.
  • Neonicotinoid pesticides were introduced in the 1990s, were rapidly adopted by the farmers, and are now the world’s most widely applied class of pesticide.
  • In Vermont, these pesticides are most commonly found as powdered coatings on seeds and are applied almost every time treated seed is planted.
  • Seed coatings violate the science-based principles of integrated pest management, which recommend applying pesticides not on the presumption of a pest problem but only when pests are present at damaging levels and other control methods have failed.
  • Consequently, the use or overuse of neonicotinoid pesticides has been linked to pollinator decline worldwide.

The bill went on to cite multiple studies demonstrating the connections between neonicotinoid pesticides and colony collapse disorder or poor colony performance in bees.

It pointed out that the Vermont Pollinator Protection Committee, created in 2016 by the Legislature, recommended multiple changes to the state’s pesticide rules to mitigate the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators.

That was five years ago. None of those recommendations has been implemented.

H.626 in its original form also noted that the EPA continues to allow neonicotinoid pesticides for agricultural and other uses — despite the federal agency’s own findings that three of the formulations were highly toxic to bees and birds, likely to adversely affect more than two-thirds of endangered species.

On May 12, H.626 passed the House and the Senate and was sent to Gov. Phil Scott for his signature.

TOO LITTLE

By that time, all of the findings above had been crossed out with big red lines.

They’ve been replaced with carefully worded legal definitions for things like “cumulative” and “pest.” The revised bill does not ban neonicotinoid pesticides, even temporarily until they can be properly regulated. It just directs the Ag Secretary to work with the “Agricultural Innovation Board” to come up with some proposed rules.

The Agricultural Innovation Board was created by the Legislature last year to replace the Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council. The council, which had been created in 1986, was required by law to “recommend targets with respect to the state goal of achieving an overall reduction in the use of pesticides consistent with sound pest or vegetative management practices.”

It was also supposed to provide an annual report describing the state’s progress in meeting those targets, but the Ag Agency successfully pushed to have that requirement removed in 2018, according to a report in VT Digger.

THE USE OR overuse of neonicotinoid pesticides has been linked the worldwide decline of pollinators like these Champlain Valley Apiaries honeybees.
Photo by Caleb Kenna

In that same report, Digger noted that pesticide information was so hard to get that environmental advocacy group Regeneration Vermont had had to file a Freedom of Information Act request — and then threaten legal action — to obtain copies of commercial pesticide reports.

The Ag Agency blamed the unavailability of data on computer woes.

The Pesticide Advisory Council was replaced with the Agricultural Innovation Board last year “to create a more holistic approach to pesticide management and policymaking in the state,” according to the Ag Agency.

Currently there is no one representing the interests of beekeepers on the 13-member board.

TOO LATE

H.626 requires the Ag Secretary to submit proposed pesticide rules to House and Senate committees no later than March 1, 2024.

But Charles Mraz doesn’t know if he’ll still be in business then.

“If things continue like they’ve been for the last two years, we definitely won’t be around,” Mraz told the Independent.

Champlain Valley Apiaries was founded in 1931 by Mraz’s grandfather Charles Mraz. The company treats its bees organically, and its methods of breeding for disease-resistant and winter-hardy bees have been widely adopted.

But neonicotinoid pesticides have “turned the bee industry on its head,” Mraz said. “Our whole industry has changed. We’ve become bee replacers, not beekeepers.”

Nationally, beekeepers are losing more than 40% of their bee populations every year, he said. The last two seasons, Champlain Valley Apiaries has suffered losses of more than 50%.

“Two summers ago, at the height of the season, we had 1,140 colonies,” Mraz explained. “And what’s happening is they’re collapsing. They start collapsing in the fall, and you end up with the bees just basically gone, and just a few bees left in the hive. They can’t maintain the brood because they don’t have enough bees to do it. It’s a dead hive.”

The effects are often worse in the winter. According to a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, neonicotinoid pesticides are more toxic to bees at lower temperatures, which has implications for overwintering populations.

“The crashing continues through the winter,” Mraz confirmed. “And when that happens you end up with a pile of dead bees on the bottom board of the hive and no bees in the equipment.”

LESS RESILIENT

The chemical companies that manufacture these pesticides say it’s not the pesticides that are killing the bees but the varroa mite, a parasite that attacks and feeds on honey bees and can only reproduce in honey bee colonies. The mite can cause bee population crashes and hive death.

But Mraz believes the chemicals are making it impossible for the bees to withstand the mites.

“A beekeeper’s defense to anything like the varroa mite is to breed their survivors,” Mraz said. “Eventually, as it’s been throughout our history with pretty much any disease, we breed our bees out of the problem.”

But the bees are now being sickened by neonicotinoid pesticides, which are applied to the corn seeds Vermont farmers use to grow food for their cows. The chemicals are vastly more toxic than the carcinogenic organophosphate pesticides they were designed to replace, and about 95% of the chemicals never make it into the plants they’re meant to protect.

The chemicals are designed to attack the nervous systems of target insects, causing uncontrollable shaking, paralysis and death.

“The bees, under the pressure of these chemicals, are not overcoming the mite problem,” Mraz said. “They’re not winning against the varroa mite. I strongly feel that if we had the bees of the 1980s and ’90s (before neonicotinoid pesticides became prevalent), the bees would be snacking on these mites by now.”

FOLLOWING IN THE footsteps of his grandfather Charles Mraz, who in the mid-20th-century was an outspoken critic of DDT, beekeeper Charles “Chaz” Mraz of Champlain Valley Apiaries has testified multiple times in front of the Vermont General Assembly, pleading for better regulation of the neonicotinoid pesticide-treated seeds that are killing bees and other important pollinators.
Photo by Caleb Kenna

In a way, Mraz said, some of the most productive bees have become victims of their own success.

“Because they’re more productive they’re bringing more of this stuff into the hive and they’re dying from it,” he said. “As a result, we’re losing a lot of good genetics in our bees.”

BANNED

The European Union banned neonicotinoid pesticides in 2018 because of the danger they pose to bees. A report from the EU Scientific Risk Assessors earlier that year had found that the pesticides had contaminated soil and water and had appeared in wildflowers and succeeding crops, according to reporting by The Guardian.

“Europe is more cautious in its approach,” Mraz said. “They need to prove that neonics are safe before they keep using them. Here we use them and then we have to prove that they’re harmful. And it’s like, ‘What world do you want to live in?’”

Later this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will decide whether to allow the continued use — for the next 15 years — of four prominent neonicotinoid pesticides that have devastated bees, butterflies and other insects. It’s widely expected the EPA will agree to extend their use.

“I don’t know who’s driving the train,” Mraz said. “It doesn’t seem like anybody wants to take responsibility for doing things anymore. We created the EPA for these things not to happen, and the EPA has failed.”

WINNERS, LOSERS

At some point, Champlain Apiaries is going to have to make a “strictly business” decision about its future.

“It’s just gotten worse and worse for us,” Mraz said. “We love our bees, we love what we do, we raised our families on this. I’m a third-generation farmer. We’ve been doing this for 91 years, and I don’t want to end it by any means. But at some point you have to make the decision. At some point it’s going to come down to where we can’t make enough money to stay open or to justify what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, the global nicotinoid market generated $4.42 billion in revenue in 2018 — double what it had been in the previous decade — according to an investigation by The Intercept.

And the industry is intent on protecting that market.

“Lobbying documents and emails obtained by The Intercept show a vast strategy to influence academics, beekeepers, and regulators, and to divert attention away from the potential harm caused by pesticides,” the investigation revealed. “In the meantime, the effects are being seen in massive die-offs. Certain insect species are nearing extinction.”

Environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, which has been documenting the lobbying tactics of pesticide makers, noted that “the pesticide industry is using Big Tobacco’s PR tactics to try and spin the science about their products’ links to bee declines and delay action while they keep profiting.”

Photo by Caleb Kenna

But the pesticides make things easier for farmers.

“Because seeds could be pretreated with neonics, which were absorbed and expressed through the tissue, nectar, and pollen, they could be also produced on an industrial scale, providing agriculture crops with an efficient insect-killing capability without the need for expensive spray treatments or constant reapplication,” The Intercept noted. “In other words, farmers could soak the ground and seeds with enormous amounts of the compound to avoid problems from pests in the future. The delivery mechanism saved money for farmers but set the conditions for chronic overuse of the pesticides.”

Mraz knows farmers don’t want to harm the environment.

“The industry created this problem, not farmers,” he said. “When I can have a one-on-one conversation with a farmer, they understand what I’m talking about, but the industry is feeding them with all kinds of BS. I think, personally, if dairy farmers truly understood how dangerous these pesticides were, they would not want any part of it.”

WATERED DOWN

Mraz was disappointed with the course the Legislature took with H.626. But he’s been here before.

“I’ve been testifying on this issue from day one,” he said. “I’d been in on two previous bills and this was the third. The difference now is that there’s a lot more people that’s sitting beside me. People are starting to understand. This stuff is going to come to light at some point, and people are going to have to decide what side they’re going to be on when it does.”

But until the pressure of these pesticides is taken off his bees, it’s really a no-win situation, he said.

“If we’d stopped using them, at least I would see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel and be able to say, ‘Well, you know, we’re going to suffer, but we can keep it going until it’s better.”

As it is now, he doesn’t know.

“These chemical practices aren’t sustainable. I think eventually, with technology, we can find a better way to do this, but I also worry it’s not going to come until all the damage has been done.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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