Honeybee decline causes concern on Vashon

Margot Boyer, one of many beekeepers on Vashon, lost several hives over the winter. She believes her bees died from natural causes but is concerned about the role pesticides may play in many bee deaths.  - Natalie Martin/Staff Photo
Margot Boyer, one of many beekeepers on Vashon, lost several hives over the winter. She believes her bees died from natural causes but is concerned about the role pesticides may play in many bee deaths.
— image credit: Natalie Martin/Staff Photo

Bob Dixon has been raising bees on Vashon for nearly 20 years, but after losing two hives this spring, he is not sure how long he will continue.

These losses were not like those that beekeepers routinely experience in the winter, Dixon said, but abnormal and indicative of the loss of bees currently happening on an international scale. The hives, located in different parts of the island, were thriving and had plenty of food when he checked them. When he checked them again less than a month later, there were no bees left in one and only dead bees in the other.

“I am really at a crossroads. I have a lot of equipment, but not a lot of hives,” he said. “It’s an expensive proposition.”

Dixon believes the cause of his missing bees is Colony Collapse Disorder, where seemingly healthy bees abandon their hives en masse. He attributes the loss of both hives to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics, used in many lawn and garden products and in other pesticide applications, such as flea and termite control.

These chemicals, derived from nicotine, act as a nerve poison and are increasingly in the news for their potential link to bee deaths worldwide. On Monday the Natural Resources Defence Council filed a legal petition against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asking the EPA to withdraw its

approval of neonicotinoids because of their effect on pollinators. The European Union has banned them temporarily, and the cities of Eugene, Oregon, and Spokane have banned their use on city-owned land.

On Vashon, neonicotinoids are the focus of a petition available at a dozen island businesses and farm stands. The petition, put out last month by island farmer Greg Davila, requests that local businesses stop carrying products in that chemical class. Last week, Davila said more than 450 people had signed on.

“We are a unique ecosystem. If we do damage to the island that is irreparable, that is it,” Davila said.

On Vashon, the health of honeybees can be determined only anecdotally, and individual beekeepers report a range of experiences. While Dixon believes the death of his bees is attributable to pesticides, beekeeper Margot Boyer said she lost all six of her hives over the winter to natural causes. Islander Elizabeth Vogt, a beekeeper and entomologist, estimates there are about 50 beekeepers on the island, and she knows about 10. While she does not believe she has seen strong evidence of neonicotinoid’s effects on Vashon bees, she would like to create a survey so that a more scientific study could be done, particularly concerning winter losses of bees, a number she said is increasing.

“We see abnormal losses, and it is a mystery,” she said.

All three beekeepers, however, voiced support for banning neonicotinoids, with Boyer stressing the need for a broad ban on the products.

“Going from retailer to retailer begging them not to carry a class of chemicals is a very inefficient way to regulate a neurotoxin,” she said.

Beyond Vashon, the health of the honeybee is a consistently grim picture.

Some 30 years ago, beekeepers in the state routinely lost 12 to 15 percent of their hives over the winter, according to Mark Emrich, the president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association. Two winters ago, Washington beekeepers lost 30 percent of their hives, and last winter, they lost 45 percent. Oregon has seen losses similar to Washington’s, and in the Adirondacks, Emrich said, beekeepers lost 80 percent of their hives last year. Additionally, he sees inadequate record keeping at the national level.

“Things are getting much worse, and people are not keeping close track of it,” he said. “There are a couple of years to right this ship before we can’t right this ship.”

While several factors may be playing into the decline of the honeybee, increasing attention is on neonicotinoids, which are listed in the active ingredients of products and include acetamiprid, imidacloprid and dinotefuran.

Just last month, a study was released in which a group of global scientists, as part of the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, evaluated 800 peer-reviewed reports on neonicotinoids. They concluded there is enough evidence of harm to pollinators, including bees, butterflies and birds, to warrant regulatory action.

Exposure to neonicotinoids can be lethal and kill outright, the authors said, or it can cause chronic damage — impair a creature’s sense of smell or memory, reduce birth rate, alter feeding behavior, create difficulty with flight and increase the susceptibility to disease. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, found that terrestrial invertebrates, such as the earthworm, are the most affected group, with pollinators — birds and bees — following closely behind.

The stakes are high, Emrich notes, as bees pollinate one-third of the food supply.

“Why isn’t everybody up in arms with pitchforks saying why isn’t this stuff off the market?” he said.

Just as it is difficult to determine the health of bees on the island, some say it is difficult to know how prevalent neonicotinoid use is on Vashon. The Country Store and Farm now carries only natural products, and though True Value and Island Lumber were named in the petition, Island Lumber’s Tanner Yelken, who manages the store’s garden section, said the store got rid of most of its neonicotinoid products last winter because of pollinator concerns and just recently disposed of some stragglers that were missed.

“It’s good for bees and good for customers,” Yelken said.

At True Value, manager Kevin Linnell said they were unaware of Davila’s petition until a customer notified them of it about a  week after it had been out. He says the store is now studying the issue further.

“We have not said that we will not take the product of our shelves,” he said. “We are determining, with the help of knowledgeable sources, what the detriment to bees is, and will take action from there.”

Linnell said both he and True Value owner John Yates would have preferred for Davila to talk with them before he put the petition out and noted that the staff at True Value could be helpful in educating people about different products and possible alternatives.

“I am happy to work with the community,” Linnell added. “We want a partnership here.”

Even if island stores stop carrying the products, they are readily available off-island, some note, stressing the importance of education. Gardeners may also inadvertently bring the chemicals into their gardens when they buy plants, Emrich said. In Washington, plants can come pre-treated with pesticides and not be labeled accordingly. He recommends buying plants that have been organically grown. Of further concern in the Northwest, Emrich said, is that in wet, dark environments, neonicotinoids can exist for up to six years.

“Just by our latitude, we are going to get more than we paid for out of this product,” he said.

Despite the worrisome picture, several experts recommend actions people can take to help bees and other pollinators.

Islander Michael Laurie, who developed a set of informational cards about the environmental impact of different gardening products, suggested that people slow down their gardening practices. If they have bugs in their garden, he said, it may be that the insects are beneficial. If the bug is an unknown variety, Master Gardeners will identify it for free. With that information, he said, it is more likely to find a safe, targeted approach for dealing with a particular insect.

Laurie also said many problems can be prevented by building up the soil with compost and organic matter and growing a diversity of plants, especially plants that are less susceptible to problems. And, he said, it is often not necessary to deal with insects immediately.

“It is not necessarily the end of the world to see a little plant damage,” he said. “Sometimes plants need a bit of time to kick in their own natural defenses.”

Others also suggest gardening with bees in mind. Grow a variety of plants that will bloom from spring through fall, Emrich said, pull weeds instead of spray them, and get some beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, which like to eat aphids.

He noted he is pleased to hear of the potential steps taken on Vashon, but he, too, would like to see more sweeping action.

“Once the genie is out of the bottle, you really cannot put it back in,” he said.

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