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Islanders disagree on best approach to pesticides and bees

Customers who walk into Kathy’s Corner and look up in the boughs of the sprawling willow tree there will see a thriving bee hive strapped to a branch high off the ground.

“I love bees,” store owner Kathy Wheaton said recently, pointing the hive out to a guest. “I have been a beekeeper for many years.”

Wheaton, who has owned Kathy’s Corner since 1971, has recently found herself at odds with some islanders who believe that for the health of bees and other pollinators, a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids — or neonics — should be removed from local store shelves. But Wheaton, who said she has put in more than 150 hours in the last six months studying the issue from all sides, is not so sure.

“I care about Vashon, and I care about the earth,” she said. “But I am not ready to pull neonicotinoids.”

The issue of neonicotinoids and their effect on bees has been in the news recently on Vashon and far beyond its shores. Earlier this month the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition against the Environmental Protection Agency, asking it to withdraw its approval of neonics because of their harmful effect on bees.

Closer to home, Eugene, Oregon, and Spokane have banned the chemicals on public property, and this week the Seattle news agency Grist reported that a National Wildlife Refuge System official in the Northwest has asked his staff to investigate where neonics are being used in the refuges they manage and stop to their use.

Aware of the case against neonics, Wheaton made her decision last week after a meeting at True Value, where a group of more than 20 people, including Wheaton, gathered to discuss herbicide and pesticide use on Vashon. At the meeting, True Value owner John Yates announced the store would no longer carry products with neonicotinoids. Since then Wheaton has decreased her stock; islander Justin Headly began filming a documentary about the issue on Vashon, and Greg Davila has offered to pick up islanders’ products with neonicotinoids and dispose of them. Davila has also set a date next month for another public meeting on the issue.

The meeting at True Value followed a local petition that called on island stores to remove neonics from their shelves. Davila, who launched the effort, said he gathered 750 signatures in three weeks. Some potentially divisive rumors also sprang from the petition, and island attorney Rex Stratton said he stepped in to the fray to help facilitate a community meeting.

“My interest was to avoid polarization between retailers and a few hot heads,” he said last week.

Indeed, the issues at stake raise passions on Vashon and beyond. In a recent interview, Davila acknowledged that  some people have told him his approach has been too heavy handed, though he said his intent has not been to antagonize, but to build strong community and to educate.

He’s has been assertive, though, he said, and his resolve has not waivered.

“There are enough passionate people about bees and birds and worms that it is worth pissing some people off,” he said.

On Monday, in fact, he did just that on the Facebook page VashonAll, when he and Wheaton clashed, as she explained her decision to pull some products and not others. Many other islanders weighed in as well, mostly supporting Wheaton, as the exchange became heated.

“Choosing your personal beliefs and profits over the health of our ecosystem is not your right to make,” Davila responded in one of his first posts. “This community has been there for you time and again. Now we are asking for you to be there for us.”

Wheaton agreed that the community has been there for her many times, but regarding neonicotinoids, she said she does not have all the answers, that science will ultimately prevail, and that she believes it is important to look at the full picture.

Wheaton, who calls the issue of bee health “huge, huge, huge,” says that full picture includes the possibility that such a ban might actually do more harm than good. On a large scale, she said the agriculture and horticulture industries are not likely to give up chemicals any time soon, and without neonics, they will have only more toxic alternatives. Locally, if all Vashon stores remove the products, she believes many customers will go to Seattle for them, and an opportunity for education will be lost.

“It is rare anyone gets out of here with a blue bottle (containing a neonicotinoid) without me talking to them about what, how and why,” she said. “No one is going to talk to them at Home Depot.”

The full picture, she said, also includes an array of studies that show several factors are responsible for the decline of bees: decreased habitat; the Varroa mite, which arrived in this country in the late 1980s and is characterized by at least one expert “as the worst thing to happen to honey bees ever in the history of the world,” and Nosema, a new fungus. In this mix, some experts say any chemical, not just neonicotinoids, could push stressed bees past the tipping point. She believes those studies have merit, she said, along with the studies that point solidly to neonics.

“We need some time to figure it all out,” she said.

Wheaton and many others also stressed the need for education about best practices, and, if people choose to use chemicals, how to use them wisely.

“All chemicals — organic or synthetic — are a part of the problem,” she said. “How do we use chemicals responsibly? How do we teach people to respect and read the label? It’s that complicated and that simple. That is not an overnight process. That is an ongoing conversation.”

Furthermore, she said, her research led her to worrisome information about products she and many others have long trusted to be earth and bee friendly.

In an interview in her store last week, Wheaton pulled Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew from the shelf, noting that the label states it is for organic gardening. The fine print on the back label, however, says that it is toxic to bees and to aquatic invertebrates. Its active ingredient is Spinosad, which is also the active ingredient in Sluggo Plus.

“I thought that was safe,” she said, referring to Sluggo. “It’s not staying here. It’s as poisonous as hell.”

Next, Wheaton pulled neem oil — a common pesticide derived from a seed — off the shelf. Its label, too, says it is toxic to bees. The caterpillar killer Bacillus Thuringiensies (Bt), a naturally occurring bacteria, kills the larvae of butterflies, which are important pollinators, she said, and even diatomaceous earth poses risks to bees.

“My point is simple,” Wheaton said. “It’s not simple.”

Indeed, experts disagree on what is safe, what is not and how attempts to ban a product on Vashon may work for some, but not for all.

Bob Norton, a farmer, retired professor and biologist active in Vashon’s fruit club, said he believes that pesticides are not typically necessary, but he has been struggling with a particular fruit fly, which is decimating his cherry crop, and has been spraying with one of the chemicals that Wheaton has called into question.

“I believe it is safe if used properly, he said. “I have bees, and they are happy.”

To use such a product responsibly, he said people should spray for pests before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., when bees are not flying.

He will lose most of his cherry crop this year, he said, and he lost all of it last year — losses that have cost him thousands of dollars.

“I might have to pull my cherries out if I cannot control the pests,” he said.

Additionally, he said, many people are attempting to support agriculture on Vashon, including drawing young farmers into the fold, and he believes that some products, including those others may disprove of, may be necessary to make that possible.

“If we cannot use things approved by the USDA, then we are in trouble,” he said.

Decisions should be based on science, he added, not emotion, which he believes is driving some people in the conversation now.

It’s a conversation he plans to continue to be part of and considers many involved to be his friends.

“There is not anyone that I do not like and respect,” he said.

The Vashon Island Growers Association (VIGA) has been following the issue, as well, according to the group’s president, Nan Wilson, who noted the board has had considerable conversation about it.

“We do take the position those things do affect the health of people and other species,” she said.

As a group, they are not calling for a local ban on the products, she said, as they want any decision to be collaborative. Instead, she said, they will support education efforts, and hope to offer some of their own, including information on best practices and an educational forum later this year.

“We support an active conversation and further conversation about how to make this work in our community,” she said.

Meanwhile, at her nursery, Wheaton has said that while she could stand at a podium and argue either side of the neonic argument, the conversation in the community has solidified her views on keeping some of the products.

“I am not going to put myself and Vashon in a position where people have to go to town to get what they need,” she said. “I need to be able to educate people. That is who I am.”

The next public meeting on the subject of pesticide and herbicide use on Vashon will be at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 4, at the Vashon Eagles.

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