By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The pesticide linked to collapsing bee colonies recently received a solid endorsement from state officials, local farmers and researchers.
The class of bug killers known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, has been the scorn of bee lovers and environmentalists since the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) arose in 2006. Since then, 33 percent of honey beehives, on average, have died off each year. The historic mortality rate, by comparison, is 10 percent annually. The malady reached its peak in 2008 with a 60 percent decline in honeybee colonies. After years of improvement, hives took another dive between 2014 and 2015.
CCD hasn't been reported in Rhode Island, but it's widespread among large commercial beekeepers around the country and in Europe.
Neonics are a common category of pesticide, manufactured by chemical juggernauts Dow, Monsanto and Bayer. Local growers use them to treat apple trees, potatoes and pumpkins. Turf farmers and tree-care specialists also rely heavily on neonics for pest control.
The link between neonics and CCD stemmed from a number stresses on the bee population. The loss of natural fields, climate change and disease continue to threaten pollinators. Studies have shown that, among other problems, the toxicity of neonics disorients bees, causing them to lose track of their hives.
As the use of neonics expanded in the commercial and retail sector, pressure to restrict their use prompted the European Union to enact a ban in December 2013. There are no statewide prohibitions in the United States, but a much-anticipated review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected by December. In January, however, the EPA released safe exposure levels for neonic use. The federal agency had previously prohibited neonic spraying when plants and trees are in bloom and pollinators are most active.
Meanwhile, the focus on CCD has shifted to disease-carrying parasites: tiny mites that drain the life out of bees. New research has put more fault on varroa mites and has questioned previous studies that blamed neonics.
“There was a bit of hysteria thinking that neonics were causing (CCD) and there’s really quite a bit of evidence that it is diseases and varroa mites that cause colony collapse disorder,” said Heather Faubert, a researcher in plant science and entomology at the University of Rhode Island.
Faubert made the comment during a recent Senate hearing that focused on the benefits of neonics. She explained that the harmful mites easily spread among honeybees, contaminating and killing their hives.
“If neonics were restricted or banned, I don’t think we’d see help to our bee population. I don’t think it would do a darn bit of good to help our bees,” Faubert said.
Henry B. Write III, president of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, agreed. “It’s 100 percent the mite,” White said, referring to the cause of CCD.
Little Compton farmer Tyler Young praised neonics for killing Colorado beetles and other local insects that threaten his potatoes and butternut squash. Pat Hogan of the Rhode Island Golf Course Superintendents Association said neonics are vital for grub control.
“We would not like to have these taken away from us,” Hogan said. “They are an effective tool.”
There was no specific legislation addressed during the Senate meeting. But a bill by Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, would limit or prohibit use of some neonics.
In a letter to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and the Environment, the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association said it discussed but didn't take a stance on the neonic controversy.
Meg Kerr of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island suggested that neonics deserve close scrutiny, especially those used by everyday consumers who may not pay close attention to the safety limits.
“I think people are inadvertently using more of these on their homes than they probably should,” she said.
Dave Brunetti, a commercial chemist, noted that studies show that native bees such as bumblebees are more susceptible to suffer from neonics than commercial honeybees. Some neonics, he noted, are more toxic than others.
“It’s important to keep in mind that even though we use it as directed on the label, it can still have a significant impact,” he said.
Ken Ayars, head of the state Division of Agriculture, said the versatility and low toxicity of neonics keep him from endorsing a ban. His office inspects hives regularly and quickly destroys any suspected mite infestations. A state program also cultivates bees that are less susceptible to disease.
Jesse Rodriguez Jr., president of the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association, supports the use of neonics, saying they are safer than traditional pesticides. They are also less toxic to farm and landscape employees and anyone living close to where they are used, he said. Rodriguez also noted that neonics are less expensive and require less water than conventional insecticides.
The ideal solution, he said, is to create more natural habitat for bees and pollinators. The natural system, he said, “appears to be out of balance right now and I think there are some proactive things we could do to encourage bees to live in Rhode Island.”