hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial September 2015



To protect honeybees, start with straight talk


The little tags, stuck into the soil of virtually every potted plant at the local Home Depot, display a mastery of corporate obfuscation.

“This plant is protected,” each tag says, “from problematic aphids, white flies, beetles, mealy bugs and other unwanted pests by neonicotinoids.”

It all sounds good, no doubt, to the large majority of people who likely have no clue what neonicotinoids are.

What they are, as our cover story this month details, is a class of pesticides that have come into widespread use over the past decade – and that some scientists and beekeepers believe are behind a series of massive die-offs of honeybees.

Home Depot’s plant tags are a sop to environmentalists and others who’ve been pressing the retailer to stop carrying garden plants that have been pretreated with neonicotinoids. The protection provided by these pesticides, critics contend, may be a lot more problematic than the unwanted pests they’re intended to cure.

True, no one has been able so far to provide conclusive proof that neonicotinoids are the cause of colony collapse disorder, in which adult worker bees mysteriously abandon their hives, typically leaving behind a live queen, immature bees and, often, plenty of food.

Proving causation, especially to the standard required for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to limit the use of a pesticide, could take years. But early research has raised enough concern that Europe and Canada’s largest province, Ontario, have already moved to restrict the use of neonicotinoids.

The decline of honeybees, under way for several decades, has gotten much worse in the past 10 years. Researchers came up with the name “colony collapse disorder” in 2006 to describe the suddenly common phenomenon of bees abandoning their hives. Perhaps not coincidentally, the disorder became common within three years after the federal government approved the use of clothianidin, a new neonicotinoid, on corn seed.

Bees produce honey, of course, but they also are important as pollinators of agricultural crops. Many commercial beekeepers earn much of their living by renting out hives to farmers to help with pollinating everything from blueberries to almonds. But in recent years the beekeepers have suffered devastating losses, with thousands of hives wiped out.

Neonicotinoids are systemic, which means treated plants absorb the pesticides into their tissues. The chemicals don’t wash off, and the plants themselves actually become toxic to insects. This makes neonicotinoids particularly effective at providing long-term protection against corn borers, aphids and other pests. The question is whether honeybees have become the collateral damage in this war against other insects

As our story makes clear, the process for deciding how and whether to limit the use of neonicotinoids in agriculture will likely play out over a period of years, and chemical companies and large-scale farmers will be well represented.

But perhaps half of the neonicotinoids sold in some states are being deployed in nonagricultural settings – by lawn and tree-care companies and, as the Home Depot tags suggest, by home gardeners who may be unwittingly spreading these poisons through pretreated plants. A little more honesty in labeling might help the average consumer decide whether they really want to be a part of this new chemical warfare.



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