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Maryland’s honeybees are being massacred, and the weapon might be in your house

Bees tend to honeycomb cells in a colony in Frederick, Md. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)
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In the end, Maryland lawmakers couldn’t ignore the same haunting story from beekeepers. “I go into winter with a really strong population, managed them to be fat and healthy, treated for mites, with plenty of food,” said Bonnie Raindrop, a keeper in Baltimore County. “But at the end of winter, you open your hives and they’re all dead.” 

The keepers joined academics and conservationists in convincing the state General Assembly that the mass deaths over the past four years are likely tied to widespread use of household pesticides linked to honeybee mortality. Both chambers recently passed bills that would ban stores from selling products laced with neonicotinoids to homeowners who tend to lather too much on trees and gardens.

The similar bills  are expected to be forged into a single piece of legislation for Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to sign within two weeks. Hogan’s signature would make Maryland the first state to take the harmful pesticides away from amateurs. Farmers and professionals who better understand how to apply them in a way that poses a lesser threat to bees would be exempted by the law when it takes effect in 2018.

Maryland lost more than 60 percent of its hives last year, each with up to 20,000 honeybees. About a dozen other states are considering taking similar steps as bees die and honey production declines. Last year, honey production fell  12 percent among producers with five or more colonies, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.

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Neonicotinoids were introduced to agriculture in the 1990s and made available to the general public more recently because it was thought to be safer for bees than other pesticides. They seep into plants rather than simply coating the surface. Although some researchers insist the chemical doesn’t cause bee mortality, other scientists are gathering evidence that it does. The Environmental Protection Agency launched a review to determine if several varieties of the insecticide have contributed to the collapse of bee colonies. Its findings are due in 2018.

The Obama administration announced the first national strategy to promote the health of bees and other pollinators, following the sharp decline in colony numbers in recent years. USDA bee scientist Jay Evans explains why honeybees are so important and how bees affect food prices. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Two years ago, an team of global, independent scientists that formed the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides concluded that neonics are a key factor in bee declines after reviewing a thousand studies. The report said they should be restricted.

Hogan has given no indication about his intention to sign or reject the bill, but Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s), who authored the House version, said it had strong bipartisan support, and there appeared to be enough votes to override a veto. “I’m a little nervous talking about things that haven’t happened yet,” Healey said. “There were very strong votes in both houses. The public is very much in favor … of doing something to protect our pollinators in the state.”

Healey said a new law would “be a landmark, and it would set a standard that maybe other states would follow.” She called it a “step in the right direction.” 

Maryland’s Department of Agriculture disagreed, saying that they too care about the decline of bees but that there is little scientific evidence linking it to neonicotinoids. A spokesman at the department declined to comment on the legislation but provided its testimony from a committee hearing opposing it.

Agriculture “has not documented any cases of neonicotinoid pesticides negatively impacting honeybees in Maryland,” the agency’s statement said. It cited a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Honeybee Survey data for Maryland saying “no neonicotinoids were found in Maryland pollen samples, and fewer pesticides overall were detected when compared to the national average.”

The department was also concerned about the $200,000 allocated in the House bill to implementation and enforcement. Agriculture said it would likely cost more than $1 million the first year and nearly that much every year afterward. Keeping tabs on homeowners would be a major headache, officials at the agency said.

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Homeowners would be banned from buying  products containing neonicotinoids such as Knockout Ready-to-Use Grub Killer, Ortho Bug B Gon, All-In-One Rose & Flower Care, Lesco Bandit Insecticide and other products at 3,000 hardware stores, garden centers, nurseries and other outlets in the state. But it can’t stop them from buying it out of state and on the Internet. Usage would be banned, but a small crew of state enforcers isn’t likely to catch gardeners red-handed.

Other opponents said honeybees are suffering from problems that have nothing to do with insecticides. Poor nutrition and the varroa mite that infects them with a pathogen are two.

Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore County), who authored the companion bill, dismissed those arguments as “intellectually dishonest,” saying, “We should do what is in our power to help save the bee population and not shy away simply because a given measure is not a global solution.”

Steve McDaniel, owner of McDaniel Honey Farms, agreed. He has lost 50 percent of his hive where he lives in Manchester, Md., and 100 percent in downtown Baltimore since 2012, about 20 each year. Hives with up to 20,000 bees cost about $1,200. “It’s been awful,” McDaniel said.

“I’ve had them there for 30 years,” said McDaniel, a master beekeeper, and in the last four years, “I can’t keep them alive no matter what I do. The trouble is they started selling these pesticide to homeowners. They put these things on flowers that bloom within a mile of the beehive. No one can offer me a reasonable explanation of any other cause for what I’ve been seeing.”

When she searched her hive this year, Raindrop found piles of dead bees or their rotting remains. Out of about 10,000 bees in a hive she kept in Baltimore County, only a few survived. “Sometimes it’s just a big handful, that’s all,” she said.

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