When a beekeeper loses bees because of a toxic environment, it’s like having one’s dog poisoned. Our relationship with these amazing creatures is similar to what a dog owner has with his beloved pup.
Last year, Maryland beekeepers lost nearly 61 percent of their bees and nearly 50 percent the year before, about twice the national average and quadruple the 15 percent the industry believes to be sustainable. Beekeepers expect similar losses this year.
My hive losses have also spiked. Of six colonies, I have lost two; another is so weak it may not survive. I replaced the hives and doubled my apiary, expecting to lose half. Can you imagine a dairy farm losing half its cows?
Every dead hive costs beekeepers $1,500 in lost income from honey, pollination and bee sales plus replacement costs; this does not include labor. F&D Apiaries in Hagerstown provides pollination services to vegetable farms and orchards. Last year, it lost 75 of 150 hives, costing this small business more than $100,000.
Steve McDaniel, one of a dozen master beekeepers in Maryland, lost 19 of 20 colonies. Maryland’s losses are unsustainable. Our beekeeping industry is seeing large attrition.
The decline of bees does not just hurt the beekeepers; it also hurts all of us.
Managed bees are critical to our food supply, pollinating many of our favorite foods: strawberries, blueberries, grapes, watermelons, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, pumpkins and almonds. Known as the “angels of agriculture,” bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that make up the majority of the world’s food supply and many of the fruits and vegetables grown in Maryland. Honeybees and other pollinators are responsible for 1 of every 3 bites of food we eat.
Bees have thrived for millions of years, so why the sudden decline?
Numerous studies confirm that neonicotinoid pesticides (a.k.a. neonics) contribute to bee mortality and declines in native pollinators, including wild bees, birds and butterflies. In 2014, the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, a group of 30 global, independent scientists studying the impact of pesticides, reviewed more than 1,120 studies and concluded that neonics are a key factor in bee declines and also harm other essential organisms.
A 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, reviewing the first in the neonics class, recognized the significant risks from the common neonic imidacloprid, which “potentially poses risk to hives when the pesticide comes in contact with certain crops that attract pollinators.”
In addition to killing bees outright, research shows that even low levels of these powerful pesticides cause serious harm. Neonics impair bees’ ability to find their way back to the hive, collect food, reproduce and rear healthy queens. It weakens their immunity. Previously benign viruses and parasites causing minor damage become killers to bees affected by neonics.
And it’s not just bees we need to worry about. According to the American Bird Conservancy, one seed contaminated with this chemical can kill a songbird. Studies also show harm to aquatic life, molting blue crabs and macro-invertebrates. The European Food Safety Authority says neonics may affect the developing human nervous system, affecting functions such as learning and memory.
What’s most concerning is that not only are these toxic chemicals harmful, but also their use is widespread and they are pervasive in our environment. Neonics have become the fastest-growing and most heavily used class of insecticides. A U.S. Geological Survey study found that 53 percent of streams sampled nationwide, including those feeding the Chesapeake Bay, showed detectable levels of neonic contamination.
The good news: There is hope. Maryland’s Pollinator Protection Act, which is being debated in Annapolis, would restrict consumer use of neonics. It would take neonics off retail store shelves and prohibit anyone who is not a veterinarian, farmer or certified pesticide applicator, or their employees, from using them.
Maryland should be a leader in protecting our pollinators, saving beekeepers and our food supply from extinction.
The time to act is now. Let’s give bees a fighting chance.
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