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


News & Issues December 2015-January 2016


In Mass., a hot debate over saving bees

Farm lobby’s plan prompts pushback from beekeepers


Contributing writer


Beekeepers in Massachusetts have been organizing in recent months to challenge regulatory and legislative proposals they say would not do enough to protect bees from pesticides -- and might actually put them in greater jeopardy. The changes are aimed at curbing recent mass die-offs of bees. Joan K. Lentini file photo


Lucy Tabit’s honeybees keep dying: Thousands of them stagger around disoriented, shivering and unable to fly.

Tabit, who has been keeping bees in Westport, Mass., for the past 16 years, has lately endured a series of incidents in which some of her honeybee colonies were killed off by pesticide poisoning. Unable to pinpoint the source of the bees’ exposure, she has been helpless to prevent it from happening again, and every year she faces a new expense of time and money to replace her lost bees.

Tabit’s bees aren’t the only ones that are dying. In the year ending last spring, Massachusetts beekeepers lost 46 percent of their honeybee colonies, according to statistics compiled by the Bee Informed Partnership, a national research group. Although most of these losses can’t be traced directly to pesticides, many beekeepers report that the scale of these die-offs has increased dramatically in the past decade as a new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids has come into widespread use.

So Tabit’s interest was piqued when she heard earlier this year that the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation was working to draft the outline of a “pollinator stewardship plan” for the state. Responding to concerns about the loss of honeybees, which are vital to the pollination of many crops, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year gave states the task of coming up with individual plans for protecting bees and other pollinating insects.

But when Tabit and other beekeepers asked to attend the Farm Bureau’s invitation-only meetings on the Massachusetts plan, their interest was spurned. Tabit said she was told the group was “not ready” for her to participate.

Eventually, in July, the Farm Bureau did invite her to one of its sessions. When she arrived, Tabit said she was handed a copy of the pollinator-protection framework and asked to return with feedback. By then, she said, it was too late for her to help shape the document in any meaningful way.

Later that month, she was surprised when some beekeeper friends asked her why she had signed onto the Farm Bureau’s pollinator plan, which they hadn’t expected her to support. Tabit said her name was included, without her knowledge or consent, among those endorsing the Farm Bureau document.

“I never put my name on it,” she said.

Tabit and other beekeepers say the Farm Bureau of failed to inform, let alone consult with, most of the state’s county beekeeper organizations as it worked on its plan. And their frustration reflects a larger concern of beekeepers and some environmental groups – namely, that the process of developing pollinator protection plans in individual states will be easily manipulated by the pesticide industry and its allies in agriculture, resulting in plans that accomplish little and might even put bees at greater risk.

One issue that particularly upsets many beekeepers is that some of these state level plans, including the one proposed by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, would shift responsibility for safeguarding bees from pesticide applicators to beekeepers.

Traditionally, pesticide applicators have been prohibited from spraying bee-toxic chemicals when flowers are in bloom and bees are active. But a guidance document created at EPA’s request recommends that states create a mechanism for beekeepers to indicate where their hives are located – so that pesticide applicators can notify them 48 hours before spraying.

The Massachusetts Farm Bureau’s plan calls for an electronic registry of apiary locations that would be shared with pesticide applicators. The burden would then fall on beekeepers to promptly move their colonies to a safe location.

But beekeepers say that’s not easy and often not even possible. Hives are heavy and typically must be moved at night when the bees are inside. And finding an appropriate safe site – and a willing landowner – can be a challenge. The approach also ignores the risk of pesticides to wild bees and other native pollinators.

Private group steps in
Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation President A. Richard Bonanno characterized his group’s initiative as a well-meaning attempt to assist the state.

“The feds want the states to have a pollinator stewardship plan in place,” Bonanno said. “We thought we could help the process.”

With state government in transition after the election last year of Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, to succeed two-term Democrat Deval Patrick, the Farm Bureau had an opportunity to exercise leadership on the pollinator issue, Bonanno explained in a phone interview. He suggested the state was in a poor position to lead the process itself because of changes in upper-level staff at the state Department of Agricultural Resources – and because the state’s chief honeybee inspector had died in late 2014.

When the Farm Bureau approached the state and offered to help develop a pollinator protection plan, he said, the agency agreed to send a couple of its staff -- the chief pesticide inspector and a state chemist -- to participate in the Farm Bureau’s pollinator meetings.

Asked about the lack of public access to this process, Bonanno said that, as a private organization, Farm Bureau is “not bound by open meeting laws.” He declined to provide minutes or a list of participants in his organization’s meetings on the issue.

Now that Farm Bureau has handed off its pollinator framework to the state agriculture department, Bonanno said it’s up to the agency to do what it wants with it. He did provide a copy of the finished document as submitted, including public comments the group had received.
In creating its proposal, Bonanno said the Farm Bureau aimed for “broad-based” representation of a variety of interests. He noted that at the last of Farm Bureau’s pollinator meetings – the one Tabit got to attend after the draft had already been completed – nearly half the participants were beekeepers.


‘Spray, baby, spray’
Bonanno acknowledged that he “got a lot of grief” from beekeepers who were excluded from his group’s earlier meetings. But he said the decision was a practical one, “based on how many chairs” – about 20 or 25, he said – fit around the conference room table at the group’s office.
Undated minutes from the first of the Farm Bureau pollinator meetings, provided by another source, indicate 17 people attended. They included a cranberry grower, a lawn-care professional, a pesticide company manager, four people associated with mosquito-control programs, state toxicologist Hotze Winja, and state Rep. Keiko Orrall, R-Lakeville, the sponsor of a bill strongly opposed by most of the state’s beekeeper associations. That first session did include five beekeepers, at least three of whom have commercial operations, but they were greatly outnumbered by panelists whose professional orientation was toward pesticide use.

While the Farm Bureau was turning away Tabit and others, however, at least one beekeeper who wants to rein in bee-killing pesticides was attending the Farm Bureau’s pollinator meetings. Marty Jessel, who keeps about 25 hives in Boxford, a northern suburb of Boston, accepted his friend Randy Johnson’s invitation to accompany him to the sessions an hour away. Johnson is a Farm Bureau member who farms and also keeps bees.

Jessel has lost a couple of hives to pesticides. In his case the carnage occurred in the aftermath of spraying for mosquito control. Jessel taught himself all about mosquito spraying in Massachusetts and for a time attempted to advocate for bees in his mosquito-control district.
When he arrived at the Farm Bureau headquarters for his first meeting, Jessel said he found himself “amongst a heavily biased” group of people with a “spray, baby, spray” mentality, though that didn’t deter him from speaking his mind.

“I found I needed to go to the Farm Bureau meetings to represent the bees, because they can’t speak for themselves,” he said.


Legislative hearings
The Farm Bureau’s pollinator-protection effort is one of several state-level initiatives in Massachusetts that have galvanized beekeepers in recent months.

On July 28, three days before Farm Bureau formally released its pollinator protection framework, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture held an oversight hearing at the statehouse on colony collapse disorder -- a phenomenon first noticed about a decade ago in which adult worker bees mysteriously disappear from their hives.
State Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport, who became co-chairman of the committee last March, said legislators have been hearing from many sides about the issue.

“We wanted to get to the bottom of it ourselves,” he explained.

The hearing showed the divisions clearly, Schmid said. The invited speakers -- beekeepers, commercial farmers and people from academia -- were split into two points of view regarding the role of neonicotinoid insecticides in colony collapse disorder.

Among the speakers was Chensheng “Alex” Lu, a Harvard School of Public Health professor whose groundbreaking research first demonstrated in a field study the delayed deadly effects on honeybee colonies of exposure to tiny sub-lethal levels of neonicotinoids.

Richard Callahan, an entomologist who’s also a Worcester County beekeeper, supported Lu’s conclusion that colony collapse disorder is likely the result of exposure to neonicotinoids.
But two University of Massachusetts agricultural scientists testified that the causes of colony collapse are multifaceted and not yet well understood.

The next step for the legislative committee was commissioning a review of peer-reviewed articles by a Yale School of Forestry doctoral student. Schmid said the student found that neonicotinoids were one of the causes of colony collapse, but she was unable to give weight to the severity of other possible contributing factors.

Last month Schmid’s committee drew another crowd of beekeepers to the statehouse, this time for a hearing that focused on the Legislature’s three pending bills on pollinators.

Schmid, who runs a certified organic grass-fed beef farm, said he believes that “we need to cut back on the indiscriminant use of neonicotinoids.”

But he does not support an outright ban on the pesticides because of concern “about what would take their place.”

From a pest management perspective, one reason for the prevalence of neonicotinoids is that they’re used to provide prophylactic treatments for plants, regardless of whether insect pests are present at a destructive level. And while most insecticides are contact poisons that wash off, neonicotinoids are taken in by plants from coated seed, treated irrigation water or spray -- and are incorporated into the plants’ very tissue. This renders the plants themselves toxic to insects.


Taking the offensive
Michele Colopy, who heads the national nonprofit Pollinator Stewardship Council, founded by members of the American Honey Producers Association in 2012 to protect bees, said beekeepers are divided by the size of their operations. She calls it a caste system, one in which hobbyists, sideliners and commercial beekeepers have widely different interests and attitudes. And the state pollinator plans now being developed are further dividing beekeepers, with those that provide pollination services pitted against the others, she said.

Beekeepers that contract with farmers to pollinate crops “never sue farmers that kill their bees” with pesticide use, Colopy said. “They don’t want farmers angry at them.”

But Tabit, Jessel and other Massachusetts beekeepers say they became more outspoken as they began to realize that supposedly bee-friendly bills went against their interests as guardians of bees.

County beekeeper associations across the state have organized hundreds of their members to send letters to state legislators opposing a bill introduced earlier this year by state Rep. Keiko Orrall, R-Lakeville, a participant in the Farm Bureau pollinator meetings. Orrall’s bill, entitled “An Act to Ensure Proper Stewardship of Honeybees by the Commonwealth,” would establish an advisory committee to evaluate the state’s beekeeping regulations and policies. Among other concerns, beekeepers oppose the makeup of the committee, a majority of whose members would not be beekeepers. In addition, the beekeepers that would serve on the committee would be chosen by the state.

The Worcester County Beekeepers Association argues in its statement against the bill that “farmers, who frequently apply pesticides that harm honeybees, should not be tasked with making laws that govern beekeeping and the apiary inspection process. ... This is a conflict of interest.”

The 600-member Worcester County group, founded in 1900, has continuously run its own beekeeping school for 75 years.

“What we need instead,” the group says, “are proper protections in place to prevent others from harming our bees through illegal and improper applications of pesticides.”

Under the federal pollinator strategy, the group says, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is rewriting insecticide labels so they only protect bee colonies exposed to pesticides under pollination contracts. Protections for all other beekeepers will be delegated to the states through their individual pollinator protection plans.


An alternative plan
The July legislative hearing came at a critical time for the beekeepers and helped them coordinate their advocacy.

“Many of us from all over the state met at that hearing,” Tabit said. “It was very opportune for us, because we were able to communicate with the different beekeeper organizations.”

Going to the hearing gave them a better understanding of what they were up against, she said. It also was energizing. Jumping into action, some beekeepers came together as a working group to draft their response to what they considered the illegitimate Farm Bureau document.

In the space of about 45 days – just ahead of the Sept. 15 deadline for comments -- they produced a detailed six-page pollinator plan of their own and gained support for it from most of the state’s beekeeping groups, including the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association. The eight county beekeeping organizations that signed on to the document have a combined membership of more than 3,000.

In the cover letter that accompanied the alternative plan they produced, the beekeepers explained one of their motivations.

“A review group that largely excludes the stakeholders who keep honey bees, but instead welcomes the stakeholders who make a living applying pesticides, is suspect from the start,” they wrote.

They also described the credentials of contributors to their plan. The group collectively possesses hundreds of years of beekeeping experience. They include presidents of county beekeeping organizations, former state apiary inspectors, a master beekeeper, and both professional and hobby beekeepers. Among them are four published scientific researchers, a former director of mosquito control, a biologist, lawyers, a Harvard public health scientist, and an entomologist with a specialty in pesticide toxicology.

“We worked tirelessly on our framework in that month,” Tabit said. “We knew what we were talking about, and the Farm Bureau did not.”

By the time of the November legislative hearing, Tabit had become more optimistic that the beekeepers’ concerns would be heard and heeded by the state.

Tabit, who testified at the hearing, admitted to getting “choked up a little bit” in recounting her bee losses to the standing-room-only crowd.

Beekeepers from across the state attended to express their opposition to two pending pollinator bills that would create advisory or investigatory bodies on which beekeepers would be in the minority. They also expressed support for a third bill that would limit the use of neonicotinoids to licensed pesticide applicators -- and require applicators to provide advance notice to property owners of the risks these chemicals pose to bees and other pollinators.

“I said Massachusetts is poised to be on the forefront in coming up with a plan that the entire country can look to,” Tabit said.