Catastrophic population declines among honeybees and other pollinating insects are spurring calls at the Capitol for greater regulation of pesticides — and likely will set the stage for future showdowns between environmentalists, commercial beekeepers, garden retailers and powerful agricultural interests.
Manley Bigalk, a commercial beekeeper and farmer with operations in Minnesota and Iowa, told lawmakers on Thursday that they are the best hope for addressing an increasingly dire problem.
“If we aren’t going to get regulations out of Washington, which doesn’t sound very promising, it’s probably going to have to come down to the state level,” Bigalk said in testimony before the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee.
While the causes of colony collapse are not fully understood, a mounting body of research implicates a relatively new generation of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, nicotine-like compounds first developed in the 1990s and originally thought to be less toxic than traditional pesticides.
Critics now liken the “neo-nics” to that most notorious of pesticides, DDT, which was greeted as revolutionary and used widely before its devastating effects were understood. Over the past decade, neo-nics have become a ubiquitous feature of industrial agriculture and now account for about a quarter of global pesticide sales.
For Midwestern corn farmers, according to Bigalk, it is virtually impossible to procure corn seed that has not been coated with neo-nics.
While colony collapse has multiple causes, Bigalk said “neo-nics seem to be heading the list.” A fifth-generation farmer and second-generation beekeeper, Bigalk said he suffered large-scale bee die-offs for the first time three years ago, an event he associated with the exponential increases in the use of the newer pesticides.
The pollinator crisis is not limited to the industrial-scale corn and soybean operations in farm country.
Erin Rupp, co-owner of a “honeybee educational organization” called Beez Kneez in Minneapolis, testified about the sudden die-off at her hive at the Blake School last fall. Rupp said she called in investigators from the University of Minnesota’s Bee Squad, who determined that the die-off was likely caused by exposure to another pesticide, fipronil.
Highly toxic to pollinators, fipronil is not intended for use on flowering plants. In urban areas, it is typically applied to lawns or the foundations of buildings in order to repel pests such as termites and ants.
“We know that pollinators need our help and we would love to see Minnesota become a national leader on this issue,” said Rupp.
Rupp urged lawmakers to restrict the sale of fiprinol and, additionally, to reconsider a state preemption law that bars local governments from regulating pesticide use. Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, has introduced a measure that would allow the state’s four biggest cities — Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and Duluth — to institute their own pesticide ordinances.
Two other urban beekeepers — both located within a mile of the Beez Kneez hive — reported similar losses to their hives.
Katherine Sill, a hobbyist beekeeper from Minneapolis, said the Bee Squad attributed the die-off to fiprinol exposure. In addition, Sill’s hive was contaminated with a fungicide called Carbendazim, which is often used to protect ornamental plantings such as crab apple trees but is harmful to bee larva.
“Careless spraying” caused the fungicide to drift over her 7-foot-tall privacy fence, Sill said, but she was unable to determine the precise origin because there are no requirements to register such applications.
“These chemicals clearly have negative, unexpected impacts as well as their intended ones. Needless to say, they should be used more responsibly,” said Sill. She urged lawmakers to mandate pesticide training.
In a written statement, Mark Lucas, the other Minneapolis beekeeper whose honeybees died off suddenly last September, advocated for the creation of a pesticide application database and “pollinator-friendly” labeling standards for lawn and garden products.
Honeybees not the only pollinators at risk
Because honeybees play such a vital role in pollinating human food crops, their decline has received plenty of attention across the globe. However, the prognosis is also grim for many of the state’s native pollinators, including butterflies and moths, according to Dr. Eric Runquist, a butterfly conservationist at the Minnesota Zoo.
In Minnesota, 31 species of butterflies and moths, along with five species of native bees, have been classified by the Department of Natural Resources as “species of greatest conservation need.” While not as efficient as honeybees when it comes to pollination, Runquist said, the native insects play “a massive role” in pollinating both wild flowering plants and agricultural crops.
In Minnesota, no species of butterfly has undergone a more marked decline than the Poweshiek skipperling. Once ubiquitous in the state’s prairie areas, the Poweshiek was in trouble by the early ’80s, but the population plummeted in the early 2000s and the species is now on the verge of extinction.
“There are probably more than three or four times as many pandas in the world as Poweshiek skipperlings,” Runquist said.
Habitat loss caused by the conversion of native prairie to row-crop agriculture is the most obvious explanation for the decline, but the role of pesticides is less clear, said Runquist. Pesticide mortality research will be a principal goal of the Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program.
In compliance with a pollinator habitat law enacted last year, the Department of Natural Resources is working on plans to redress the shortage of prime pollinator habitat, said Bob Welsh, wildlife habitat program manager at the DNR. While the DNR manages roughly 5.5 million acres of public lands, only a minuscule percentage of that land is located in prairie regions.
“We have declining, postage-stamp-sized habitats out there, so we need to emphasize what we can do on those pieces of property,” said Welsh.
Matt Wohlman, assistant commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, told lawmakers that the department takes the issue “very seriously” and has organized three active pollinator work groups. In addition, he said the department plans to organize an annual pollinator consortium.
Rep. Jean Wagenius, chair of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, said the state’s pollinator-related actions to date “are just nibbling at the edge of the problem.” However, the Minneapolis DFLer said the testimony at the hearing further bolstered the case to fund more plant and pest management research at the University of Minnesota.