Pesticides, bees, and honey
We’ve had quite a month. Truly, an ungodly amount of insecticide has been applied over this state in the last six weeks or so -- much of this being applied over soybeans while in bloom while our bees are actively foraging. We have a real problem without a simple solution. Last I checked, our bees were having enough trouble without getting wiped out while visiting flowers.
Most of us realize that pesticides are our reality here. We, as beekeepers, often share space with large-scale agriculture. With monoculture comes pest issues. A grower needs to take action to protect the investment and encourage good crop yields. This is just good farming. We all know this. The problem is that much of this can come with a high cost – harm to non-target insects such as our honeybees, other pollinators, and insect pest natural enemies inhabiting the area of application.
Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has filed a lawsuit against the EPA over the disclosure of information concerning CCD-related pesticide effects on honeybee colonies. Personally, I'm not so upset with the EPA here. If these chemicals weren't being applied (with little-to-no respect for land stewardship) to blooming plants full of (all sorts of) pollinator populations, this wouldn't be as big of an issue as it is.
The federal government went so far as to spell it out in the labels: commonly, “This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment or residues on blooming crops or weeds. Do not apply this product or allow it to drift to blooming crops if bees are visiting the treatment area. WILDLIFE PROTECTION IS EVERYONE’S RESPONSIBILITY”.
But few seem to be overly concerned with this sort of thing. Crop prices are up which, of course and understandably, encourages growers to get as much from the land as possible. We need to be very careful though with this logic considering the true costs involved in the bigger picture.
So what can we do to protect our bees from pesticide exposure?
Apiary registry is a good idea. --It's not required. This is beneficial to many of us with adequate means/methods to get to our hives and take precautionary measures. Obviously, this is easier and more meaningful for some than others. Most of us reading this are keeping a handful of hives, not hundreds or thousands. It’s probably true (to a point at least) that the fewer hives you have the more attention you can give to them. Pesticide applicators are required by law to contact beekeepers of registered apiaries to give prior notification of pesticide application -- not less than 24 hours before, not more than 72 hours prior.
Technically the registry list closes each year on April 1. Many applicators have already printed out their lists for the year. You can still add yourself to the list, and any applicator checking it from that point on will see your location info.
The easiest way to get on the list is to go to the website. This is the link to the sensitive crops directory:
Here just click on the "producers" button. Then click on the "First time user" button, and follow the instructions from there.
A call from the applicators in advance is helpful because then you can get to the hives after dusk or before dawn when nearly all the bees are at home. Netting or closing up your hives is often helpful. At least it gets the bees out of the air as the planes spray the chemical(s) and until the pesticide dries on the surface of the crop. The residue will still be on the plants and active when you release the bees and some chemicals are worse on bees than others. If you close them up (rather than moving them somewhere else, or doing nothing at all), use a piece of screen over the entrance. If you are using a screened bottom board, that's helpful too. I've talked to several people who add on extra supers for the short term closed-up period to give the bees a little extra space and this seems like a good idea. Bee-tight netting over the hives may be something of a better idea than closing them inside the hive. This at least allows the bees to hang on the front of the hive in the heat of the day.
Communication with the applicator is itself valuable. They’re not required by law to tell you exactly when, where, or what bee-toxic substance they’re applying within the 2 mile range of your apiary… but it’s really nice and can be so helpful when they will disclose this info. When problems rise up, the reality is that the beekeeper usually loses more from the ordeal. We need, even if only for purely self-centered reasons, to maintain good relationships with the applicators working in our areas.
Along similar lines, the USDA provides this relatively informational website:
Basically this provides a set of web links, most a decade or more old, all saying similar things:
--Don't apply bee-toxic pesticides while plants are in bloom.
--Applicators should notify beekeepers in advance though this does not reduce the applicator's responsibility in event of bee loss.
--Beekeepers should locate hives far from agricultural fields (easier said than done in many parts of this state).
One more thing, I’ve received a number of calls concerning the purity of honey gathered from nectar collected from areas of pesticide application and by bee colonies which may have been negatively affected by these chemicals. We don’t always get proper notice, and we can’t always make it out to protect our hives. Is our honey safe for us to consume? Is our honey safe for our bees to consume? These are good questions and again…no simple answers. Dr. Bart Smith from the USDA Beltsville Bee Lab says that if a bee is carrying a large enough quantity of pesticide in the nectar she’s collected, she’ll be dead before the nectar makes it into the honey supers. If bees have a quantity of a pesticide covering them (not ingested), they may make it back to the hive before dying but they won’t be adding this to the honey either. So the honey is typically pretty safe from this sort of contamination. The IDALS Pesticide Labs have tested honey samples in recent years and have never found pesticide residues down to the parts-per-million level. On a related note, pesticides (including those we use against mites) definitely can build up in beeswax over time and we should be culling out a few older frames from each box each year.
In cases of concern, Dr. Smith also pointed me to the MAAREC website for info on getting your honey sampled. If MAAREC sounds familiar, it’s probably because of their work/reporting on CCD research and a host of other beekeeping issues. The page links to a lab which accepts honey samples for pesticide testing. They seem to be able to test for around 170 different compounds, some with precision down to parts-per-billion. This testing isn’t free but there is a cost sharing program which gets the price down to around $100.00 per sample.
Here are the links for info regarding honey testing:
If nothing else, hopefully this gives something to think about as the spraying schedule winds down for the year. Thanks.