The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee has been working on a bill, H.539, which would create a Pollinator Protection Committee for the State of Vermont. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recommended that states develop their own Pollinator Protection Plans in light of the decline in native and honeybee populations. While the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets has been working on a plan for the state, there is general agreement that a committee with a greater diversity of members might help move the process along and spread the word more widely about the problem.
After many hours of testimony, a common theme has emerged and it is generally agreed that there are several factors that have contributed to the decline in our pollinator population. As a result of urbanization, there has been a loss of habitat for bees to forage. For the sake of brevity, when I mention bees, it means wild bees, as well as honeybees and other pollinators.
Agricultural practices have changed over the years and farms where there used to be two crops of hay per year are now doing four and five. Under the two-crop scenario, hay might have been able to flower, but now it is mowed before flowering can occur, reducing forage for the bees. Climate change has caused more extreme weather events that have affected bees and there has been an increase in disease and parasites, such as varroa and tracheal mites.
On a professional level, beekeeping practices have changed and beehives are being transported around the country to pollinate various crops, which puts additional stress on those honeybees. One wonders if this practice is necessary because local pollinator populations have been so weakened over the years.
Increased use of pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, has also had an effect. We know that a direct application of neonic will kill bees, but even low-level exposure can cause a compromised immune system and impaired foraging.
One of the reasons neonics have been widely used is because they replaced a class of pesticides, known as organophosphates, that was much more dangerous to mammals. Neonics are safe enough for mammals that they are being used in flea collars and treatments for cats and dogs. There is concern, however, that neonics are being overused, for instance in seed coatings. Most corn planted in this country has a prophylactic coating on it that contains neonics, whether there is a need for it or not.
So why is this so important? As most folks know, many of the fruits and vegetables we eat rely on pollination. Our world and our diets would be significantly different without pollinators. Even if vegetables like broccoli are not reliant on pollination to produce what we eat, the seed we need for the next generation is. While home gardeners might be able to hand-pollinate their plants, it would take vast amounts of work and other crops. Bottom line – we need to figure this out and protect our pollinators.
While we have been considering the creation of a Pollinator Protection Committee, we also have a bill in our committee, H.236, which proposes to ban the use, sale, or application of neonicotinoid pesticides except in cases when the Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets determines that there is a threat to Vermont crops. The immediate problem with a ban is that seed coating has become so common that the availability of uncoated seed has been greatly reduced. Given the actions of the Province of Ontario, the availability of untreated seed may be increased in the near future.
Ontario has new rules for the sale and use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds that will be phased in over time to allow for farmers and the sellers of the products to get used to the new requirements. The goal is to reduce the amount of neonics being used, so farmers will have to demonstrate that they have an actual pest problem before they will be allowed to use treated corn or soybean seed. This may be a reasonable step for us to take in the future.
Last year, as we took testimony on H.236, we heard about practices that just didn't make sense. For instance, flowering plants coming into our state for sale at big box stores that were being advertised as attractive to bees were being sprayed with neonics before they got here! Our understanding is that this was being curtailed but it is an example of poor, unnecessary practice. There is also a concern that home gardeners might be using these products inappropriately – if a little is good, more would be better.
One of the reasons I write this column is to inform folks, in plain language, about what is going on in Montpelier. I occasionally try to get the word out on what I consider important issues and this is one of those times. As an avid vegetable gardener, I have always use organic methods, but especially now that I have a beehive next to the garden. I also understand that others may use products containing neonics in them. If you see imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, acetamiprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid or clothianidin, just to name a few, on the label, please use the product only as directed and not on plants when they are flowering. We can all help to protect our pollinators and ourselves in the bargain!