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Making Life Better for Bees: VLS Bans Suspect Pesticide To Highlight Pollinators’ Plight

South Royalton — Without bees and other pollinators, 70 percent of plants would be unable to reproduce or provide food, according to the Center for Food Safety, a national non profit public interest group. Of the 100 crop varieties that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, 71 are pollinated by bees, and pollination services in the United States are valued at an estimated $15-$20 billion annually.

But for many pollinating species — and especially bees — life has become increasingly difficult in recent years. In the United States alone, the center says, honey bee colonies have dropped from more than 5 million in 1940 to fewer than 2.5 million today, and commercial beekeepers lost an average of more than a third of their hives in 2011.

For some beekeepers, the numbers are even higher.

“The challenge that we’re facing is that one out of three bites of food that we eat are related to honey bees,” said Barbara Lawler, president of the New Hampshire Beekeepers Association. “So if we don’t do something about the decline in honey bees and we don’t do something about the decline in their forage … it’s going to directly impact what you and I have to eat, what it costs for us to eat, and to feed the world.”

The reasons are complex and debated, but many people point to a nicotine-based pesticide that is applied to seeds and absorbed into plants’ pollen and nectar as a likely contributor to the problem.

In an attempt to shed light on the plight of bees and other pollinators, Vermont Law School has banned the class of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, from being used on its campus, becoming the first institution of higher education in the country to do so.

“We need to develop more awareness and we need to develop better ways to coexist with our pollinators,” said Laurie Ristino, director of the law school’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems.

Neonicotinoids, first introduced in the United States by Bayer CropScience in the early 1990s, differ from many traditional classes of pesticides, which are applied to the surface of plants instead of to the seeds. They have a wide range of uses, from seed treatments to soil treatments for various crops, houseplants and other greens, and are designed to target such pests as aphids and root-eating grubs by affecting the insects’ central nervous systems.

Vermont Law School’s ban follows partial bans in several European countries as regulators await further research. In June, the Obama administration announced a directive seeking to create a federal strategy for promoting honey bee and pollinator health, but stopped short of banning neonicotinoids.

At Vermont Law School, Ristino acknowledged the pledge — taken as part of the Center for Food Safety’s Bee Protective Campaign — will have little impact on day-to-day operations at the riverside campus. With no crops to treat, the school does not have much use for pesticides in the first place. And because neonicotinoids are applied so early in the process, it’s often impossible to know whether food and other greenery has been treated using the pesticide.

“It’s more about, because we do have a physical campus, raising the awareness of what we use on our grounds, because a lot of campuses do use chemicals,” Ristino said. “We hope it catches on.”

For other stakeholders in pollinators’ health, including beekeepers, farmers and consumers, the balancing act can be more challenging, with many people awaiting more definitive scientific research.

Beekeeper Richard Brewster, who has been keeping bees for 26 years and has hives in West Lebanon, New London and his hometown of Andover, N.H., said he is “absolutely” concerned that neonicotinoids could be contributing to colony collapse, in which apparently healthy bees mysteriously abandon their hives and disappear.

“And I can’t speak for everybody else, but I can’t imagine any beekeeper being not worried about that and hoping somebody’s doing something about it,” he said, adding that he’s pleased with Vermont Law School’s decision.

Others, such as Lawler, said that the problems affecting bees are probably “not as simple as we would like it to be.”

“We need some really good studies to link neonicotinoids to exactly the kinds of impact that they have,” Lawler said, “and those studies have not been done either as extensively as the scientific community would like in order to be able to make a strong recommendation, or they just haven’t been done at all yet.”

Although several studies have linked neonictinoids to confusing honey bees and diminishing their ability to remember pollen routes, Lawler said other research has suggested that neonicotinoids could be just one piece to a more complicated puzzle, or could be less harmful if used in other ways.

In the meantime, Lawler said she personally tries to “do everything as organically as possible” because “at this point, I just don’t know what the impact is.

“There’s a lot of activism going on right now with people who really want to ban this, and then there are a group of people who say, ‘We want to jump on the bandwagon but we want to jump on the right bandwagon. We want more proof before we do this.’ We have to really be aware of both the short and long term impact of all of our choices ... and by solving one problem, we can potentially create another.”

At Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, where owners Anne and Pooh Sprague harvest a variety of crops and host hives owned by beekeeper Troy Hall, neonicotinoids are used selectively and are currently being used in the potato fields, Pooh Sprague said.

“It gives us good control over potato bug, which is a real serious pest, and if we didn’t do that, we would have to spray multiple times (with other kinds of pesticides),” he said. “I just kind of feel that’s the tradeoff — you can kill a lot of natural pollinators by over-spraying after the problem appears, too, and pollinators really don’t like potatoes much. So that was a choice we had.”

Cultural solutions, such as rotating the crops, are utilized but aren’t completely effective, he said.

Vermont Law School’s decision to make a largely symbolic ban on neonicotinoids, he said, “is nice, but I don’t think its the kind of thing that contributes a great deal to the discussion, which I think is unfortunate. A lot of these things aren’t as black and white” as people might think they are.

Norm Longacre, of Longacres Nursery Center in Lebanon, said a small number of customers have asked whether neonicotinoids are present in the center’s pesticides and plants. Unless the nursery has grown the plants from seed, he said he “errs on the safe side” and tells customers to assume that other plants — which may have been transferred among several nurseries before arriving in Lebanon — have been treated with neonicotinoids

Like so many others, he said he’s still waiting for science to provide more guidance on the pesticide’s effects.

“The thing about pesticides, fungicides, all of them,” he said, “(is that) mother nature needs a helping hand.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.