From, The Isthmus
“Just give us a break.” That’s all Doug Hauke is asking for. He’s one of the largest honey producers and beekeepers in Wisconsin. He keeps nearly 3,000 bee colonies near Marshfield, each with tens of thousands of honeybees. He produces 200,000 pounds of honey a year for Leinenkugel. He’s no small operator — and no novice either. Hauke remembers the days when Madison was home to one of the largest bee research labs in the country, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He worked there in the 1970s, before it was shuttered.
Yet even with his skill and experience, and the size of his operation, his bees are not immune to the threats facing beekeepers around the world. Wisconsin beekeepers reported losing more than 60% of their colonies over the 2014-2015 season, according to the most recent data from the USDA-funded Bee Informed survey. Much of the devastation has been blamed on agriculture’s heavy use of pesticides, which weaken pollinators against natural threats like mites and disease.
While still successful, Hauke has nevertheless lost whole colonies of bees and seen firsthand the struggle to keep the practice alive. “When the spraying starts on a countywide basis…there is no safe place to run,” Hauke says, referring to the springtime pesticide applications his colonies encounter.
The plight of honeybees and other pollinators in modern industrial agricultural systems has been well-documented: They’re dying in droves. Jeff Pettis, one of the leading scientists from the USDA Bee Research Lab, told Congress in 2014 that the “economic sustainability of beekeeping is at the tipping point” and that the cost of constantly replacing hives is “making beekeeping no longer financially viable in this country.”
Government officials near and far have been trying to figure out what to do to save the bees, nature’s migrant farmworker force. The Obama administration has provided guidance and money aimed at finding solutions. States have offered their own plans, tailored to their particular climate and crops.
Wisconsin has just added its effort to the mix with a 52-page document called the Wisconsin Pollinator Protection Plan. It was written by a UW-Madison postdoctoral researcher, Christina Locke, in concert with representatives from about 30 groups identified as stakeholders by the Wisconsin Department of Agricultural, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).
Hauke was one of two beekeepers invited to contribute, along with chemical company representatives, agricultural industry spokespeople, naturalists and government agency scientists.
The plan is chock-full of advice for gardeners, farmers, beekeepers and managers of public land — “best management practices” in the parlance of government.
A few of the tips: Avoid spraying pesticides on blooming plants being visited by pollinators. Incorporate native plant species into your garden, which tend to attract more bee species. Place bee hives in areas where at least three species of flowering plants are in bloom at all times from early spring to late fall, so the bees have enough food. In some places, the plan contains resources and specific steps for how to achieve these things, such as links to lists of where to buy native seed mixes.
The plan, however, does not offer any guidance for policymakers on how regulate pesticides. Recent estimates show that more than 80% of corn and about 40% of soybean acres in the U.S. were planted with neonicotinoid-treated seed — and this use has come under increased scrutiny lately for its impact on pollinators.
Seed coatings are one of the most popular and prevalent uses of the neonicotinoid class of pesticides — and thanks to an exemption from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they aren’t labelled or regulated as pesticides. This is the subject of a new lawsuit brought against the EPA in January by a beekeeper in Minnesota, which estimates that 150 million acres nationwide are planted with neonic seed coatings.
The pesticide coatings are aimed at protecting plants from predators when they are young and vulnerable. But joint research from 12 major public universities, including the UW, shows that neonic treatments for soybeans often provide little value to farmers because the seed treatments are not timed for the attacks of major soybean pests. The EPA agrees. Soybean aphids tend to come looking for lunch after the concentration of pesticide has peaked. Yet the process of planting can kick up a lot of dust, spreading the pesticide to neighboring fields, where it is taken up by dandelions and other wildflowers that bees feed on in the early spring. Several new studies have documented that many pollinators are affected by sublethal doses of pesticides, meaning a dose not large enough to kill them immediately, but enough to make them sick or disoriented.
That Wisconsin’s pollinator plan doesn’t contemplate any regulation of pesticides is no accident. Locke says DATCP Secretary Ben Brancel directed the stakeholder group to craft the plan as a voluntary document, not a regulatory tool. Regulatory proposals need to be signed off on by the DATCP Board.
Many industry representatives cautioned against “regulatory creep” as the plan was being developed, both at stakeholder meetings and in written comments to the plan’s author.
“As all of the agriculture and farm groups stated repeatedly during the sessions, the plan needs to be simple, voluntary and recognize that some groups or agencies may at some point attempt to make portions of it mandatory or regulatory,” Tom Lochner of the Wisconsin Cranberry Growers Association wrote in response to the draft plan.
The Cranberry Growers Association, for one, would like to see even less emphasis on pesticides in the plan. “Our growers and in general all farmers are responsible in their use of pest control chemicals,” Lochner wrote.
Hauke, the commercial beekeeper from Marshfield, favors restrictions on pesticide use rather than an outright ban, such as the one the European Union enacted. He’d like to see the prohibition of prophylactic use of neonic seed treatments, a practice where farmers use the pesticide as a precaution rather than in response to an infestation. He also suggests that when chemical companies bring new products to the market, the EPA should use independent, third-party research to verify their claims.
The EPA is currently reviewing four major neonicotinoid pesticide registrations to determine their impacts on pollinators, and it has announced a temporary moratorium on new approvals. It took a similar pesticide off the market after a federal lawsuit.
Other governments have taken action. In Canada, Ontario began phasing in restrictions on neonic sales last summer, with the goal of reducing acreage planted with such pesticides by 80%. In November, Quebec announced plans to ban neonic use in urban areas and severely curtail agricultural use. Several U.S. cities, including Portland, Ore., have restricted their use on city property. Madison intends to follow suit, according to its Pollinator Protection Task Force Report, published in the fall. Dane County published a report as well, which includes a goal of minimizing insecticide use by the county and its residents.
But beekeepers like Hauke remain pessimistic that Wisconsin’s plan will bring major change. “Do I think Big Ag will change? Absolutely not, too much money involved,” Hauke says. “But I do believe the plan will inform and enlighten private individuals to be more aware of pollinators.”
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