Maryland — a state that takes its agriculture seriously — is starting to take its bees seriously, too.
The Maryland House passed a bill recently that would implement a partial ban on neonicotinoids, a widely-used class of pesticides that’s been shown to harm honeybees. The bill would still allow farmers to apply neonics on their crops, but would ban everyday consumers from purchasing neonics for their home gardens or other use.
The bill comes at a time when managed honeybees — those kept by beekeepers — are seeing major losses in the United States. These bees, as well as wild pollinators like butterflies, wild bees, and birds, are hugely important to the world’s agriculture and to natural vegetation. A report this year on the threats facing wild pollinators — which are similar to those facing honeybees — found that 90 percent of wild flowering plants depend on animals for pollination, along with 75 percent of the world’s food crops.
The bill is significant because it would make Maryland the first state in the country to place major restrictions on neonics, said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Lawmakers in several other states — including California, Alaska, New York, and Massachusetts — have introduced bills that sought to limit or ban the use of neonics in their state, but none of them have made it as far as Maryland’s bill. The only states who have passed bills limiting neonics are Oregon, which banned use of the pesticides on a certain species of tree, and Minnesota, which passed a now-overturned law requiring nurseries to label plants treated with neonics. Cities, however, have gone farther: Eugene, Oregon and Seattle both banned the use of neonics on city-owned land.
Finck-Haynes said that Maryland’s bill will “set an example for other states that passing this type of bill is possible. It also sets an example for EPA to act nationally to restrict use of pesticides.”
The EPA has taken some steps against the class of pesticides — the agency is doing risk assessments of four neonic pesticides, and isn’t approving new permits to use neonics while the assessments are being completed. Some businesses have also taken action on neonics, after protests from environmental groups — Lowes pledged last year to phase out the pesticides from their shelves by 2019, and Home Depot plans to require suppliers to label plants treated with neonics. Still, consumers across the country can currently purchase neonic pesticides for use on their lawns and gardens.
And the pesticides are used on a variety of crops in the United States, including major crops like corn, canola, cotton, and soybeans. In its first neonic risk assessment — completed on a pesticide called imidacloprid — the EPA found that the pesticide harms honeybees when applied to certain crops, but not others. That’s because certain crops passed higher concentrations of the pesticide over to bees than others, and higher concentrations of the pesticide posed more of a risk to bees than lower concentrations.
“Ultimately, the EPA needs to take action to ensure that we’re restricting uses of neonics for both ag use and for cosmetic use, and on coated seeds,” Finck-Hayes said. “Right now not regulating any seeds that not coated with neonics,” a process that seeks to provide the plant with pest protection from the seed stage onward.
Maryland may have been more successful than other states in getting this type of bill through the legislature because the state has a broad coalition of people in the state supporting it — something that’s been absent in many other states, Finck-Haynes said. In Maryland, beekeepers lost close to 61 percent of their honeybees between April 2014 and April 2015 — a jump compared to the national average of 42.1 percent. Losses in managed honeybees have been attributed to pesticides like neonics, as well as to decreased nutrition — or lack of diverse, flowering fields in which to forage — and dangerous pests like the varroa mite, which can be deadly for bees.
“There’s been an enormous amount of support from beekeepers in Maryland to pass this bill, because they need immediate help to curb bee losses.”