Pesticide Industry Joins New York’s Pollinator Task Force—Bad News for Bees

Tracy Frisch

Once widely dispersed throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest, the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinus) has seen steady declines in 87 percent of its historic range. These specimens were gathered in the 20th century for the University of Vermont's Thompson Natural History collection.

As in oth­er parts of North Amer­i­ca, bee­keep­ers in New York have been expe­ri­enc­ing unsus­tain­able loss­es of hon­ey­bee colonies. Accord­ing to the Bee Informed Part­ner­ship sur­vey, in 2014 and 2015, annu­al colony loss­es in the state reached 54 per­cent. And though loss­es were low­er in pre­ced­ing years, they con­sis­tent­ly exceed­ed the eco­nom­ic thresh­old of 15 per­cent loss. At great expense, New York bee­keep­ers have been able to recoup their win­ter and sum­mer loss­es, but for declin­ing native bee species the prospects are less rosy. For exam­ple, the rusty-patched bum­ble­bee (Bom­bus affi­nis), once com­mon in New York and the North­east, is now a can­di­date for the endan­gered species act.

A grow­ing world­wide body of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence impli­cates neon­i­coti­noids as a major con­trib­u­tor to the decline of hon­ey­bee and wild bee pop­u­la­tions. As report­ed in the Inter­na­tion­al Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature’s (IUCN) World­wide Inte­grat­ed Assess­ment of the Impacts of Sys­temic Pes­ti­cides on Bio­di­ver­si­ty and Ecosys­tems, 2015, this is due to a com­bi­na­tion of neonicotinoid’s acute tox­i­c­i­ty, sub-lethal, inter­gen­er­a­tional, neu­ro­tox­ic and immune sys­tem effects; their sys­temic behav­ior in plants and their per­sis­tence in soil and water. This rel­a­tive­ly new fam­i­ly of insec­ti­cides is now believed to be the most com­mon­ly used glob­al pesticide.

Unlike Europe and Ontario, Cana­da, the Unit­ed States has not act­ed to restrict the use of neon­i­coti­noids. How­ev­er, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has specif­i­cal­ly urged states to cre­ate pol­li­na­tor pro­tec­tion plans. Some states are work­ing on such plans and a few have been imple­ment­ed. But on August 6, at the first meet­ing of the New York State’s Pol­li­na­tor Task Force, com­mer­cial bee­keep­er Jim Doan was flab­ber­gast­ed to learn that state offi­cials had appoint­ed two rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the nation­al pes­ti­cide indus­try to the 12-mem­ber pan­el. It’s very dif­fi­cult for a bee­keep­er to think he can get a fair shake,” says Doan.

Con­se­quent­ly, I decid­ed to see for myself and attend­ed the Task Force meet­ings on Sep­tem­ber 11 and Octo­ber 1, and lis­tened to the record­ing of the August 6 meeting.

Mea­sured here in tons of active ingre­di­ent per year, the amount of neon­i­coti­noid insec­ti­cides shipped and used inter­na­tion­al­ly has been surg­ing since the ear­ly 1990s. (Graph: The Task Force on Sys­temic Pes­ti­cides)

The New York State Pol­li­na­tor Task Force

The New York state Task Force was set in motion by Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo (D), who said in an April 23 announce­ment, Pol­li­na­tors are cru­cial to the health of New York’s envi­ron­ment, as well as the strength of our agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my.” He added, By devel­op­ing a statewide action plan, we are expand­ing our efforts to pro­tect these species and our unpar­al­leled nat­ur­al resources, and mak­ing an impor­tant step for­ward in our com­mit­ment to New York’s eco­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic future.”

Cuo­mo direct­ed the state depart­ments of agri­cul­ture and mar­kets (NYS­DAM) and envi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion (NYS­DEC) to devel­op a state pol­li­na­tor pro­tec­tion plan with the involve­ment of stake­hold­ers and research institutions.

By July, stake­hold­ers were receiv­ing invi­ta­tions to serve on the state Task Force, which was com­prised of 12 advi­sors” from the pri­vate and NGO sec­tors with offi­cials from NYS­DAM and NYS­DEC serv­ing as co-chairs. In addi­tion, Cor­nell Inte­grat­ed Pest Man­age­ment pro­gram direc­tor Jen­nifer Grant sat with Task Force mem­bers and played an advi­so­ry role, though not as a member.

Task force membership

In terms of its per­son­nel, three groups rep­re­sent pes­ti­cide inter­ests on the Task Force: CropLife Amer­i­ca and Respon­si­ble Indus­try for a Sound Envi­ron­ment (RISE) are the pes­ti­cide industry’s agri­cul­tur­al and non-agri­cul­tur­al trade groups respec­tive­ly. Both are head­quar­tered at the same Wash­ing­ton D.C. office. The NYS Agribusi­ness Asso­ci­a­tion is the third agro­chem­i­cal group. Dan Digia­co­man­drea, a tech­ni­cal sales spe­cial­ist at Bay­er Crop­Science, one of two mak­ers of neon­i­coti­noids, attend­ed one meet­ing as that group’s alternate.

Agri­cul­ture also got three seats, with appointees from the state farm bureau, state veg­etable grow­ers asso­ci­a­tion and the fruit sec­tor. The state veg­etable grow­ers con­sis­tent­ly sent an alter­nate, Rick Zim­mer­man. His resume includes many years as a Farm Bureau lob­by­ist fol­lowed by a career as NYS­DAM deputy com­mis­sion­er. Today he heads up the North­east Agribusi­ness and Feed Alliance. The state turf and land­scape asso­ci­a­tion has a seat, too.

Three NGOs were appoint­ed to the Task Force: The Nature Con­ser­van­cy, Audubon New York and the Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Coun­cil (NRDC). Mem­ber Erin Crot­ty, who is exec­u­tive direc­tor at Audubon New York, pre­vi­ous­ly served as DEC com­mis­sion­er under Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor Pata­ki. NRDC, which has sued EPA on neon­i­coti­noids, was rep­re­sent­ed by one of two alter­nat­ing attor­neys at each meet­ing. Like the afore­men­tioned indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives, no one from these orga­ni­za­tions appeared to have any spe­cif­ic exper­tise on pol­li­na­tors. The rep­re­sen­ta­tives rom the Nature Con­ser­van­cy and Audubon New York pro­posed ways to increase pol­li­na­tor habi­tat but did not indi­cate con­cerns about pesticides.

Bee­keep­ers were appor­tioned two seats. With 12 hives, hob­by bee­keep­er Stephen Wil­son has chaired the Api­ary Indus­try Advi­so­ry Com­mit­tee for over 15 years. The oth­er rep­re­sen­ta­tive was Empire State Hon­ey Pro­duc­ers Asso­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Mark Bern­ing­hausen, a small com­mer­cial migra­to­ry bee­keep­er from St. Lawrence Coun­ty. This group has about 100 mem­bers out of the 3,000 or 4,000 bee­keep­ers in the state.

The state has also been accept­ing pub­lic com­ments (though this was appar­ent­ly not pub­li­cized and no dead­line has been announced). These com­ments must be sub­mit­ted to the governor’s office, not to the Task Force direct­ly (ini­tial­ly NYS­DAM was accept­ing them). As of this writ­ing, these com­ments have not been shared with task force members.

Giv­en the make-up of New York’s Pol­li­na­tor Task Force — one-quar­ter pes­ti­cide indus­try, one-third agri­cul­ture and turf care indus­tries — and the polit­i­cal alle­giances of the two con­ven­ing agen­cies, the com­plex issue of pes­ti­cides was there­fore always like­ly to be han­dled with kid gloves.

The time­line and the content

At the kick­off meet­ing task force advi­sors had a chance to lay out their posi­tions on what the state should do to pro­tect bees. The sec­ond meet­ing focused on research needs and the third dealt with habi­tat enhance­ment and best man­age­ment prac­tices (BMPs).

Pre­sen­ta­tions took up much of the sec­ond and third meet­ings. For exam­ple, a series of man­agers from six state agen­cies described their land man­age­ment prac­tices and ini­tia­tives to pro­vide habi­tat in respect to bees.

A high­point was the talk by Cornell’s new hon­ey­bee exten­sion ento­mol­o­gist, Emma Mullen. A Cana­di­an who just moved to the Unit­ed States, Mullen had been part of the team of sci­en­tists that worked on Ontario’s Pol­li­na­tor Health Pro­tec­tion Plan. Par­tic­u­lar­ly illu­mi­nat­ing was her expla­na­tion of the province’s new pro­gram to decrease the corn and soy­bean acreage plant­ed with neon­i­coti­noid-treat­ed seeds 80 per­cent by 2017. She also out­lined cur­rent Cor­nell research on bees.

NYS­DAM com­mis­sion­er Richard Ball, a veg­etable grow­er, chaired the meet­ings and NYS­DEC deputy com­mis­sion­er Eugene Leff played a sup­port­ing role. Leff, whose resume includes pes­ti­cide reg­u­la­tion, pre­vi­ous­ly presided over anoth­er stake­hold­er task force charged with deal­ing with an equal­ly polar­iz­ing issue: pre­vent­ing pes­ti­cide pol­lu­tion of Long Island’s ground­wa­ter. As with the pol­li­na­tor task force, pes­ti­cide and agri­cul­tur­al inter­ests were well rep­re­sent­ed on Long Island. (The 126-page strat­e­gy doc­u­ment that came out of that task force’s work indi­cates that these inter­est groups suc­ceed­ed in delay­ing any restric­tions on sus­pect pesticides.)

To frame the ini­tial Pol­li­na­tor Task Force dis­cus­sion, Com­mis­sion­er Ball reit­er­at­ed what has come to seem like the offi­cial nation­al dog­ma on bee decline — there is no sin­gle cause and we must con­sid­er mul­ti­ple areas of con­cern. While the list of pol­li­na­tor threats varies, the USDA, EPA and insti­tu­tions such as Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty cite fac­tors such as habi­tat loss, pests and pathogens, pes­ti­cides, genet­ics and/​or cli­mate change when they state that view.

Indeed, the most notable fea­ture of the meet­ings was the over­all reluc­tance to delve into the prob­lem of pes­ti­cides except in so far as they induce imme­di­ate bee kills. Only two mem­bers of the 12-mem­ber task force (bee­keep­er Stephen Wil­son and a Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Coun­cil attor­ney) urged any lim­i­ta­tions on the use of neonicotinoids.

Meet­ings with­out min­utes or structure

A num­ber of addi­tion­al aspects of these meet­ings sup­port the idea that the Task Force exists pri­mar­i­ly for appearance’s sake. First, no one appeared to be tak­ing offi­cial notes and no min­utes were made avail­able, despite advi­sor Stephen Wilson’s request for min­utes at the sec­ond meet­ing. (Record­ings are post­ed on NYSDAM’s web­site.) Sec­ond, no one wrote down ideas on a white­board or easel to cap­ture them as they came up. Third, Task Force dis­cus­sions were free­wheel­ing, unstruc­tured and all over the map.

The state’s short time­line, which called for the state to cir­cu­late the NYS Pol­li­na­tor Pro­tec­tion Action Plan Rec­om­men­da­tions to task force mem­bers on Octo­ber 19 fol­lowed by a 7‑day com­ment peri­od, also chal­lenges the notion of a delib­er­a­tive process informed by sci­ence. The whole process, from the first of three Task Force meet­ings to the sub­mis­sion of pri­or­i­ty rec­om­men­da­tions to the gov­er­nor, is sched­uled to take only three months. (As of Octo­ber 28, a bee­keep­er on the Task Force report­ed that he hadn’t received any­thing from the state yet.)

Yet the meet­ing agen­das pre­sume that in an hour or two of meet­ings these advi­sors will con­tribute con­tent to the pol­li­na­tor plan, gen­er­ate a mean­ing­ful research agen­da and cob­ble togeth­er BMPs to pro­tect bees.

The idea that all this can hap­pen fails to pass the laugh test. Thus, in the final por­tion of the third meet­ing, Task Force advi­sors were asked to con­sid­er a series of BMPs list­ed on a hand­out pre­pared in advance (pre­sum­ably by NYS­DAM or DEC) but not dis­trib­uted until the actu­al meet­ing. Task Force mem­bers had not got­ten through the first item on the list when time ran out.

Dis­cus­sion of spe­cif­ic BMPs was over­shad­owed by the con­tentious issue of whether bee­keep­ers should be required to reg­is­ter all hon­ey­bee hives with the state and dis­close their loca­tions. BMPs list­ed on the hand­out per­tained to such things as bee­keep­ers’ care for their colonies and con­trol of mites and oth­er parasites/​diseases, landown­ers and state agen­cies enhanc­ing pol­li­na­tor habi­tat and for­age, the cor­rect and judi­cious use of pes­ti­cides and of Inte­grat­ed Pest Man­age­ment, and the roles of bee­keep­ers, landown­ers and pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tors in pro­tect­ing hon­ey­bees from pesticides.

Per­haps there was no real need to care­ful­ly craft a plan because the con­clu­sions appeared to have been pre-ordained. In his clos­ing com­ments at the third meet­ing, DEC deputy com­mis­sion­er Leff referred back to the governor’s blue­print for the state pol­li­na­tor plan. In par­tic­u­lar, Leff high­light­ed the BMPs designed to reduce pes­ti­cide expo­sure to man­aged pol­li­na­tors through bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion among bee­keep­ers and farm­ers. Leff stressed the need for landown­ers and pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tors to know where hives are locat­ed and how to con­tact bee­keep­ers before they spray.

Of course, Bee­keep­ers would have to be ready to move their hives. Some bee­keep­ers fear that New York’s plan will fol­low North Dakota’s tem­plate — trans­fer­ring the bur­den of pro­tect­ing hon­ey­bee colonies from pes­ti­cides onto the bee­keep­ers. This is at odds with the his­tor­i­cal assign­ment of such respon­si­bil­i­ty to pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tors. In fact, pes­ti­cide labels car­ry legal weight in pro­hibit­ing pes­ti­cides con­sid­ered acute­ly tox­ic to bees from being applied when flow­ers are in bloom or bees are present.

Leff’s pro­pos­al to shift respon­si­bil­i­ty is rad­i­cal, but it is not new; it’s essen­tial ele­ments are con­tained in the guid­ance for State Man­aged Pol­li­na­tor Pro­tec­tion Plans, a June 2015 doc­u­ment pro­duced by the State The Fed­er­al Insec­ti­cide, Fungi­cide, and Roden­ti­cide Act (FIFRA) Issues Research and Eval­u­a­tion Group. (SFIREG is a com­mit­tee of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Pes­ti­cide Con­trol Offi­cials. SFIREG used to have the doc­u­ment on its web­site, but has since removed it.) Among the six crit­i­cal ele­ments” it iden­ti­fied for pol­li­na­tor plans are meth­ods for grow­ers to know if man­aged pol­li­na­tors are locat­ed near where pes­ti­cides are used and for con­tact­ing bee­keep­ers pri­or to apply­ing pesticides.

Thus it seems that pes­ti­cides are some­times acknowl­edged to be caus­ing at least part of the decline in pol­li­na­tors, but the approach pro­posed by Leff and SFIREG ignores much of what is known — that sys­temic insec­ti­cides like neon­i­coti­noids can harm bees months after appli­ca­tion, for exam­ple via the plant­i­ng of treat­ed seeds, and that insec­ti­cides are not the only agri­chem­i­cals that harm bees. For exam­ple, a new study has found that expo­sure to low lev­els of glyphosate impairs hon­ey­bee nav­i­ga­tion. And of course, warn­ing bee­keep­ers of impend­ing pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tions does noth­ing to pro­tect native pol­li­na­tors (though osten­si­bly these plans are intend­ed to pro­tect them too).

As the meet­ing was end­ing, I was able to pose a prac­ti­cal ques­tion: How easy is it for bee­keep­ers to move their hives when they get a call that pes­ti­cides will be applied?” Rober­ta Glatz, an old­er woman who serves on the state Api­ary Indus­try Advi­so­ry Com­mit­tee, replied from the audience.

She said that bee­keep­ers aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly where their bees are. They may be in North Car­oli­na rais­ing queens.” She out­lined oth­er con­cerns as well. There are lim­it­ed places where you can put your bees, and it takes a lot of nego­ti­a­tion to put in a bee yard. Logis­tics also come into play. Mud can impede access. Hives are heavy and usu­al­ly have to be moved in the mid­dle of the night when the bees are home. (And bee­keep­ers often have day jobs, anoth­er bee­keep­er told me once the meet­ing ended.)

So while even the bee­keep­ers of New York are hav­ing a hard time get­ting a fair shake in a pro­tec­tion plan for their own bees, in terms of pes­ti­cides it seems that Bom­bus affi­nis and oth­er native bees should expect even less of one.

(A ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared on inde​pen​dentscience​news​.org.)

Tra­cy Frisch is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist based in upstate New York near the Ver­mont bor­der. In the 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, she worked as an advo­cate and orga­niz­er on pes­ti­cide and envi­ron­men­tal health issues. She lat­er pro­mot­ed eco­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture with farm­ers and the local food move­ment. She can be reached at tracy.​frisch@​gmail.​com.
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