Don Jenkins/Capital Press
A new state report stresses restoring habitat, rather than restricting pesticides, as the best way to help honeybees in Washington.
“If you want to help bees, plant flowers,” said Washington State University Island County Extension Director Tim Lawrence, a bee researcher and member of the Honey Bee Work Group. “We need acres and acres of flowers.”
The Legislature set up the 12-member group amid concern that pests, chemicals and development are making honeybees fewer and weaker.
The panel has come back with a host of policy recommendations, many related to promoting bee-friendly practices among farmers and weed-control boards.
“It’s going to involve huge amounts of coordination,” said Ephrata commercial beekeeper Tim Hiatt, another work group member. “We’re looking for a beekeeping industry that is stable and growing.”
The report doesn’t attempt to assess the health of honeybee colonies or whether bee populations are declining. The report does identify several threats and singles out parasitic Varroa mites as the single biggest problem for U.S. bee hives since 1987.
More specifically to Washington, other problems include losing rural land, indiscriminate noxious weed control and farming practices that reduce plant diversity, according to the report.
“Popular concerns about honeybees often seem to focus on singular issues and a desire for simple solutions,” the report states. “However, the challenges beekeepers face are part of a broad and complex picture.”
The report cites pesticide misuse as another threat, but the group rejected banning neonicotinoids, pesticides restricted by Europe and local jurisdictions such as Seattle, Spokane and Thurston County.
“The evidence doesn’t support that it’s going to do any good,” Lawrence said. “Most of what we can do about pesticides is education.”
The report cites development as the state’s population grows as a fundamental problem. Also, agriculture practices such as monoculture, cutting alfalfa before flowers bloom and removing hedgerows reduce bee forage, according to the report.
The state’s noxious weeds list includes many plants that provide bee forage, and eradication campaigns sometimes leave no alternative food source, according to the report.
The Washington Department of Agriculture organized the work group. In response to one recommendation, the department will convene another group to develop a pollinator protection plan, WSDA policy assistant Steve Fuller.
The group would be charged with writing rules for using pesticides. If approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the rules would be an option to federal laws, providing producers flexibility in applying chemicals while promoting communication with nearby beekeepers, Fuller said.
Other recommendations in the report include:
• Fund a WSU extension agent and researcher to advise beekeepers on keeping their hives disease-free.
• Fund a WSU pollination ecologist to advise producers and public agencies.
• Expand the scope of ongoing bee research at Washington State University
• Extend to beekeepers tax breaks enjoyed by farmers and ranchers.
• Put more hives on state lands and encourage state agencies to provide bee habitat.
• Encourage beekeepers to register their hives with WSDA to increase funding for research.