COUPEVILLE, Wash. — Researcher Tim Lawrence has been all around Washington state testing bee hives for neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides banned by the European Commission for their purported harm to honeybees.
Neonicotinoids in pollen and beeswax were almost non-existent in urban areas. More were detected in agricultural areas, but not enough to justify a ban, Lawrence said.
The Washington State University researchers expect to publish their findings soon in the Journal of Economic Entomology, adding to the body of knowledge on an emotional debate. So emotional, it’s hindering an effective response to honeybee losses, Lawrence said. “I think the whole neonicotinoid issue is a huge, unnecessary distraction when looking at what’s necessary for bees.”
Neonicotinoids were introduced in the 1990s as alternatives to pesticides that were more harmful to birds and mammals. Critics say that because plants absorb neonicotinoids, bees in turn pick up the pesticide. The United Kingdom recently relaxed Europe’s ban on neonicotinoids, sparking an angry backlash.
Lawrence says the anger is misplaced. To help bees, he stresses flower power.
“We need to plant lots of flowers. I mean acres and acres of flowers,” he said.
Lawrence, 64, has been thinking about what bees need since he was 12 years old. He saw bees swarming a tree limb, cut it down and carried it home to show his mother and announce his career plans.
As a young man, he wrangled bees in California and hammed it up by encouraging thousands of swarming bees to form a “beard” around his face. He also met his future wife, Susan Cobey, another young bee wrangler, who is now a WSU researcher and an authority on honeybee breeding.
Lawrence was a commercial beekeeper who later moved into academia, earning a Ph.D. in environmental science in his 50s at Ohio Sate University.
He took a post-doctorate job in Pullman as a bee researcher and seven months later, in 2010, was named director of the WSU Island County Extension Office, where he has continued his bee research.
Last year, he served on a honeybee task force convened by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. The task force concluded that parasitic varroa mites and lack of forage are bigger threats to honeybees than neonicotinoids.
The conclusion put the task force in step with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but out of step with European regulators and some local governments, such as Olympia, which have banned neonicotinoids on public property.
Lawrence readily agrees that spraying neonicotinoids in the presence of bees is bad and that there can be an over-reliance on chemicals to control pests. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that evidence supporting bans will come out and said that researchers should continue looking for new classes of pesticides easy on bees.
But he’s unpersuaded that banning neonicotinoids is the answer for what ails honeybees, a position reinforced by his recent research.
Mark Emrich, president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association, read a draft of the soon-to-be-published paper. His hives in Thurston County were tested, and neonicotinoids were not found. Nevertheless, he remains concerned that widely used neonicotinoids are damaging bees’ ability to function and maintain healthy hives.
“I’m more concerned about sub-lethal degradation of the bees as opposed to the bees actually dying,” he said.
Emrich notes that other research has concluded neonicotinoids are harming bees. “Nobody has really given me a good synopsis on why all the stuff done before was wrong,” he said.
Lawrence recalls shoveling piles of dead bees in the 1980s killed by ill-timed pesticide applications before neonicotinoids were introduced. The mass die-offs of bees have stopped, he said. “If they ban neonicotinoids, what are they going to replace them with? What are the consequences of that?”
To those who want to become beekeepers to save bees, he says: Don’t do it! Neophyte beekeepers can cause more harm than good by unwittingly allowing diseases to spread.
If you want to please bees, plant flowers, Lawrence says. Pollen- and nectar-rich plants stimulate bees. Stimulated bees are healthy and good pollinators. For Lawrence, the central question is, “How do you get these guys jazzed up about getting nectar and pollen?”
Position: Director of the Washington State University Island County Extension Office
Education: Ph.D. in environmental science and master’s degree in agricultural economics and rural sociology at the Ohio State University; bachelor’s degree in agriculture and pomology from the University of California-Davis
Family: Married to Washington State University researcher Susan Cobey, an authority on honeybee breeding.
Message: Honeybees need more forage and an effective defense against varroa mites. The anti-neonicotinoid campaign is a distraction.