OLYMPIA — To beekeeper Mark Emrich, Thurston County’s ban on neonicotinoids on county property was a win in the battle against pesticides he blames, in part, for harming his honeybees.
County commissioners in December barred “neonics” from county managed land, saying they wanted to set an example by being the first Washington county to embrace the anti-neonic movement.
Seattle, Spokane, Olympia and Eugene, Ore., also have adopted policies against neonics.
Emrich, a Thurston County resident and president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association, said local jurisdictions may be more open to regulating neonics than state or federal agencies.
“I think the groundswell is going to be enough,” he said.
Neonicotinoids were developed in the mid-1990s in part because they showed reduced toxicity in honeybees compared with other pesticides, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Neonicotinoids, however, have come under scrutiny for, at the least, contributing to colony collapse disorder. The European Commission has banned three neonics: clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxan.
A Washington State University study in 2013 concluded that neonics have a negative effect on honeybees, bumblebees, mason bees, and others. However, it was unclear whether those pesticides have a significant effect on bees at “realistic field levels.”
The study said more research was needed and that in the meantime home gardeners should be educated about the importance of following labels.
Also last year, the Washington Department of Agriculture declined to regulate neonics. The agency noted there were “at least 61 factors” associated with colony collapse disorder and concluded there was no “documented evidence” neonics were harming bees in Washington. The agency’s position hasn’t changed, WSDA spokesman Hector Castro said.
The USDA has essentially the same position, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to study neonics over the next several years.
Emrich, who has 21 hives in Rochester, just south of Olympia, said about one-third of his 40,000-bee hives collapse each year, unable to function as a cohesive unit.
He said other factors, including parasitic varroa mites, are likely harming bees. “It’s not all pesticides,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of moving parts effecting bees.”
Nevertheless, Emrich said enough research suggests that neonics are one of those factors. For now, he said he would like to see a moratorium on the unregulated use of neonics by home gardeners.
“I’d like to see it benched until we have more research,” he said.
The executive director of Washington Friends of Farms & Forests, which represents farm groups whose members use pesticides, said Thurston County “made a completely emotional decision.”
“I do not expect either the Legislature or the state Department of Agriculture to follow that example,” Heather Hansen said. “They base their decisions on science.”
Hansen said neonics control pests on many state crops, including wine grapes, apples, pears, cherries, potatoes, raspberries, blueberries, vegetables, wheat, lentils and Christmas trees.
She warned against rushing to blame neonics for colony collapse disorder and needlessly weakening the state’s ability to ward off invasive pests.
Hansen also cautioned against banning neonics without considering the alternatives.
“Every alternative, including those that organic farmers use, have side effects,” she said. “The alternatives may very well be worse for bees than the neonics.”