Bee task force

A bee forages on a flower on the Capitol Campus in Olympia. Washington lawmakers are considering a bill to promote pollinator health.

OLYMPIA — Legislation to help honey bees and other pollinators stresses habitat and education, while steering clear of neonicotinoids and parasitic varroa mites.

Senate Bill 5253 follows recommendations by a task force that included beekeepers, farmers, gardeners, pesticide applicators, environmentalists and weed-control and government officials.

"It represents consensus," said commercial beekeeper Tim Hiatt, legislative representative for the Washington State Beekeepers Association.

"As a necessity, it's not as sharply pointed in some of its provisions as we would have liked," he said. 

The Senate agriculture committee held a hearing on the bill Wednesday. The bill has bipartisan support, and no one testified against it.

Carrying out the bill, however, will require lawmakers fitting it into the budget. A report on how much various parts of the bill would cost was not finished in time for the hearing.

The bill's provisions include:

• A ban on using non-native eastern bumble bees to pollinate outdoor crops. The non-native bees carry diseases and cross-breed and crowd out native bees, according to the task force.

"There is very little use of them. The word has gone out," Hiatt said. "Still, that's something that needs to said and put in statute."

• Require landscaping on public works projects to be at least 25% pollinator habitat. This provision likely will be amended to give public works officials more flexibility.

Hiatt said the state Department of Transportation already does a good job planting pollinator habitat. "A 25% requirement on every road construction project they touch would be a budget buster," he said.

• Clarify that pollinator habitat qualifies as agriculture land for property tax purposes.

• Set up a permanent task force on pollinators led by the state Department of Agriculture.

• Several provisions direct the agriculture department and Washington State University to promote pollinator health on websites and other forums.

"It does put pollinator health in a better direction," Hiatt said. "It's going to help people become more aware. People should not feel bad if they let their lawns go to dandelions."

Research specifically on varroa mites, a parasite that feeds on honey bees, did not make the cut when the task force prioritized recommendations. Hiatt said he hopes a permanent task force would look at the problem.

Pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, came up at Tuesday's hearing. The European Union has banned some neoncotinoids, a class of insecticides, because of their effect on bees.

Agriculture department policy adviser Kelly McLain told the Senate committee that the department reviews pesticides for their effect on bees, but pesticides aren't the biggest problem for pollinator health.

"Habitat continues to be the most limiting factor for native pollinators in Washington state," she said.

Hiatt, a commercial beekeeper for 30 years, said older chemicals wiped out hives. "I don't think I've ever had a hive killed due to neonics," he said. 

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