Apr 9, 2016 by

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Bonnie Raindrop has been beekeeping for just nine years, but that’s been more than enough time to see the precipitous decline in bee populations that has been plaguing Maryland. Last year, according to the USDA, Maryland beekeepers lost 61 percent of their honeybee populations, which is two times higher than the national average. Over the last five or so years, Raindrop herself has witnessed crushing losses in her own hives, fluctuating between 50 and 100 percent.

Which is why Raindrop is so happy that the Maryland legislature has started to take notice. Thursday night, the Maryland House and Senate agreed upon and jointly passed a final version of the Maryland Pollinator Protection Act, which would eliminate consumer use of neonicotinoids, a widely-used class of pesticides that has been shown to negatively impact honeybees. If the bill — which now goes to the desk of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) — is enacted into law, it would make Maryland the first state in the country to codify such protection for honeybees at a statewide level.

“Maryland’s [pollinator] losses are really staggering,” Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress, noting that “sustainable” bee losses are considered to be around 10 to 15 percent of a colony — significantly less than what Maryland has been experiencing.

Because Maryland is suffering from such noticeable losses, Finck-Hayes said that the bill garnered a large amount of public support throughout the legislative process, not only from beekeepers, but from environmental organizations, farm organizations, water quality organizations, and voters writ large. A 2015 poll conducted by the Maryland Pesticide Network found “enormous voter concern about risks posed by pesticides,” and overwhelming support for policies that would restrict or label neonicotinoid pesticides.

The Maryland Pollinator Protection Act constitutes only a partial ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, not a complete one. Certain parties — those that have been trained to use the pesticide, farmers, and veterinarians — can still use neonicotinoids. But consumers, like those looking for a pesticide for their home garden, will no longer be able to purchase neonicotinoids.

But even a partial ban, Finck-Haynes said, is an important step.

“For someone that isn’t certified and doesn’t know how to use them, they might spray heavily. Making sure that we’re eliminating that use is a significant step in getting them out of the environment and helping to protect bees,” she said. “Different studies come out showing that for home garden use these products are used 120 times more.”

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When talking about pesticide use in the United States, most see it as a symptom of large-scale industry agriculture. And, to some extent, it is: as Tom Philpott pointed out over at Mother Jones, nearly all of the corn planted in the United States — some 90 million acres of cropland — is grown from a seed treated with neonicotinoids. In their first full assessment on the risk of neonicotinoids, however, the EPA found that the pesticide posed a greater threat to honeybees when applied to some crops rather than others. Corn treated with neonicotinoids, they found, poses less of a threat than crops like citrus, which may have residues of the pesticide in the pollen at dangerously high levels.

But home gardeners also have a role to play in spreading neonicotinoids throughout the environment. In addition to pesticides — which the Maryland bill now bans at the consumer level — Raindrop worries about plants and seeds purchased from nurseries that don’t disclose that they have been treated with neonicotinoids.

“They are essentially planting gardens that become killing fields for pollinators,” she said.

In total, between April 2014 and April 2015, United States beekeepers lost an average of 42.1 percent of their bees. Globally, pollinators aren’t faring much better — in February, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released an assessment of pollinator health that noted that in some areas, 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species are so threatened that they could face extinction. Pollinator extinction poses a huge threat to food security, because about 75 percent of all foods crops require a pollinator to grow.

Over the past few years, a growing body of science has found several links between neonicotinoids and poor pollinator health. One study found that exposure to neonicotinoids impacted a bee’s brain, making it forget the scent of food. And other studies have shown pesticide exposure might weaken a pollinator’s immune system, making it more difficult to fend off viruses. But bee experts often caution that pesticide exposure is just one of many environmental risks pollinators face — they also face pressure from dwindling food resources, or the varroa mite, which has been implicated in bee deaths.

But Raindrop argues that even non-pesticide-related threats — loss of forage or parasites — are made worse by neonicotinoid exposure.

“There are multiple factors, but they all tie back in to pesticides — and neonicotinoids in particular — being a key component,” she said.

Spurred by the high level of bee losses, several cities have enacted outright bans on neonicotinoids. Several states, like California, Alaska, New York, and Massachusetts, are currently considering legislation that would ban neonicotinoids, though none of the proposals have made it through the state’s legislature (besides Maryland, Massachusetts is the furthest along, as its bill was recently voted out of committee).

“I hope that other communities realize that as citizens and the public can do something to help pollinators,” Raindrop said. “We can try to enact similar legislation in other states. We can become educated consumers and not purchase products that contain neonics for our home gardens.”

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