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Working to Overcome an Uneasy Alliance

From Cotton Grower Magazine – May 2016

common thread luncheon

Tensions ran high at spring grower meetings in the Mid-South. The friendly – but often shaky – relationship between beekeepers and row crop producers was once again strained, as disputes over pesticide use had resulted in several lawsuits in 2015.  The discourse between the two groups has no doubt intensified in 2016, and members of both camps point to EPA regulations as a primary source of conflict.

Much of their dispute centers on the use of neonicotinoids, as some crop protection products in that category remain in regulatory limbo. Most recently, the use of seed treatments – particularly the dust that escapes those treatments – have fallen under the EPA microscope.

As a retired county agent and current owner of Quinley and Whitworth Pure Honey, Bob Whitworth has a unique – and balanced – viewpoint of the relationship between beekeepers and farmers. He, too, points to misdirection from the federal government as a reason for increased tensions.

“I think I see the trust eroding in EPA,” says Whitworth. “You know, they approved the neonicotinoids, and then they’ve taken some backsteps, and said ‘Well, maybe they’re not safe – the dust does kill bees.’

“We’ve been told that if EPA approves a chemical, then it’s okay to use it within the approved guidelines and you’ll have relative safety. All of a sudden they say that’s not the case with neonics. That is why I see that erosion of trust as a big problem.”

A Memphis native, Whitworth teamed with University of Tennessee IPM Extension Specialist Scott Stewart this winter to discuss ways for farmers and beekeepers to better coexist in the coming year. Still, he understands that there are challenges. For one, he says, more sets of eyes are paying attention now than ever before. That alone can antagonize an already fragile alliance.

“For example, in the Memphis Beekeepers Association, 15 or 20 years ago we had 20 members,” he says. “It was kind of a social thing, you know, we talked about our honey bees, but it was casual. Then these problems started coming for bee populations and, all of a sudden, our membership started growing. Now, I’m quite sure, we’ve got 350 active members. When we have a meeting, there’ll be 150 to 200 people there.”

Those who are newly-interested in pollinator protection are certainly well-intentioned, Whitworth says, but the added scrutiny can cause headaches for farmers.

“The message I was trying to get across this winter was that bees are in trouble, there’s no question about that,” Whitworth says. “And producers are facing problems because there’s so many sets of eyes on the producers that it gets more difficult every year for them to stay clear of the fire of the beekeepers.”

Chasing the Truth

While more and more of the general public become involved in the pollinator debate, they aren’t always being informed by trustworthy sources.

“We’re going away from a science-based society to a media-based society,” says Gus Lorenz, Extension entomologist with the University of Arkansas. “When things come up on the Internet, it’s taken as gospel.”

Both Lorenz and Whitworth cited outside factors – namely, a parasite known as the varroa mite, and the commercial shipping of hives across the country throughout the year – as primary contributors to pollinator population declines.

Lorenz and his fellow Mid-South entomologists Stewart and Mississippi State University’s Angus Catchot noticed a developing trend of poorly-sourced reports on the impact of common pesticides on honeybee populations.

“We felt we needed to get to the bottom of it as quickly as we could, because we saw it was like a freight train rolling downhill. Our goal was to figure out if the neonics are really a cause of the issues to honeybees that we were seeing on the Internet.”

To that end, the three Extension entomologists started out in earnest as beekeepers, keeping their own hives and studying them for several years. Of particular interest was the effect of neonicotinoids and imidacloprids on the health of the hives.

Lorenz says the entomologists ran a series of tests looking at how often and how much neonicotinoids could be found in their hives. Similar studies were conducted looking at imidacloprids. The group also studied the plants themselves, with respect to seed treatments. Essentially, they wanted to see if a seed treatment transferred into the plant’s reproductive parts – turning up in the pollen and nectar, as they had read in seemingly dubious reports. Lorenz presented their findings at winter meetings.

“In summary, there is very little transference of neonics in the reproductive parts of the plant,” he says. “Dust is an issue, but that exposure can be limited and mitigated. And based on the feeding studies, it indicates that neonics are not the boogeyman.

“In conclusion, seed treatments provide virtually no threat to honeybees in the Mid-South. When you go forward and start responding to the EPA discussion and open statement periods, it’s time for you to step up and say something. You should feel comfortable that we’re not hurting honeybees with these seed treatments, based on the work that we have done.”

Lorenz made clear that neonicotinoids can indeed kill bees, noting that if hives get direct exposure to sprays, they will be killed. He also cited pyrethroids and other products as threats to bee health if direct application is made.

“We have to be careful about not spraying and drifting on hives,” Lorenz says.

Preventing Problems

When pressed, both Lorenz and Whitworth say communication is key for farmers and beekeepers to peacefully coexist.

“If you have a beekeeper on your farm, communicate with him,” says Lorenz. “You should also know where the hives are and where potential drift issues could be.”

Lorenz also offered practical advice for protecting the bees on and around farms.

“If you can, apply insecticides late in the afternoon when bees are less active in the field. Communicate with the beekeeper and the beekeeper with you. We can all get along.”

Whitworth says he understands that there are economic considerations in play when asking a farmer to delay an application – say, to wait on a change in wind speed so as not to endanger a hive.

“That’s a tough situation. I realize what they have invested in the crop, and what it costs to move that highboy across the county,” Whitworth says. “But I think the thing we need to avoid is the damage that gives cause for federal regulation change. We don’t want to be so haphazard that we do things that will change the process. We want to keep these pesticides approved.”

Whitworth also suggested that equipment operators make sure the hoppers on their planters are structurally secure so as not to allow seed treatment dust to drift away from the equipment. This practice could be accomplished with simply a roll of duct tape, in some cases.

Ultimately, he says, a little mutual respect goes a long way.

“Just be conscious that the bees are there, and I’ve used the phrase ‘Have a little respect for the bees,’” Whitworth says.

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