The Buzz Continues Over Pollinator Health

The Buzz Continues Over Pollinator Health

From Cotton Grower Magazine – March 2015



Pollinator health entered the public consciousness sometime around 2006, spurred on by concern over a then new phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The scientific community leapt into action to try and discover the cause of the malady.

After eight years, the debate over the cause of declines in pollinator health is as fierce as ever. And, pressingly, American cotton may get caught in the crossfire.

“If you read the press and read the literature, the number one factor that rises to the top and catches all the blame is pesticides, and specifically neonicotinoids,” said University of Tennessee Extension researcher Scott Stewart.

Stewart and others in the research community say the problem of honey bee population declines could be traced back to a wide array of issues, including the increased presence of a parasite known as the verroa mite. Many researchers say commercial management of honey bees could be playing a large role in health declines of the insects.

Despite evidence that many other factors are in play, environmental activists and some politicians will no doubt continue to pursue legislation that could impact crop protection practices in American cotton.

“There is considerable debate on this issue,” said Stewart, who noted that bee colony numbers in the U.S. and worldwide have actually been on a slight upswing in recent years. “Regardless of what the science says now…we’re going to see label changes. We already have. (There could be) loss of products, delays of registration in new products, and increased record keeping requirements.

“We’ve already seen the ban of these products, at least temporarily, in parts of Europe. The EPA just finished a risks needs assessment for the value of neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans, and they concluded that there’s really not any value,” Stewart said. “Make no mistake; this is really the first step towards trying to eliminate that product in soybeans.”

Legislation on the Horizon?

The National Cotton Council recognized the potential for serious fallout from this issue early on. As the manager of integrated pest management at the NCC, Don Parker has been tasked with monitoring the constantly evolving debate around the issue of pollinator health.

Beginning in 2006, researchers in the United States began to identify multiple potential causes for the decline in honey bee populations worldwide. According to Parker, the emphasis on colony collapse faded as other likely causes emerged.

Commercial bee farmers began reporting higher than normal population losses over the winter months. Honey bees also seemed to be becoming more susceptible to multiple other viruses. As Parker says, many of these issues could be traced back to the parasitic side effects of the verroa mite.

“The verroa mite was part of it, no doubt,” Parker says. “That is a parasite that transfers diseases to the bees.”

Beekeepers were aware of the parasite, and began to treat their bee populations with various pesticides to protect against the verroa mite. When trace amounts of these pesticides – which were initially targeted for the verroa mite – were found in the beeswax, it changed the bee industry’s attitudes towards pesticides in general.

“That’s why the Council started to monitor what was going on, because we wanted to make sure that people didn’t start blaming pesticides and agriculture when this was not being driven by agriculture,” Parker says.

The European ban of neonicotinoids in 2009 served to embolden pesticide critics here in the United States. At the same time, the national dialogue around the issue began to examine other potential causes of the decline in pollinator health.

“Among those was the verroa mite, still,” Parker says. “There was a loss of habitat for bees – the lack of a good, diversified floral-fauna habitat with the diverse nutritional needs that they require. And stress was considered – there are a lot of stress factors in commercial bee operations.”

Parker says it is common for commercial bee operations to transport colonies around the country. The bees may be loaded onto a truck in California and released back into a natural setting in the Dakotas over the course of the same day.

“But still, pesticides were still an area that they were trying to understand more about,” Parker says. “Some groups brought a lot of public attention and media attention around the pesticide component as compared to some of these other factors.”

While the federal government has thus far dealt with the issue in a level-headed manner, Parker says the potential for pesticide regulation is always there. In June of 2014, President Obama weighed in on the issue via a presidential memo. In it, he instructed all federal agencies to look at the issue of pollinator health and determine what contributions each one can make to improve the overall health of honey bees. The fallout from that memo could be beneficial for cotton, according to Parker.

“When you’re talking about the Department of Defense or the Department of the Interior, they have a lot of federal lands,” says Parker. “So one thing they’ll look at is improving the bee habitat on federal lands, and hopefully opening up those lands so that bee keepers can utilize those so that they will be able to have bees in non-agricultural areas.”

The Obama administration is expected to roll out a federal plan to improve pollinator health at some time during March. As of this writing, that plan had not been released to the public.

What Growers Can Do

In recent months, the NCC conducted a survey focused on cotton producers who allow beekeepers to house commercial hives on the cotton farm. Because most commercial beekeepers do not own enough property to properly house their bee populations, they often rely on help from local farmers. Parker says the survey revealed a noteworthy lack of communication between beekeepers and cotton farmers.

“In many of the cases, the crop producers said ‘I’m okay with them as long as they’re not in the way of the equipment,’ and that basically ended the communication,” Parker says. “That’s what led us to believe there needs to be more open communication and cooperation between the beekeepers and the cotton growers, and we’ve encouraged that.”

The NCC is asking its producers to share as much information as possible regarding pesticide sprays with nearby beekeepers. One development that has spurred this open dialogue has been the adoption of pollinator health guidelines from the state level – guidelines that Parker refers to as “state plans.”

“They say, okay, you need to communicate on where you’ll place the hives, and communicate what type of spray products you’ll use, and how do both parties talk to each other to ensure that both can protect their respective crops.”

The state plans provide a mechanism for local people to find a solution and mitigate risks to the bees, according to Parker. Several states are already on board with the idea, and several more have a plan in the works. Among Cotton Belt states, Mississippi and Florida have been early adopters of the guidelines.

Parker says the EPA has indicated that the federal government looks very favorably on the concept of the state plans.

“They like the idea because it involves local people finding localized solutions to the bee health issue,” Parker says. “Rather than a one-size-fits-all piece of federal legislation, the state plans are more customized.”