I am an amateur beekeeper and a member of the Chatham Borough Environmental Commission. I have three beehives. Over the last year none of my hives survived. Over recent decades other beekeepers have been experiencing similar problems. I have attempted to find the causes and here is what I have found.
As of yet, there does not appear to be a single cause to the decreased survival rates of honeybees; however, there is mounting evidence that a class of chemicals called neonicatinoids (neonics), used as a general insecticide, is contributing to the decline of honeybees (as well as other pollinators). This class of pesticide is applied by spraying, dusting, spreading pellets or by coating of seeds. The pesticides are systemically absorbed in the tissue of plants and kills harmful insects that feed on those plants.
Unfortunately, the pesticide residue is also present in the plants’ nectar and pollen and the bees gather the harmful nectar and pollen and take it back to their hives. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been studying imidacloprid—one of the chemical compounds in the neonics class.
While the EPA has not issued its final report, a preliminary report seeking comment has been issued. In the meantime the EPA has restricted new applications of acutely toxic pesticides under certain conditions when bees are most likely to be present. Some countries in the European Union have already banned neonics.
Why should we care? Well, in addition to providing honey the honeybee is used as a crop pollinator. Without bees, the yield from crops would be significantly reduced. A significant amount of food we eat comes from bee pollinated crops.
I have found that neonics are present in many household and lawn care products. Both Home Depot and Lowes have recently established policies to have neonics removed from the plant material they sellmafter it has been demonstrated that flowering plants, started from treated seeds, produce nectar and pollen that contain the chemical in sufficient quantity to kill bees. I have also started reading labels on products I have applied to my own lawn and found some of the manufacturers of the products are using neonics. In the past I have used Scotts GrubEx to control Japanese beatles in my lawn but stopped using it when I found that it contained imidacloprid.
On a recent trip to Home Depot, I discovered the active ingredient in GrubEx has changed to chlorantraniliprole (purported to be bee friendly). This is good news for the bees but points out that some of the household products may from time-to- time change their formulation causing changes to the risk profiles of the product. Recently I requested advice from a registered horticulturist on treating my infected boxwood shrubs. In addition to recommending spraying, he wanted to apply imidacloprid to the roots of the shrubs. Some of the shrubs formed a border around a garden that contains many flowering hosta that could absorb the chemical. Once the horticulturist heard my concern, he suggested that we skip that step in the treatment.
I don’t consider myself knowledgeable in the dangers of using chemical pesticides but I wanted to share what I have learned and encourage each of you to read the labels of the pesticides that you use on your lawn and gardens. In addition, when you hire a lawn care service, ask them about their integrated pest management practices. Encourage that someone in the company become certified—Rutgers offers a 3-day course in Landscape Integrated Pest Management. If you maintain your lawn and gardens yourself read package labels of pesticide/herbicides being used and follow the manufacturers’ recommended treatment regime. Where possible, use alternatives to chemicals. In addition, you can discuss with your elected officials the integrated pest management policies established in your town for ball fields and other open spaces.
Remember the cautionary words of Rachel Carson in her book “Silent Spring” published more than 50 years ago: “The world of systemic insecticides is a weird world, surpassing the imaginings of the brothers Grimm—perhaps most closely akin to the cartoon world of Charles Addams. It is a world where the enchanted forest of the fairy tales has become the poisonous, where an insect may die from vapors emanating from a plant it has never touched, where a bee may carry poisonous nectar back to its hive and presently produce poisonous honey.”