Illinois Issues: What Can Save The Bees?

Mar 31, 2016

Bees are essential to our lives, yet they are dying by the thousands. Experts say there's no one solution for protecting them. 

Chemicals commonly sprayed on gardens, yards and golf courses appear to be contributing to bees dying off in record numbers. Illinois could soon join other states in restricting the use of these insecticides, but experts say that won’t be enough to save the bees.

Neonictinoids, or neonics as they are sometimes called, are a synthetic nicotine-based insecticide used in an array of gardening and farming products. Nicotine, even tobacco smoke, was used for over a century in the United States as an insecticide. Nicotine and neonictinoids affect insects’ nervous systems — first causing paralysis, and then death. The pesticide is used on lawns, lemon trees, corn and a multitude of other plants. However, the unintended consequences may be a large decline in bee population in the United States.

Rebecca Riley, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council says: “Bees are dying at unprecedented rates, and neonicotinoid insecticides are a major part of the problem. Last year, 60 percent of Illinois beehives collapsed, devastating beekeepers and putting our favorite fruits and vegetables at risk.” Bees are an important source for honey, but in addition to that, 30 percent of crops worldwide depend on them for pollination according to a 2011 NRDC report. In America, that equals about $15 billion a year in crops. “Without bees, many plants including food crops would die off,” the report says. 

Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi of Chicago introduced House Bill 5900, which would make it illegal to use neonictinoids on public land and for residential use. Currently, seven states restrict the use of neonictinoids. Rep. Guzzardi says: “Home Depot and Lowe’s are no longer selling anything that contains neonics, and the grocery store, Aldi, is not selling any foods that have been sprayed with neonics. It is time for the government to step up and join these private corporations’ efforts.”

Meanwhile, in June of 2014, President Barack Obama announced a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees through which more money will be granted for bee habitats and research. The federal government is taking action through the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife by banning the use of neonictinoids on all U.S. public land as of January 1, 2016, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has started an in-depth study of the effects of neonictinoids on honeybees.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 30 percent of crops worldwide depend on bees for pollination.
Credit flickr/ Rick

The agency’s first report came out in January.  The EPA’s findings indicated that the level of danger to bees could vary depending on the crop treated with neonictinoids. For instance, researchers found that citrus plants and cotton could have levels of pesticides that exceed what the EPA has deemed as safe for bees, but they did not find such dangerous levels in corn and leafy green vegetables.

Some advocates are critical of the EPA for only focusing on commercial honeybees in the research and excluding wild bees, such as bumblebees. The EPA plans to release three other reports evaluating the risk of neonictinoids.

A producer of neonictinoids denied any connection to their use and bee colony declines. Jeff Donald, a spokesman for the German chemical company Bayer, which patented the first commercial neonicotinoid,* said in a written statement: “Although bee health is an important concern, honey bee colonies are not declining, and U.S. colonies have steadily risen over the past decade, reaching 2.74 million in 2014, the highest level in many years. Scientists around the world have affirmed the safety of these products to pollinators and consumers when used according to label. A ban on neonicotinoids would only hurt those who depend on these products.”

These statements stand in stark contrast to what bee experts have observed, says Gene Robinson, director of the Bee Research Facility at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign. He says the latest national numbers show a 40 percent reduction in the bee population since last year. While experts agree that cutting the use of these pesticides could help bees, they also note that neonictinoids are only one of multiple threats. Pollinator experts are clear that banning the use of neonicotinoids would not solve the problem. 

Gene Robinson is director of the Bee Research Facility at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign.
Credit U of I news bureau/L. Brian Stauffer

Robinson says there is no single smoking gun that is causing the honeybees to die. “The declining bee population is a four-part problem: Neonictinoids are harmful to pollinators. Honeybees need to be nutritionally healthier. We need more pollinator acreage, and we need to combat the varroa mite,” Robinson says. Varroa mites carry disease that can devastate bee colonies. Robinson says, the mite and the Asian bee have an “evolutionary live-and-let live relationship.” But he says, “the mite and western honeybee do not share this live-and-let-live understanding, and the mite is killing honeybees in record numbers.”

Rochester farmer and beekeeper Rich Ramsey agrees with Robinson’s assessment.  “A possible greater threat to hives is a predator to the bee called the varroa mite. These mites were introduced into the United States by accident in the mid 1980s.”

David Burns of Fairmont is a nationally certified master beekeeper. He says common lawn-care practices send bees seeking honey in places where they might encounter more neonictinoids. “Bees have their first chance to collect pollen in the early spring. Their No. 1 source of nectar and pollen in the spring is from dandelions, which is taken back to the hive and used to feed new bees and the queen. Of course, the problem is people want a lush, green carpet lawn with no dandelions. This creates big green desserts for bees hunting nectar and pollen. These green desserts send the bees farther out to find nectar.”

Karen Pruiett, a former research assistant at U of I’s Bee Research Lab, says the bees end up searching for nectar in roadsides that border farm fields. This creates a problem for the bees when farmers use field planters with a forced-air design. “The seed treated with neonics and talc (a lubricant) bounce around in the planter boxes on the machine, and then the seed is forced into the ground with air, which also sends the neonic’s and talc into the air.”

Burns says these neonictinoids and talc stick to bee’s back legs. They carry them back to their hive and feed them to baby bees and the queen, which can cause the collapse of the colony. According to a 2012 Purdue University study, dead bees that had foraged in and around cornfields when tested contained high levels of neonicotinoid compounds. 

Credit flickr/ Carter Brown

HB 5900 would not restrict the use of neonictinoids for farmers. However, Rebecca Clark from the Illinois Department of Agriculture says the department does not support the bill. In an email, she described it as “premature and an overly burdensome regulation.” Clark says the agency is working to develop it’s own pollinator protection plan.

Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, says HB 5900 is a first step towards a solution, but more work needs to be done to reduce the use of neonictinoids in farming. Walling suggests discussions with farm communities to see how and where reduction in usage would be possible. For instance, a recent nation-wide study from a dozen universities found that the pesticide is likely overused on soybeans, and that overuse can result in neonictinoids becoming less effective. An earlier EPA study from 2014 found that pretreating soybean seeds with neonictinoids had little impact on yields, when compared to other methods, and negligible financial benefits to farmers.

Walling suggests another step would be to build up pollinator habitat. Farmers are paid to set aside acreage. Instead of growing commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, these farmers grow plants such as sudex, wheat and oats. The program requires that these plants be mowed or plowed down before they reach maturity. Currently, none of the plants approved for this subsidized program have any significant nectar producing qualities that would benefit bees.

Credit University of Illinois Bee Lab

Paige Buck, a spokeswoman for National Resources Conservation Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says: “The challenge is trying to work with farmers to create effective pollinator acreage, yet at the same time help the farmer still maintain enough profit to provide for their family. Creating pollinator acreage is crucial to the ecosystem and our food sources.” Iowa has a program in which rather than mowing state roadsides, they are letting pollinator plants grow. She says this program could help Illinois bees, as well. “Farmers have plenty of reason to resist converting their tillable land to pollinator ground. They have an operation to pay for, landowners right to privacy and often a very deep love for their land, and we must respect their needs and point of view.”

Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, who is sponsoring a Senate bill similar to HB 5900, says he would consider policy changes to help address some of the other threats to bees besides neonictinoids, such as funding varroa mite research and programs to create more pollinator ground. 

* A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Bayer manufactures an insecticide called Syngenta. In fact, Syngenta is another pesticide manufacturer that also makes neonictinoids. 

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.