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Bee death information withheld [Commentary]

Laws and LegislationChemical IndustryUniversity of Maryland, College ParkU.S. Department of Agriculture

Note: This op-ed has been updated to include the correct email address for co-author Bonnie Raindrop. 

Maryland beekeepers lost nearly half of our honeybee hives last year, while 31 percent of all honeybee colonies died across the United States. Similar bee losses have been occurring for at least a decade. Yet information that could help researchers solve this mystery is being withheld from the research community.

We have a chance to change that in Maryland's 2014 General Assembly session, when legislators will debate a bill to create a research database showing when, where and in what quantities pesticides are used by commercial applicators in our state. Though commercial pesticide applicators are required to maintain this information on site, it is unavailable in any form useful for research. A mandatory pesticide reporting database would change that. This information would be accessible only to scientists and government agencies, and it would protect farmers' privacy in a way similar to California's successful pesticides tracking database.

Unfortunately, this legislation continues to be opposed by powerful chemical manufacturers and the agriculture lobby. That's why beekeepers like us are speaking out.

Losing 45 percent to 50 percent of one's livestock is clearly devastating for Maryland beekeepers. But we are also concerned for farmers, because losing bees affects their business as well. Fully one-third of our food — including crops that are a major livelihood for Maryland farmers such as apples, peaches, squash, pumpkins and many others — requires or benefits from bee pollination for successful fruiting.

According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, $40 million worth of Maryland crops annually require or benefit from honeybee pollination. When the bees lose, so do our farmers.

Maryland consumers should also be concerned about this threat to our food supply. Without a robust honeybee population, we can look forward to higher prices and possible shortages of our favorite foods. Locavore and farm-to-table advocates, take note.

What's been the response to this very real threat? Researchers at the University of Maryland, the national USDA Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, and other bee labs around the country are struggling to discover the causes of bee deaths. Progress is being made, but it's complicated. Genetics, diseases, habitat loss and agricultural chemicals including pesticides all appear to play a role.

Though agricultural chemicals listed as dangerous to bees are not supposed to be applied when bees are foraging, unintentional pesticide drift has contaminated non-crop or adjacent crop areas, harming bees and native pollinators in the process.

Moreover, current restrictions on these chemicals say nothing about long-term, sub-lethal effects or the effect of combining various chemicals in a single application. In some cases, the lethality to bees of a combination of chemicals is many thousands of times greater than any single chemical. Combining chemicals can also seriously harm bees even when they are not killed.

For example, when originally approved for use, fungicides were thought to have no effect on bees. But a recent University of Maryland study showed the deleterious effects of fungicides on bees' navigation ability, as well as how fungicides increases the bees' risk of infection when a combination of legal, sub-lethal doses of pesticides was used.

With literally hundreds of registered pesticides in use in Maryland, there is simply no way researchers can test all of them or their effects when combined in use. Knowing what was used, when and where is a critical link. This is the role of the proposed pesticide database.

Beekeepers are realistic. We are not looking to ban the chemicals used in agriculture or the lawn-care and pest-control industries. What we want is for researchers to have access to the data they need, information that pesticide applicators are already required to keep on site, in order to learn what's happening with bee deaths and other abnormalities.

Beekeepers join with Maryland public health workers, farmers and families across our state to demand that basic comprehensive pesticide usage information be made available to researchers. We ask our legislators to do the right thing to help not just our hard-working "ladies in the hives," but also to benefit all Marylanders, by supporting this common sense legislation.

Dixie Mullineaux, Bonnie Raindrop and Roger Williams have a combined 56 years of bee-keeping experience. Ms. Mullineaux's email is acubird@verizon.net, Ms. Raindrop's email is br@bonnieraindrop.com, and Mr. Williams' email is rogerw@nordlink.com.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Laws and LegislationChemical IndustryUniversity of Maryland, College ParkU.S. Department of Agriculture
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