John Sackett's bees are prize-winners and he has the trophies to prove it. At the 2014 Maryland State Fair, his honey won first and second prizes in the water white and extra white-to-water categories, the preferred kinds for cooking.
Under the Sackett's Blessed Hill Honey label, he sells his honey for $10 per one-pound jar. But Sackett, a retired Christian missionary and Timonium resident, is being stung by the fact that Maryland's honeybees are dying in record numbers, his along with the rest.
"My honey production has been cut in half and my expenses have doubled," he said of his hobby.
Although the reason for the rising bee deaths is unknown and hotly debated, Sackett and other advocates for bees are hoping a bill Towson Del. Stephen Lafferty plans to cosponsor in the 2016 General Assembly session might curb the die-off. Lafferty's bill would restrict the use of neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide that some bee advocates believe is contributing to Maryland's bee deaths.
"We don't have a silver bullet" to stop honeybee deaths, said Bonnie Raindrop, chair of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, which is headquartered at Oregon Ridge Nature Center, in Cockeysville. "But we can at least control the sale of neonicotinoids, which are an important element."
Last year, a bill that sought to label seeds and plant material treated with neonicotinoids and to restrict their sale and use, failed. The reason was conflicting scientific testimony, said Lafferty, a Democrat who cosponsored the bill.
"It's still not 100 percent clear that neonicotinoids kill bees directly," Lafferty added. "But it is clear that it impairs bee behavior and makes them more susceptible to disease."
Although the wording of the revised bill hasn't been finalized, it would prohibit retailers, including big box stores and local garden centers, from selling neonicotinoid insecticide, Lafferty said. He added that the bill would not restrict the insecticide's use among farmers.
"The bill would take [the insecticide] out of the hands of the average consumer," Lafferty said. "Farmers have a license and professional applicators for neonicotinoids. We were not prepared to rule out its use by professionals."
Not everyone agrees, however, that the use of neonicotinoids is a primary reason for the sharp rise in Maryland's honeybee deaths, including officials of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and The Maryland Farm Bureau, who opposed last year's bill. They say the science is far from conclusive on the relationship of the insecticide to bee deaths and that other factors, such as habitat loss, are contributing to the loss.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that, in 2015, Maryland lost nearly 61 percent, on average, of its bee hives, versus 42 percent nationwide. The figure was the largest ever in Maryland and the fifth highest in the country last year.
While Maryland's hive deaths have fluctuated over the last 10 years, the trend has been toward colony deaths, with a spike over the last three years, Raindrop said. The 61 percent figure includes a recent, disturbing trend in summer losses, she added.
A spring/summer hive in a bee box typically contains up to 60,000 bees. "You open the box and all the bees are dead," Raindrop said of hive death. "That's when bees should be flourishing."
Raindrop cited three reasons she believes are responsible for Maryland's bee deaths: loss of habitat due to development, a trend toward no-till farming, and a species of non-native mites that live on bees and create a vector for viruses.
"Maryland and U.S. agriculture has moved to no-till farming," she said. "Instead of plowing under a field, now the field is sprayed with herbicides until all the vegetation is dead. Then the field is planted with corn and soy whose seeds are coated with an insecticide. The insecticide blows beyond the farmer's field."
In the case of neonicotinoids, "it gets into the soil and water," she added.
Sackett began beekeeping five years ago, starting with one hive, then gradually adding more. For the past three years, he has lost one hive per year. He replaces the colony in order to have three functioning hives.
Even so, "it sets you back," he said of a hive, valued at about $1,500 for lost bees and honey. "If a hive produces 50 pounds of [harvestable] honey, that's $500 to pay back expenses."
Bee season begins in early April. Peak honey production runs from spring to the end of July, when flowers and fauna stop producing nectar.
"I've talked to lot of beekeepers and former beekeepers who have quit because of the losses, and they attribute the hive deaths to neonicotinoids," Sackett said. "The only reasons I haven't lost more hives is because I back up to woods and my bees get nectar and pollen from trees in a virgin area."
Charlie Dorsey, a retired engineer who lives in Baltimore City, has 25 hives. In 2015, one-third of Dorsey's hives died, and this winter isn't looking good.
"Two hives have already died and the others are perilously low on bees," said Dorsey, who sells his honey under the Charlie's Honeybee Sanctuary label. In 2014, his hives produced 15 gallons versus five gallons in 2015.
"Honeybees are the canary in the coal mine," Dorsey said. Maryland is home to 400 native pollinators, from bumblebees and butterflies to pollinating beetles, and they are dying as well.
Arnold "Arnie" Breidenbaugh is president of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, one of six bee clubs in the state that says it will back the bill to limit neonicotinoids. Breidenbaugh, of Sparks, has been keeping bees for 15 years.
"I take good care of my bees. But it's getting hard to keep the bees alive," said Breidenbaugh, who produces honey under the 5 Bees Honey LLC label. He usually has 10 hives on his property but, due to hive death, is down to four. Although reports of colony collapse disorder began surfacing in 2007, the accelerated losses coincided with the sale of neonicotinoids to consumers on retailers' shelves, Breidenbaugh said.
"Home-owners don't follow the instructions" for the insecticide's use, he said. "They'll double the dosage. Neonicotinoids are not the only problem. But it is the straw that broke the camel's back in causing colony collapse disorder."
Not everyone agrees
However, some state officials don't agree with that scenario. In testifying against last year's bill, officials of the Maryland Department of Agriculture stated that "to date, it has not documented any cases of neonicotinoid insecticides negatively impacting honeybees in Maryland." Officials said several factors are affecting Maryland's honeybees, including a destructive mite, pathogens, nutrition and habitat loss.
"Our fundamental problem [with the bill] is that there are a lot of issues with bee and pollinator health, and one of the minor issues is neonicotinoids," said Colby Ferguson, director of government relations for nonprofit Maryland Farm Bureau, which also opposed last year's bill. Ferguson pointed to mites and parasites prevalent in Maryland as well as habitat variety and loss as major problems.
"You take neonicotinoids off the market and it would not put a blip in bee health," he said.
Some retailers, responding to customers, already are limiting their sale of neonicotinoids. Last year, Valley View Farms, in Cockeysville, stopped selling neonicotinoid insecticides and spraying it on its garden stock, said Brian Brannan, garden shop manager.
"There is a big discussion and a lot of groups on social media that are concerned about neonicotinoids' effect on bees," he added. "We felt it was better to be safe than sorry.":
Valley View Farms has received no complaints from customers. "A few people asked for a couple of specific products and we substituted good alternatives," Brannan said.
Last year, Behnke Nurseries, headquartered in Beltsville, stopped selling neonicotinoid products and spraying its stock and let its vendors know it prefers to buy from those who do the same.
"We responded to the concerns of our customers over neonicotinoids and bee hive death," said Larry Hurley of Behnke. "We had some customers complain about not selling certain products and they went to other retailers. We also had customers come to us because of our policy."
Seven different neonicotinoids exist and are sold under various brand names, said Josephine "Jody" Johnson, a Lutherville resident who has a PhD in toxicology from the University of Maryland Medical School. Johnson is the founder and owner of a Lutherville-based company, Cullaborate LLC, that conducts pollinator studies around the country. Her recent clients have included The Almond Board of California and a commercial beekeeper.
She isn't ready to make a positive correlation between the spike in Maryland's bee deaths and the use of neonicotinoids, she said. "The problem is so complex that I'd be guarded in making that correlation," said Johnson, who has been keeping bees since 1997. She has five hives, one at her home in Lutherville and the others scattered around metro Baltimore. They are research hives, meaning she neither feeds the bees nor harvests the honey.
"It is getting harder to raise hives than it used to be," she added.
She believes the bill Lafferty intends to cosponsor could have a positive impact on the bees, she said, adding that farmers' use of neonicotinoids is carefully watched by federal agencies. "Consumers are not," she said. "As development increases in Maryland, the use of neonicotinoids will increase."
In Europe, some countries have partially banned three of the neonicotinoids, Johnson said. Other states, notably Minnesota and Massachusetts, are looking at bills similar to Maryland's. None have passed so far.
"Maryland may be the first state" to restrict the insecticide, Johnson said.