Bees and other pollinators are a crucial part of Vermont’s food system. They help give us blueberries for summer pies, apples for cider and pumpkins for Halloween. If you care about these vital insects — and the farmers who grow our crops — then you should also care about important legislation that is making its way through Vermont’s House, bill H.205.
If passed, bill H.205 will restrict bee-harming pesticides and take important steps to improve pollinator health. Together, as scientists representing more than 30 years of research and conservation efforts on bees, pollination and pesticides, we urge Vermont’s Senate to pass bill H.205 into law.
H.205 restricts the outdoor use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which cause lasting damage to the health of individual bees and their colonies. To improve honeybee management, the bill would regulate out-of-state imports of bees, colonies and equipment, require mitigation plans for Varroa mites — a devastating pest — and introduce new beekeeper education programs. Combined, these efforts could be crucial for preventing the spread of pests and diseases that impact Vermont’s pollinators.
Our recent research shows that farms with abundant wild bee communities benefit from bigger and better crop yields. Unfortunately, the ongoing insect declines making global headlines are happening in our backyards, too. Bumblebees, key pollinators, are threatened, with over a quarter of Vermont’s species gone or in serious decline. That’s one reason the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment is using an anonymous $500K gift to create the Apis Fund, which will crowdsource and fund promising ideas to protect bees.
But, research alone will not solve the many problems facing Vermont’s bee populations. H.205 would give Vermont the opportunity to lead in protecting pollinators from pesticide exposure. It would be one of the first efforts in North America to stem the use of this particularly problematic group of pesticides.
While bill H.205 contains important steps for protecting pollinators, there are a few items we also wish it addressed.
First, a critical oversight of this bill is its exemption of seed treated with pesticides, including neonicotinoids. Using publicly available Vermont agricultural data, we have calculated that more than 90% of neonicotinoids applied in-state are in the form of treated seed, specifically soy and corn. These chemicals are systemic, meaning that plants grown from these seed will express the pesticide in all plant parts, including the pollen and nectar that bees collect as food. Mass planting these seeds can also release clouds of pesticide-laced dust and pose a large source of environmental contamination. Unfortunately for farmers, it is difficult to find untreated seed. As more nations ban neonicotinoids and awareness around these issues grows, the demand for untreated seed may follow suit.
Second, this bill does not address another key driver of bee decline: habitat loss. Bees and other pollinators need places to nest and forage, and Vermont farms surrounded by natural habitat have more abundant and diverse bee communities. As proposed, the bill creates a special fund supported by annual pesticide registration fees. In addition to supporting proper disposal of pesticides and beekeeper assistance, this fund could be leveraged to create pollinator habitat in places that need it most.
Bill H.205 is an important step towards safeguarding the people and pollinators of Vermont. We applaud the House for passing it, and urge senators to make it law.
Samantha Alger is a PhD candidate in biology at UVM, specializing in bees; Charles Nicholson is a Gund graduate fellow at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at UVM, focusing on pollination.