As pollination season in California’s orchards draws to a close, and thousands of beehives are being trucked back to the Midwest, honeybee health is at the forefront of many people’s minds. This spring, 1.6 million honeybees have been medicated, fed syrups, and put to work in the orchards across the state’s Central Valley (including 760,000 acres of almonds), a lucrative business for farmers and hedge funds alike.
Now they’ll be boxed up, stacked on the backs of semi-trucks, and counted as part of the annual National Colony Loss and National Management Survey to find out just how well the bee population is fairing overall. Beekeepers lost 23 percent of their hives over the winter of 2013-14, which was better than the year before, but still “too high for the bees’ long-term survival,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
There is mounting evidence that pesticides are poisoning bees at alarming rates. And while some small restrictions of the most harmful pesticides have appeared on the national level, most advocates agree it’s not enough. Case in point, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it is “unlikely to approve new outdoor neonicotinoid pesticide uses.”
The decision was criticized by farmers, beekeepers, and environmental groups for ignoring the neonictoids that are already in use. Similarly, the Saving America’s Pollinator’s Act introduced in Congress in 2013 has yet to gain significant traction with lawmakers.
On a state level, California State Assemblymember Marc Levine introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of neonicotoid pesticides on state-owned or state-managed lands. But, if it passes, it’s unclear how large of an impact that will have on private agricultural land.
Neonicotoids are used to coat seeds, allowing them to infiltrate into the body and leaves of the plant. They’ve have come under fire as one of the leading causes—along with mites, bacterial disease, and loss of habitat—of Colony Collapse Disorder. In addition to honeybees, the health (and survival) of bees indigenous to California is also at risk. These native pollinators are as integral to the state’s $14 billion agricultural industry as they are to pollinating backyard peach trees. Without the bees, none can thrive.
While the national debate rages, some cities are stepping up efforts to protect pollinator health on the local level. Sacramento, California, the self-described “farm-to-fork” capital, situated at the top of the state’s agriculture belt, recently passed a resolution declaring it a Honey Bee Haven, mimicking similar efforts in Oregon and Minnesota.
The resolution, unlike the new ordinance in Portland, Oregon that bans the use of neonicotoids on city-owned property, has no legal bite. Nobody will be banned from using pesticides, says city council member Jeff Harris, who has been a beekeeper for 42 years.
Instead, the city aims to educate Sacramento residents about the importance of bees to the food chain, and, in turn, humanity’s survival. The public information campaign will focus on finding bee-friendly plants, providing water sources for pollinators, and the detrimental impact of pesticides (many consumer-grade pesticide products contain neonicotoids).
Harris studied apiculture at UC Davis and worked as a commercial beekeeper in agricultural regions like the San Joaquin valley. His experience made him into the de facto consultant on the Honey Bee Haven Resolution, originally proposed to the council by Paul Towers of the Pesticide Action Network. Over the years, Harris has seen bees decimated by mite infestation, and now neonicotoids, which he says, damages the digestive track to the point where the bees cannot digest carbohydrates during forage, leaving them without enough energy to return to the hive.
“What this resolution does is say, ‘okay the city gets that we are an active participant in creating best practices to be beneficial to pollinators,'” says Harris. And while the city council may also consider banning neonics, that’s not on the table just yet.
Kim Felix, a bee advocate in Sacramento, questions whether efforts like the Honey Bee Haven Resolution have enough teeth. Felix co-owns Bee Love Sacramento, which provides beekeeping services and community education. Most of the hives are installed in backyards, though one local market has gotten on board. The goal is to connect people with bees in a hands-on, hyper-local manner—the polar opposite of the mass and impersonal exploitation of bees in service to California’s almond orchards.
Felix says she’d like to see more grants and funding for beekeepers that are working to improve bee health and habitats; she’d also like to see support for the installation of beehives in community gardens and at colleges and schools and thinks the City of Sacramento should be more vigilant about pesticides sprayed in parks and other public spaces. She’s disappointed city officials didn’t reach out to local beekeepers to consult on the resolution, citing a “disconnect.”
“It didn’t seem imperative to reach out to beekeepers, because the assumption was that beekeepers would be happy about the resolution,” says city council member Harris. “This is part of a low-key national movement to create a honey bee haven map of the United States.”
Still, Felix’s concerns beg the question: In a time of widespread Colony Collapse Disorder, how do we take pollinator protection beyond “low-key”? Considering that bee pollination is crucial to 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, there’s no doubt that we need bees to survive, more than they need us.
Outside the U.S., this message appears to be sinking in. Not only did England institute a two-year ban on neonicotoids in 2013, but the European Commission enacted their own moratorium on three pesticides around the same time. Meanwhile, the city of Ontario has proposed reducing neonicotinoid use by 80 percent by 2017.
“It’s good to get the word out [about pollinator health], and to have awareness,” says Felix. “But until governments act on it, nothing’s really going to happen.”