By Mark Wagoner: Touchet, Washington
The most precious acres on my farm don’t produce a single crop. Instead, they raise bees.
That’s because I’m an alfalfa-seed grower—and without bees, our farm would go out of business.
I’d say that our bees are a lot like employees, except that they’re more like family: We don’t give them paychecks but we do provide food and shelter.
As the Environmental Protection Agency considers new regulations on pesticides in the name of aiding bees, the experience of our family farm may be instructive. It has helped me come to believe that instead of letting the misinformed passions of environmental lobbyists force us into banning safe and useful products, we should adopt regulations that both help bees thrive and enjoy the backing of responsible research.
The pesticides at the heart of the current controversy are called neonicotinoids, or “neonics” for short. They became popular in the 1990s, replacing other types of pesticides that appeared to have possibly adverse effects on birds and mammals.
In recent years, some people have argued that neonics hurt honeybees. The proof behind this claim is weak. Last year, the Washington State Department of Agriculture said that lack of forage and a parasite called the varroa mite pose much bigger threats to honeybee populations.
Moreover, wild-eyed claims that neonics cause “colony-collapse disorder”—a phenomenon in which entire colonies of honeybees suddenly die—have not survived scientific scrutiny. As it happens, the global population of honeybees has been increasing for decades. In the United States, where it has suffered fluctuations, we’ve also seen improvements in recent years.
Even so, the European Union has imposed a moratorium on neonics—causing concern that the EPA may try to follow suit, even if scientific research and the experience of farmers suggests that neonics and bees can coexist.
I apply neonics on my farm. I’m not a major user of these products—other farmers depend on them much more than I do—but they are one of the tools I use to fight pests.
Killing bees is the last thing I want to do.
Bees are the opposite of pests. They’re pollinators. Without their help, our alfalfa plants would not produce seeds. And that’s what I do for a living: Produce the seeds that other alfalfa farmers will plant on their own land.
So for me, bees are an essential resource—just as important as water, soil, and sunlight.
Our bees aren’t honeybees, which are native to Europe but were brought to North America long ago. Instead, we rely on alkali bees, which are native to our region. They look similar to honeybees, with black and yellow stripes, but several of their behaviors are different. They don’t sting, for example. Moreover, they don’t build hives. Instead, they dig tunnels and live underground, preferably in salt flats.
To accommodate them, we’ve turned over large portions of our farm to the bees. We maintain “bee beds.” The largest on our farm takes up 13 acres. We try to create ideal conditions for the bees, with a gentle system of sub-irrigation in the salty soil they love.
Millions of bees occupy each acre. It’s possible to walk across these bee beds, but only with great care. Driving on them is strictly forbidden. It crushes their nests.
Our bees are a vital resource. Their homes may be the most valuable acres on our farm, in fact. If the bee beds were to disappear, we could not simply start over next year with new alkali bees. It would take years to rebuild their habitat.
So you can call me a farmer—but I’m also a beekeeper. And I think it would be a big mistake for the EPA to put new limits on neonics, especially when our best scientific data suggest that crops, bees, and neonics can flourish together under proper management. This is certainly the result that I observe with my own eyes.
The policy that would benefit bees the most right now is not a new restriction, but rather new research. We already know a lot about bees, but there’s still much to learn—and the more we learn, the better we’ll balance what is already a strong and sustainable partnership.
Mark Wagoner is a third generation farmer in Walla Walla County, Washington where they raise alfalfa seed and bees. Mark volunteers as a Board member for Truth About Trade & Technology / Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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