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Source: Albany Times Union

Buzz around state plan on bee health, pesticide

Skeptics of chemical linked to huge die-offs angered at state stance


Posted: June 28, 2016
Originally Published: June 26, 2016


The state's decision to do nothing about a controversial pesticide linked to a global honeybee die-off has some environmentalists like Bill Cooke buzzing mad.

A report on the honeybee health crisis, issued last week by two state agencies after about a year of work, concluded that research remains "unclear" on the impact of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids on massive honeybee die-offs known as colony collapse disorder.

The state report recommended more study on the pesticide, as well as voluntary control and reduction measures for farmers, pesticide companies and beekeepers. It also called for the state to provide advice to those groups, and add more pollinator-friendly flowers in state parks.

"This report is a complete waste of time, worse than nothing," said Bill Cooke, government affairs director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "It retards our ability to address the issue."

CCD has claimed tens of millions of bees in the U.S. since surfacing in commercial beehives in 2007. Last summer, the loss rate for the first time topped 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Annual hive losses higher than 18 percent are "economically unacceptable" for beekeepers, according to the USDA.

Last year, Ontario officials decided, based on a growing body of CCD scientific research, to drastically reduce the amount of neonicotinoids used by farmers, according to a presentation last fall to the state task force by Cornell University researcher Emma Mullen.

"Yes, we looked at what Ontario did," said state Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball, who co-headed the task force with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "They acknowledged the impact of other issues on honeybees, of mites, of climate change. But they did something just with neonicotinoids. We wanted our plan to reflect all the stresses on pollinators, not just one."

Already banned in much of Europe, in the U.S. major retailers like Home Depot and Lowes have decided to either stop selling neonicotinoid-treated plants or require explicit labels so consumers who choose to do so can avoid buying those plants.

Written by staffers from the departments of Environmental Conservation, and Agriculture and Markets, the state report called for more study on bee health.

While it called existing research on neonicotinoids "unclear," it provided no citations of research studies used in writing the report. However, the report said the pesticide, in increasing use since the 1990s, offers "economic, ecological and environmental health advantages" over earlier pesticides.

"There is conflicting research," Ball said. "There are a lot of allegations. It may not be just the pesticide itself."

The task force, which included lobbyists from two pesticide industry groups, Crop Life America and Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, as well as academic groups, farmers organizations and beekeepers, met publicly three times last fall.

Task force member Stuart Gruskin, chief conservation and external affairs officer of the state office of The Nature Conservancy, called the report a "comprehensive job from a variety of perspectives ... We were pleased to be part of it. There are items open for further discussion."

Gruskin declined to say whether The Nature Conservancy believes that scientific studies on neonicotinoids were unclear.

Gruskin and other task force members received the draft report June 15, and were told that state agencies would hold a conference call five days later to hear feedback. The final report was announced on Friday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo — at the end of State Pollinator Awareness Week — without any significant changes. It drew immediate support from the leadership of the environmental conservation and agriculture committees of the state Assembly and Senate, according to a Cuomo news release.

Last fall, task force member and Altamont beekeeper Stephen Wilson, who for the last 15 years has been on the state Apiary Industry Advisory Council, which reports to Agriculture and Markets, urged a state ban on neonicotinoids.

He questioned why the task force kept no written minutes of its proceedings, and why officials moved so quickly to finalize a draft report just days after the task force received it.

Ball said he took "the flavor of the room" in drafting the report, and felt that a consensus had been reached. He characterized Wilson as the lone dissenter.

"This is a set of recommendations, it was not intended to be put to a vote, similar to how other task force or working groups ... have operated," added Agriculture and Markets spokeswoman Jola Szubielski. "Certainly, members of the advisory group should not have had an impression otherwise."