NW bees stung by loss of habitat, sprays

Advocates and officials are looking for ways to assure there are enough bees to pollinate
Crosscut archive image.

A bee on flowers in Washington state

Advocates and officials are looking for ways to assure there are enough bees to pollinate

The tiny engines of pollinating power circle then settle on deep purple borage, oregano, sage, flowering squash and dandelions. For bees, the creatures whose buzz evokes fear but on whom we rely for every third bite of food we eat, this new community garden at Seattle's Hillman City Collaboratory offers forage as well as habitat.  As the days grow short, they'll continue to forage, storing food for winter honey-making.

Urban food warrior and educator Caitlin Moore pauses as she plants bunching grass and other plants that will nourish bees through the fall; basil, sedum, rosemary and alyssum. “Basically I'm trying to create an ecosystem where both pollinators and predators like green lace wings and lady bugs will survive.” Many gardeners get hit with pests like aphids and turn to pesticides, says Moore. “If we can create an ecosystem, a garden that is self-regulating, then we don't have to worry about spraying.” Pointing to a largely barren landscape surrounding the community garden, Moore says when habitat for pollinators is destroyed, “we destroy our own hope for the future.”

In a bee-friendly habitat like this, you might not think bees are in jeopardy. But for much of the past decade, many beekeepers around the country have found their honeybees dead or missing. More than 30 percent of all hives in the United States collapsed last year. In July 2013, more than 50,000 bees dropped dead in Oregon, the largest bee die-off in recorded history. “So I would say anyone who has a garden needs to set aside a little bit, even if it's just 5 percent of your garden, dedicated to habitat, permanent habitat in an undisturbed area. You'll be paid back tenfold in pollination,” says Moore, “and also pest control.”

Bee decline is attributed to many factors: the loss of forage and resulting poor nutrition; pathogens; pesticides and herbicides; the trucking of bees cross-country to pollinate fields; and climate change. Not everyone agrees on which factors may be causing the die-offs, but the loss of forage, often in the form of flowering weeds in urban and rural landscapes on agricultural lands and along highways and river beds, troubles master beekeeper Franclyn Heinecke. A member of the Washington Honeybee Working Group established by a 2013 mandate of the Legislature after beekeepers began to demand solutions to the crisis, Heinecke says state weed control policies, particularly those involving chemicals, need review. “In some of those cases, especially Eastern Washington, those are aerial sprays. So it's just acres and acres that are impacted.” Naive plants and weeds, legumes, clover and vetch are all killed. "Basically what's left after they spray is grass,” she says. Of 142 plants on the state's noxious weed list, 27 are critical for honeybees and other pollinators, says Heinecke. Those include knot weeds, knap weeds, yellow star thistle and blackberry. Himalayan blackberry is rich in amino acids, she adds, and builds up bees' immune systems, which are thought to be under serious stress.

According to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, the weeds of concern to Heinecke, are, in a word, noxious. "They're invasive," says Alison Halpern, executive secretary of the State Noxious Weed Control Board. "They suffocate native plants and cause enormous harm to farmers and wetlands." Weed laws were passed in 1883 to protect agriculture and natural resources, she says. Back then farmers were concerned about Canada thistle spreading from farm to farm. Landowners were required to control certain noxious weeds.

Some 100 years later, in 1987, the statute was amended to reflect the impact of noxious weeds on stream banks. Among them, knotweed. “It will displace all the native willows. It will replace all the riparian species and completely shade stream banks and make them accessible,” says Halpern. Knotweed can change nutrient cycling in headwaters, she says, impacting salmon, macro-invertebrates and the entire food web. Heinecke agrees knot weed is invasive, but asks why it's eradicated in woods two miles from a waterway. Because the seeds spread, answers Halpern.

Where noxious weed policy gets thorny is the issue of control methods, in particular those involving pesticides. Halpern used the word "herbicides" when asked what chemicals were used, but did not provide a list of which chemicals. She said all were EPA-tested. “When they're applied correctly, they should have minimal impact to bees.” The state doesn't require control of all weeds, just those listed as Class A , explains Halpern. Those include poison hemlock, tansy ragwort, Scotch broom and kudza, a highly invasive member of the pea family.

Local weed control methods are in the hands of multiple jurisdictions, county control boards, cities, parks and private landowners. The end result, say concerned beekeepers, is a reliance on pesticides to control insects and herbicides to control plants rather than establishing healthy ecosystems that can nourish both pollinators and predators to eat pests. Bee survival is at stake, says master beekeeper Heinecke. “If it was a third of the beef cattle that were dying every year, would one of our responses be to take away some of their food?” The Washington Honeybee Working Group recommends planting forage on fallow land for pollinators and allowing alfalfa to once again flower on agricultural lands, among other suggestions.

The state doesn't collect data on the number of acres treated with pesticides. The only publicly held data set is for spraying on highways. Herbicides are used as one tool to prevent vegetation from growing along the edge of pavement and to selectively control noxious weeds, according to Washington State Department of Transportation Roadside Maintenance Project Manager Ray Willard. The chemicals include triclopyr, glyphosate, best known as Round-Up, and 2, 4-D, among a big laundry list. Willard says mechanical methods make up 60 percent of roadside vegetation removal with chemical and biological controls making up the remainder. WSDOT maintains approximately 100,000 acres of roadsides along 7,000 miles of highway corridor statewide. Willard wouldn't estimate the amount or frequency of chemicals used, but said WSDOT will be implementing a reduced mowing policy in 2015 that will benefit bees and insect forage. 

Nor does the state collect chemical product sales or use information, says Kelly McLain, senior natural resource scientist with the Department of Agriculture. A recent survey of non-agricultural use in Puget Sound counties, however, found that “herbicides were the top category of pesticide purchased for use by homeowners,” she says. Within that, the top two herbicide active ingredients were glyphosate and 2,4-D, best known as the herbicide found in Weed-n-Feed products.

The plight of bees is on the radar of state agencies. The state's noxious weed control board recently published a booklet, "Bees and Noxious Weed Control: Finding Common Ground." Planting natives is a large piece of advice as well as allowing plants in urban and rural lands to seed. The board's website highlights bee-friendly flowers, plants and trees such as mountain ash and willows, clover, cosmos, heather, lemon balm and rose mallow.

The challenge, say bee lovers, is to get enough buy-in from farmers and ranchers, urban and rural gardeners, county control boards, and policy makers to make forage and habitat for pollinators a priority. Without it, they say, much of the nation's food supply, is at risk.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.