Bee:cause

Western Apicultural Society Conference brings opponents to the table as pollinators take the political stage

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Muhamad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia Commons

The Western Apicultural Society conference, in Boulder Oct. 1–3, will host the key players in regional pollinator issues including beekeepers, industrial agriculture companies, ecosystem biologists and policy makers. These groups don’t always get along or see eye to eye, but the conference is an important forum to host the vital discussions of how to promote pollinator health. It is a rare opportunity for apiculturists and bee enthusiasts to be a part of the conversations that are forming our national and state level policies to protect pollinator health.

“The problem with bee people is that the only thing that keeps them in common is bees,” says Beth Conrey, president of the Western Apicultural Society and organizer of this year’s conference. “We have a very diverse demographic that keeps, studies and works with bees, and we don’t come together on much outside of the bee world. We are tied together by a bug — and we don’t agree on what to do about the bug either. But we will get together and talk about them for a few days because, well, because I am an optimist. Even if we don’t agree, we can make a tremendous amount of progress if we act like a colony.”

The conference finds an eager and well-suited host in Boulder. Beginning in the 1990s, city-integrated pest management policies were put in place that focused on the reduction of the adverse impact of pesticides on the environment and human health. Years of careful management driven by scrupulous attention to local biodiversity studies led the Department of Integrated Pest Management to recognize the complex issue of pollinator health with priority.

Rella Abernathy, manager of Boulder’s Integrated Pest Management Program, says the key to the city’s success is their focus on science. “We spend a tremendous amount of time reviewing scientific studies about not just honey bees, but other insects, soil and other organisms. We are looking to see what the impact of pesticide use is there, including human health. We try to make the best decisions we can when we do use pesticides to understand what those issues can be. Sometimes you will hear people say that pesticide reduction comes from an emotional place — we try to base all of our decisions on the best research available and make decisions based on science and research.”

Decades of research and policy work created the open space surrounding the city that provides valuable habitat for bees. New programs focus on increasing pollinator friendly forage inside the city — in people’s lawns, along roadsides and in city parks. Then, all of that planting is scrupulously protected by increasingly strict restrictions on pesticide use. And, prompted by the decision to hold the WAS Conference in Boulder, Mayor Matt Appelbaum declared September Pollinator Appreciation Month with city-sponsored movies, panels and festivals held throughout the month.

Earlier this year, the federal executive branch began to tackle the issue of pollinator health, too. The nation’s food security is interwoven with the health of pollinators — roughly one-third of crops in the United States rely on pollinators, which is worth $15 billion a year. With economic and food security at stake and broad public support, the White House released the National Strategy to Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. The plan outlines an avenue to pollinator health by increasing suitable habitat and then protecting that forage from harmful pesticide applications — the very priorities that have led Boulder to become a bee haven.

Whether or not the National Strategy for Pollinator Health is successful depends upon the execution of its next stage: the formation of a Pollinator Protection Plan (mP3) in every state. Not yet formed, the Colorado Pollinator Workgroup (CPW), will be charged with creating state-level legislation to uphold and promote the goals established in the National Plan. The resultant mP3 is meant to enhance the communication between applicators, growers and beekeepers so that needed pesticide applications can occur while also ensuring impacts to pollinators and their habitats are minimized or eliminated through the use of best management practices. Since the regulatory recommendations will have to address the protection of ecosystems, it will require diverse representation from the many stakeholders in pollinator issues.

The CPW is being created by the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) pesticide division — a curious point of origin considering that the department is skewed toward the interests of the pesticide industry. Established to regulate pesticide distribution and use in the state and to prevent adverse effects on the individual and the environment, the pesticide division inspects the sales and use of restricted use pesticides. This work is naturally focused on dealing with those in the pesticide industry from industrial farmers to pesticide manufacturers to applicator companies.

Even the CDA’s advisory group, the Pesticide Advisory Committee (PAC) is loaded with pesticide interests. With 11 seats on the committee, seven are applicators or formulators of pesticides, two are members of the public, one is a member from Colorado State University who specializes in pesticide safety, and the final member is from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. With the interests of pesticide manufacturers, applicators and users well represented, it begs the question of who is being left out.

As Boulder’s successful implementation of pollinator-friendly policy shows, collaboration is a crucial element to achieve systemic change. Notably absent in representation on PAC are beekeepers, organic farmers and worker standard advocates — all of the people who have something to lose in the case of pesticide mismanagement. In a publically available letter that WAS Conference organizer, Beth Conrey, submitted to the PAC earlier this year, she writes “it is inappropriate for the majority of the committee responsible for making policy recommendations to automatically favor the regulated industry … a more appropriate balance would be a plurality of interests with no single constituency holding a majority.”

A key advocate of such collaboration is the Pollinator Stewardship Council, a national group that will speak at the WAS conference and is dedicated to protecting and advocating for pollinator health. The PSC is a recent victor in a landmark pesticide decision in the 9th district court that vacates the EPA licensure of sulfoxaflor, a neonicotinoid like systemic pesticide. In the case, the PSC argued that the EPA admitted, according to their own registration process and documents, that they had flawed and insufficient data to register the insecticide, but did it anyway. On Sept. 10, 2015 the court ruled in agreement with the plaintiffs, effectively removing the chemical from the market. The ruling casts pointed suspicion on the notorious family of bee-threatening neonicotinoids, but the bulk of its significance lies in the new standard of accountability that it imposes on the EPA to better enforce its own standards and rules.

Although a court decision can paint an adversarial scenario, Michele Colopy, program director of the PSC and their representative at this year’s conference, is eager to express that this sort of regulatory change is an important part of establishing institutionalized collaboration as a part of protecting pollinators and our food security.

“We are not about banning pesticides, we are about protecting our crops and protecting our bees,” Colopy says. “Pollinators increases crop yield, not pesticides. Pesticides only conserve losses. It is pollination, basic plant biology that bees help facilitate, that increases crop yields. If pesticide users began talking with beekeepers to protect bees, they would protect pollination, increase yields and improve relations with bee keepers and farmers. If only we just all worked together better, because it takes all of us to grow our food.”

The upcoming Western Apicultural Society Conference is a rare opportunity for the diverse stakeholders in pollinator health to come together to affect the shape of emerging city, state and national pollinator health policy. In the face of over a decade in yearover-year declines in pollinator populations, their well-being can’t be ignored just because getting along is hard. Bees aren’t in any immediate danger of going, but how we manage land and food production systems is among the most vital of our environmental issues. Attendance to the conference is open and the public is encouraged to attend.