Company halts bee-killing chemicals as activists stir up a hornet’s nest

The movement to save the bees recently got a shot – or perhaps a sting – in the arm, when insect control producer Ortho, a subsidiary of Scotts Miracle-Gro, declared that it would begin to transition away from using chemicals that are harmful to the bee population, especially honeybees. The announcement by the Ohio-based company is very much fueled by growing pressure by activists who recently held various protests across California.

Just this week, May 16 in Oakland, one company that refuses to drop such chemicals, Bayer, was the target of a demonstration organized by Occupy Oakland’s Environmental Justice Committee, calling for the end to the use of bee-killing pesticides.

“We are demanding the immediate ban of Clothianidin, [a] pesticide responsible for massive bee die-offs worldwide, which is produced by Bayer,” said the group. “This pesticide has precipitated colony collapse disorder, threatening the livelihood of both large and small farmers as well as beekeepers. … Pursuing profits at the risk of destroying the food supply, Bayer has successfully influenced public policy and stopped the EPA from banning this toxic pesticide. They’re in our own backyard and we need to call attention to [it].”

Ortho’s decision to ban the bee killers came on the heels of similar moves by Home Depot and Lowes, both of whom have stopped carrying neonics – that is, those chemicals that kill bees and other pollinating insects – in their garden care sections last year. It also coincides with state legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly restricting the sale of products containing neonics. The bill is currently being reviewed by Gov. Larry Hogan, and if approved could be the first of its kind in the U.S., though other states – like California, Oregon, and Vermont – are studying the effects of neonics on pollinators and bee colony collapse, and passing legislation that re-evaluates such chemical products.

May Berenbaum, a bee expert and professor of entomology at the University of Illinois, said that introducing alternatives to neonics is important. She offered cautious praise for Ortho’s decision, remarking, “There are still profound problems for bees, but this is a step toward removing one contributor to some of the problems.” She added, however, that whatever replacement products they implement, could be just as bad, or worse. And colony collapse disorder, of course, remains a dire issue. “This is not the end,” she said. “This is no time for complacency.”

Perhaps no one recognizes that more than Pammela Wright, who has been a farmer and beekeeper for 26 years. She spoke by phone with the People’s World from her farmhouse in the Ozark Mountains, some 200 miles south and west of St. Louis.

Wright described in detail how she and her now-deceased husband walked out to check on one of their 80 hives one day only to find that the queen was the only inhabitant of one of the once-busy hives. “They were all gone,” she said. “All gone, except for the queen, she was alone. And it was the same way in the next hive and in the next one. I didn’t know anything about colony collapse which was what I was witnessing.

“So many country fairs and so many farmers markets that I went to with that honey. Sustenance for us and joy for the people who brought the product. I was always a political activist and I’d show up everywhere with the honey and products made from it, but no more would come from those hives.”

“I’m an old lady now and all I can manage really is the two hives I have left and the small amount of honey to fill a few jars.”

Wright attributes the destruction of the bee colonies to the chemicals “that make all those bees lose their sense of direction. When they go out of the hive, the chemicals that have hurt them make them unable to find their ways back home.”

Wright worries about the effects of the chemicals not just on the bees but on the workers who handle them.

“Beekeeping, it’s heavy work,” she said. “The people that make a living in the beekeeping industry are migratory now. They encounter these pesticides by companies like Monsanto and they’re forced to move their bees to a new location.”

And in terms of farming, that, she suggested, adds another dimension to the problem: “These companies have bought up so many of the farms and sources that they buy from. And even the crops that don’t have harmful chemicals sprayed on them can be affected, due to cross-pollination.” In other words, wind-strewn seeds that are genetically modified can find their way onto otherwise natural farmland, and ruin it.

Even worse, the chemicals don’t merely affect those solitary bees who happen to browse the toxic flower. “When bees take pollen from a plant like that back to the hive, it poisons the entire hive. Other wild pollinators are also affected, like Monarch butterflies. They sat that it’s from habitat loss, but the chemicals definitely play a role.”

The issue of bee killing remains close to the hearts of many an activist. It was a hot topic at an event that took place Apr. 17 in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Called EarthFair, it celebrated Earth Day and offered free entertainment devoted to important issues like health and sustainable living. One of the issues that brought people there that day was that of bees.

Imperial Beach resident Althea Komorowski showed up to get tips on what to plant near her home that will draw the beneficial insects there, so that she might play her part in fighting colony collapse. “I want to see what I can plant that will attract bees,” she said. “I want to save those bees. I’m very worried about that.”

But can people make a difference? “Beekeeping organizations have tried to lobby against these big corporations but they’re not strong enough,” Wright said. “In Europe many of these harmful products are banned, but in the U.S. the companies are smarter. Monsanto tries to get in good with the beekeepers and claim that they’re somehow helping.

“You have to deal with the situation carefully. Many farmers are dependent upon these crops that have been genetically modified and they need to move away from that habit. But big farm organizations are tied in with these companies. Even some people in the farmers’ union, in states with big memberships like Oklahoma and North Dakota, they don’t see anything wrong with genetically modified seeds and using many of these pesticides.”

So a part of the solution, it seems, is changing the conversation about bees, and continuing to work toward getting companies to ban harmful products, as has been done overseas. In the meantime, Wright’s advice is, “Don’t use products like Roundup. And the lawn industry is not your friend. People love to have big, beautiful lawns, but that’s like a desert to bees. They need pollen. Grow a garden. Make sure you have a lot of flowering trees. If you want bees to thrive, you have to invite them.”

Photo: “Save the bees” mural by a London artist trying to raise awareness of colony collapse disorder.  |  Louis Masai Michel, courtesy of EcoWatch


Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the People's World home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Erie, Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cats. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a music review channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a fantasy novel, as well as a self-help book and several digital comics.