Maryland protects its pollinators with limits on bee-addicting pesticides

The House of Delegates voted Thursday to limit neonics, which researchers say can cause bees to have addictive cravings similar to those caused by nicotine.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
A bee collects pollen from a dandelion blossom. Maryland became the first US state to pull pesticides that have been found to be harmful to bees off retail store shelves on Thursday.

Maryland is cracking down on a commonly used pesticide found to harm bees, an essential pollinator of many of the nation’s crops.

The bill, which passed the Maryland House of Delegates on Thursday on a 98-to-39 vote, would pull pesticides known as neonicotinoids off retail store shelves beginning in 2018. The pesticides, which have found to be harmful to bees when sprayed on some crops including cotton and citrus, would be limited to people who are certified to provide pest control, farmers and veterinarians.

In recent years, scientists say the bee population has been rapidly declining due to a combination of factors, including poor nutrition, mites, disease, and the use of pesticides. 

In 2014, beekeepers reported losing about 40 percent of their honey bee colonies, which contribute more than $15 billion to the value of agricultural crops, White House science adviser John Holdren said last year. But bees' economic impact goes beyond honey – other crops, from peaches to pumpkins, rely on pollinators, too. 

"Pollinators are struggling," Dr. Holdren wrote in a blog post in May 2015, announcing a strategy to protect pollinators and calling for people across the country to monitor their use of pesticides. "YOU can think carefully before applying any pesticides and always follow the label instructions. YOU can find out more about the pollinator species that live near you," he added.

As the federal government approved a wide-reaching plan to save the population of wild and honey bees by restoring 7 million acres of bee habitat in the next five years, much of the discussion has revolved around the use of neonictinoids.

Two teams of scientists found last year that neonictinoids are especially harmful to wild bees, although some studies have drawn criticism from pesticidemakers. When the pesticides are sprayed on crops and spread to pollen and nectar, bees can experience an addictive craving for the substances similar to human addiction to nicotine, The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts reported last year.

Two studies published in the journal Nature found that for honey bees, it took a relatively large dose of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, to cause harmful effects. This addictive craving persists even though many key bees species cannot "taste" the pesticides, especially in low concentrations.

On fields with treated crops, the density of wild bees was about 50 percent lower than on fields that had not been treated. The pesticide also impacted bumblebee reproduction and colony growth, the researchers found.

Exposure to another neonicotinoid called clothianidin, which has been banned in the European Union, significantly impacts honeybees' learning, according to a study published Tuesday by researchers from the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. Bumblebees' learning, however, is not impacted. 

"Honey bees are used as model organisms when we want to test the environmental impact of pesticides," Maj Rundlöf, an ecologist at Lund University in Sweden and one of the studies' lead authors, told the Monitor last year. 

European regulators have been considering lifting a moratorium on three pesticides and will make a final decision in January 2017, reports.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has also pledged to increase its research into the impact of neonicotinoids, with the federal government's plan earning praise from scientists.

Maryland, where beekeepers in the state lost nearly 61 percent of their hives last year, would be the first state to take direct action against the pesticides. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is currently reviewing the bill, a spokesman told the Associated Press.

"From my perspective, it's a wake-up call," Jerry Bromenshenk, a bee expert at University of Montana in Missoula, told the AP last year. "Pollinators need safe havens, with adequate quantities of high-quality resources for food and habitat, relatively free from toxic chemicals, and that includes pollutants as well as pesticides and other agricultural chemicals."

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