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Look past pesticides to study pollinator health

As fellow state Pollinator Health Task Force members, we were disappointed to read the piece written by Aimee Code and Scott Hoffman Black of the Xerces Society (“Protect pollinators like our lives depend on it,” June 25).

The column included a number of inaccurate claims. It also suggests that some members of the task force are more interested in banning a product they don’t like instead of actually looking for ways to improve pollinator health.

The concerns about pesticide use and potential effects on bees are very important to all pesticide users, but especially those involved in agriculture. Oregon farmers depend on bees to pollinate many of their crops, but also depend on pesticide tools to control destructive pests.

Similarly, commercial beekeepers rely on healthy crops to optimize their pollination services. This means that Oregon growers and beekeepers have a lot at stake in this conversation, and each share a vested interest in ensuring that protecting bee health and the use of pesticides are not mutually exclusive.

Bee health is important to all of us, and nobody wants to see adverse incidents that add to bee population declines. That being said, it is easy to let emotion drive the conversation around these issues. We should instead let science be our guide.

While concerns about pesticides and bees have been around for decades, the high profile incident in Wilsonville brought heightened attention to the issue. We cannot stress enough that very visible adverse incidents need to be viewed in light of what happened in particular scenarios — not necessarily as evidence of a wider problem. For example, in the Wilsonville incident it is clear that the applicator did not use good judgment, which resulted in the misapplication of a product.

While we understand the concerns of beekeepers and the public at large, the issue of declining bee populations unfortunately has no simple answer. In fact, research on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has highlighted a complex interaction of factors that play a role in bee health and found no singular cause of the problem. While pesticides often are noted as one factor, researchers say they are not the primary one.

Since reports of significant losses to bee colonies were publicized in 2006, researchers and regulators have been looking for answers to what may be the cause. A CCD Steering Committee was formed at the national level to address the concerns over bee losses. Several individuals from the Steering Committee along with scientists from Pennsylvania State University met in October 2012 for a National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health to discuss future actions to promote health and mitigate risks to managed honeybees in the United States.

In May of 2013 the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency released a comprehensive scientific report on honeybee health. The report concludes there are multiple factors that play a role in honeybee colony declines.

Despite the recognition by national experts that a variety of factors is contributing to bee colony losses, some groups continue to focus on the role pesticides play, and especially on the neonicotinoid class of chemicals.

Neonicotinoids have been in use for more than 15 years and have been widely adopted by growers and urban applicators because of their performance, lower toxicity to mammals, including humans, and relatively favorable environmental profile over the older products they replaced. Their potential toxicity for bees, if used improperly, has shined a spotlight on neonicotinoids, but real-world testing of concentrations in the field have not shown levels that would be of concern.

Several times over the past few years, advocacy groups have petitioned or sued the EPA to discontinue the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, claiming these products are harming bees. In considering these petitions, the EPA rejected such claims and in comments regarding clothianidin (a neonicotinoid pesticide), stated that:

n The agency is “NOT aware of any data that reasonably demonstrates that bee colonies are subject to elevated losses due to chronic exposure to this pesticide.” (02/18/11); and

n The agency “... is NOT aware of any data indicating that honeybee declines or the incidence of CCD in the U.S. is correlated with the use of pesticides in general or with the use of neonicotinoids in particular.” (07/27/12)

Pollinator health is a much broader issue than pesticides. This is why we were happy to see that legislation initially aimed at pesticide restrictions was amended into a bill creating a task force to study pollinator health on a grander scale. There was a recognition that restricting neonicotinoids would disadvantage growers without providing measurable benefit to pollinators in Oregon.

As task force members, we intend to study all of the issues surrounding pollinator health and remain open to a variety of solutions without a specific end in mind. We are hopeful that our fellow task force members will make that same commitment.

Jeff Stone is the executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, representing the nursery and greenhouse industry, which is the state’s largest agricultural sector and the nation’s second-largest nursery state with more than $744 million in sales. Scott Dahlman is the executive director of Oregonians for Food & Shelter, a grassroots coalition of farmers, foresters and other technology users focused on natural resource issues involving pesticides, fertilizer and biotechnology. Both are appointees to the Governor’s Task Force on Pollinator Health.



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