Seattle Sticks Up For Bees, Bans Neonicotinoids. But Will It Help?

Seattle just got a little more bee-friendly. At least on the municipal level. Maybe.

As the Associated Press dedicated five sentences to this afternoon, the Seattle City Council has moved to ban the municipal use of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that’s been linked to negative impacts on bee populations. As Texas A&M details in this blog post, neonicotinoids are pesticides related to nicotine, and studies have indicated that their use “may impact some bees’ ability to foraging for nectar, learn and remember where flowers are located, and possibly impair their ability to find their way home to the nest or hive.”

In other words, neonicotinoids are probably not great for bees- and considering the frightening decline in the world’s bee population, ceasing to use them seems like a pretty natural step. As NBC reported earlier this year, “Honey bees pollinate a quarter of America’s food, yet in recent years have been dying at a rate the government says is economically unsustainable.” That’s troubling stuff.

But how much will Seattle banning the municipal use of neonicotinoids help? As the AP reports, “Councilmember Mike O’Brien says it’s a modest step to help protect bees and other pollinators.”

According to Dr. Timothy Lawrence, a bee expert and the director of Washington State University’s Island County Extension, even calling the step “modest” might be going too far. While Lawrence confirms that - in laboratory settings - researchers have found negative connections between the use of neonicotinoids and bee populations, in the real world he says, “The evidence simply isn’t there yet.” Stating what becomes obvious after merely a few minutes on the phone with him, Lawrence concludes that, “There’s disagreement in the scientific community” when it comes to neonicotinoids, and admits that he’s “got friends on both sides of the argument.”

A researcher at heart, Lawrence says he spent the last year looking for evidence of neonicotinoids all across Washington - including King and Pierce counties - but failed to find anywhere where the pesticide registered above the detectable level of five parts per billion. “I looked in Seattle. You’d think I would have found a little bit. It would make a lot more interesting story if we had,” he says.

“I don’t doubt that neonicotinoids are not good for bees,” Lawrence continues. “The issue is, How prevalent is it? Is it the primary cause for colony collapse? We can’t answer that question yet.”

So will Seattle’s ban help?

“I don’t think so. I’d like to think it would. I’d like to think that it’s a silver bullet. But there are so many other factors,” Lawrence concludes. “It’s a complex issue. Just to think that we’re going to ban this pesticide, and all is going to be good and wonderful, it’s delusional.”

Lawrence, who’s says he’s in his 52nd year as a bee keeper, advocates a less hurried approach, fearing rushed decisions might lead to unintentional negative outcomes for bees and humans alike. He points to a fact sheet he developed on the subject of neonicotinoids and bees as a good starting point for people.

“What’s going to be the alternative?” Lawrence wonders. “We might think it’s safer, but it actually could be more detrimental. We need to sit back and take a deep breath and look at this a little more rationally. I think in this case, education is going to be the key.”

 
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