Finding the buzz: Local beekeepers join call to ban the pesticides

Beekeeper checking on the health of a hive in Attleboro. Photo by Sizhong Chen/The Sun Chronicle

By Sizhong Chen
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was originally published in The Sun Chronicle.

ATTLEBORO — Tucker McNulty’s face lit up when he pulled out a panel full of honeybee eggs. As a beekeeper, it is frustrating but also common to see only a third of hives survive.

Two weeks ago, McNulty had three healthy hives of honeybees. Last week, he was excited to extract four gallons of honey. He shared the good news in emails with state Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro, several times before a planned visit last weekend by the lawmaker to McNulty’s Thayer Farm Road property.

But later, two of the hives were not doing fine — the queen bees weren’t spawning. Noticing a trend of fewer eggs, McNulty had to combine them before the tour began.

Beekeeper Tucker McNulty talks with visitors during a tour of Attleboro beehives. Photo by Sizhong Chen/The Sun Chronicle

The beekeeper’s experience is representative of a global trend.

In the early 2000s, scientists became concerned about what they saw as an increase in hive losses. That trend, however, has since declined.

A 2017 Environmental Protection Agency report, for example, found a 30 percent decrease in hive losses annually in the United States. But even a partial hive collapse is cause for worry.

In recent years, scientific reports have shown that certain pesticides would damage the immune systems of bees, if not kill them directly. For example, less healthy bees might not be able to fight infestation from mites.

Wearing long-sleeve shirts, long pants and tight socks, Hawkins showed up at the front door of McNulty’s house last Saturday. He was joined by Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, who last January promoted a bill to regulate the use of certain pesticides to protect pollinators. That was several months before the European Union banned the outdoor use of the same pesticides, called neoniconoids.

Checking on a hive in Attleboro. Photo by Sizhong Chen/The Sun Chronicle

Neoniconoids, or neonics, are the world’s most widely used insecticides. Instead of being washed off, they get absorbed by plant roots. While its formula is developed for the safety of human beings, it affects the health of all plant pollinators, including bees. According to a 2008 EPA report, bees suffer harm when the level of neonics reaches 25 parts per billion — a common level in farm fields.

Earlier this year, constituents, including farmers and beekeepers, wrote to Hawkins to express their concern that a bee population decline might affect their food supply.

According to a 2006 study, pollinators, including bees, affect over one-third of the world’s food crop production. Hawkins said that he hopes to raise awareness within the community and on the state level because the decline in bee population has a “snowball effect.”

“Less bees means less honey. Less honey means less sugar water. And it would eventually affect our economy,” he said.

In April, he found Dykema’s bill, which proposed to limit access to neonics to only certified or trained applicators.

“What I see the argument being is, how do we make sure that we stay well below that limit so that we’re protecting our bees?” Dykema said, adding that she believes people are spraying more of the insecticide than is actually needed to protect plants.

Hawkins wrote a letter during the session to show his support for the bill, but it didn’t get voted on before July 31. Hoping to raise awareness of the issue before the next legislative session in January, he decided a few weeks ago to hold the bee facility tour and promote it during his re-election campaign.

Beekeeper Tucker McNulty demonstrates his apiary skills during a tour of hives in Attleboro. Photo by Sizhong Chen/The Sun Chronicle

McNulty says he is now the only beekeeper in his neighborhood. He got into the field five years ago and is now an experienced hand, sweeping off snow to make sure bees survive the harsh winter and feeding them sugar water or artificial pollen when the weather gets warmer. If the weather cools, he rushes out of the house to take care of the bees.

“But then the mites might take over the hives. It’s discouraging,” he said. “If we reduce the pesticide levels, then the bees might be able to fend off mites better.”

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