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Northwest Beekeepers Impatient With Cautious EPA

Scott Butner

A swarm of factors is causing heavy losses in honey bee colonies. That's the bottom line of a report issued jointly Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report identifies a parasitic mite as a leading culprit in combination with diseases, poor nutrition, genetics and pesticide exposure. People who care about bees here in the Northwest were underwhelmed.

Disappointment comes from both the president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association and the director of a Portland-based conservation group, the Xerces Society. They looked in vain for signs the EPA would move more quickly to restrict a class of insecticides suspected of harming bees.

"I know that I sound like a nut when I say 'time is growing short for the honey bees,'" said beekeeper Mark Emrich of Rochester, Washington. "But if you take a look at the loss numbers and the ever shrinking gene pool, it shows how desperate the situation has become."

"I think we have enough data that we can limit these pesticides," added the Xerces Society's Scott Black. The widely used pesticides in question are called neonicotinoids.

But officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a variety of university scientists remain cautious due to inconclusive evidence from field trials.

“At EPA, we let science drive the outcome of decision making,” said assistant administrator Jim Jones during a conference call with reporters. “There are non-trivial costs to society if we get this wrong. There are meaningful benefits from these pesticides to farmers and to consumers, as well as for affordable food.”

Separately, the federal report makes scant mention of one promising new strategy. Washington State University entomologist Steve Sheppard says moving beehives indoors helped some large commercial beekeepers cut winter kill in half.

"Instead of carrying the bees down to California to sit for two or three months - where they can fly but not actually gather food - they've been putting them in cold storage up here in the Northwest," explained Sheppard.

Sheppard said unused fruit and potato warehouses turned into temporary bee refuges.

Honey bee health surveys by Oregon State University found colony losses in the last few years averaging around 18-25 percent annually around the Northwest.

On the Web:

Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health - USDA 
Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation - official site 

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.