Paging Dr. Bee

The bees are sick.

Pollinator populations have been in serious decline for many years. The causes range from insecticides to mites to diseases. But much research still needs to be completed to understand the threats bees are facing.

Dr. Tim Lawrence is the Coupeville-based director for Washington State University Extension in Island County. He’s also an authority on honeybees. He has an undergraduate degree in bee science and has worked in all aspects of the industry including pollination, honey and queen production.

Recently Lawrence has focused his experience and scientific prowess to studying the impact that humans have on honeybees and other pollinators.

Lawrence will speak at the 2014 WSU Master Gardener Advanced Education Conference in Tacoma next week on neonicotinoids — a class of insecticides that have been blamed for the deaths of honeybees and other pollinators.

The newspaper interviewed Lawrence via phone.

Q: How long have you been a beekeeper?

A: 52 years. I was walking home from school one day in the third or fourth grade and there was this huge swarm in a tree. I got a saw from a friend’s garage and cut the branch off and walked home. I said to my mom, “Mom, I want to be a beekeeper.” She’s 93 and still tells the story.

Q: You walked home carrying a swarm of bees?

A: Bees are relatively calm in a swarm state. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.

Q: We hear the figure — one third of all the food we eat is pollinated by honeybees — can you break that down? It sounds a bit simplistic.

A: I don’t like that (reference.) What I prefer is that of the 120-odd food types in the world bees are responsible for 80 of those. We wouldn’t starve (if there were no bees.) We would just have a much blander diet. It’s pretty dramatic if you think of all the fruits and vegetables and extend it out into alfalfa for milk and meat production. Bees are responsible for a lot of the food we eat. It is by no means a trivial service they provide.

Q: Honeybees are an introduced species to North America and the native population did just fine without them.

A: Yes, but there are a lot of other bees: bumblebees, mason bees…all of these provide pollination. We have miles and miles of agriculture and nothing but that agriculture. There is no habitat for those (native) bees. We have to bring in honeybees because we have completely wiped out the native population of bees.

Q: Before we talk about neonicotinoids what are the other problems facing pollinators?

A: Certain viruses and protozoans that affect honeybees have also affected bumblebees. Transition can happen on the flower. A bee can deposit a virus, mite or microsporidia on a flower and another bee can pick it up.

Q: What is a neonicotinoid?

A: It’s an insecticide and it’s doing its job. The neonicotinoids are certainly affecting the native bees as well as honeybees. I have my own opinions but I think there’s a little too much hype over banning them. I don’t think that’s the best solution.

Q: Do they contain nicotine, like cigarettes?

A: It has the same mode of action that nicotine has though it can be synthetic.

Q: How dangerous are they to bees?

A: I grew up in a time where we had carbamates, chlorinated hydrocarbons (DDT) and organophosphates that would just be sprayed all over a field. You didn’t have to wonder if your colony was declining. These would be outright kills. So the neonicotinoids, in one sense, are a much more effective delivery system (of insecticide.) They are contained in the plant. They have relatively low mammalian toxicity. But we are treating with neonicotinoids prophylactically rather than if we have a problem (seeds are coated with the insecticide before planting.) We’ve gotten away from integrated pest management — where you selectively treat depending on what problems you have.

Q: What are the consequences?

A: You’re asking for resistance to evolve in the targeted organism. Rather than banning it we should use it selectively.

Q: How many insecticides are in the neonicotinoid class?

A: There are 150 approved for home use in the state of Washington. There are so many brand names. But look on the back. It won’t say neonicotinoid. It’ll say something like imidacloprid — that’s the most common one. There are different classes out there. The problem is that a homeowner who wants to avoid neonicotinoid can’t tell. If it says it’s a systemic insecticide it’s probably a neonicotinoid.

Q: How much of the damage to pollinator populations is because of homeowners using these or farmers using them?

A: We don’t know. In Thurston County last year the county commissioners last year petitioned the Washington Department of Agriculture to restrict the use of neonicotinoids to non-certified applicators so the homeowner would not be able to use it. Based on what evidence? I’ve visited 120 apiaries (bee farms) so far this year — urban and rural — to check the levels of neonicotinoids both in wax and bee bread (pollen.)

Q: What have you found?

A:There were probably 30 samples we did a preliminary analysis on. We found one or two hits in the wax. We haven’t got the report back on the pollen. It’s an expensive test - $200 a sample.

Q: Are neonicotinoids the only problem chemical out there?

A: The USDA has found 120 chemicals — both beekeeper applied (to control mites and other pests that plague bees) and field introduced - in colonies. It’s no wonder that bees are having the problem they are having. It’s a very toxic world out there. To point the finger at any one thing is probably going down the wrong road. Most beekeepers don’t like it when I say this: I think neonicotinoids are an important tool we need to keep. But we should use them only when we need to.

Q: How can a homeowner use insecticides responsibly?

A:Be smart about it. Understand which plants bloom. Monitor the plants and the damage that is occurring. If you’re spraying don’t use it while the plants are blooming. Look at the ground. Make sure no flowers are below the tree or bush you are spraying.

Q: How much of insecticide use is for cosmetic reasons and how much is used to prevent actual crop loss?

A: I don’t mind a few holes in my peaches but the farmer doesn’t have that option. For export, their whole shipment will be turned around (when insects are found) if it’s going over to Japan or wherever. That’s part of the equation of making a living as a farmer. When you have these large monocultures it’s hard to keep insects from going hog wild. We had an outbreak of the tent caterpillars this year. But the parasites are out there (attacking the caterpillars.) So the people who sprayed some chemical are probably going to have the same problem next year because they wiped out all the parasites.

Q: What can the homeowner do to help pollinators?

A: It’s not just homeowners. It’s jurisdictions, farmers. As silly as it sounds: plant more flowers. I’m planting all kinds of flowers in my yard. I’m trying to convince my neighbor that it’s a managed weed patch.