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Barrett beekeeper among four to file lawsuit against EPA

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 05/20/2013 9:33 AM

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BARRETT, Minn. —Steve Ellis' beehive losses are typical of most operations.

The Barrett beekeeper says he lost 60 percent of his bees —from 2,300 hives to 1,032 —over the fall and winter.

Ellis, the owner of Old Mill Honey, and other beekeepers are unable to recoup their losses by using their own stock. Instead the beekeepers will be looking for bees from other sources.

Bee losses are a chronic problem that's been getting worse over the last six to eight years, Ellis said. Some of the losses can be blamed on Colony Collapse Disorder.

The USDA and Environmental Protection Agency, in a comprehensive scientific report on honey bee health released last week, claimed multiple factors affect bee health. Parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure are considered culprits.

"There is an important link between the health of American agriculture and the health of our honeybees for our country's long-term agricultural productivity," said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. "The forces impacting honeybee health are complex and the USDA, our research partners and key stakeholders will be engaged in addressing this challenge."

The Varroa mite is one of the major factors underlying colony loss in the United States and other countries, the report noted. New virus species have been found in the United States and several have been associated with CCD.

The findings also noted the need for increased genetic diversity, emphasizing traits such as hygienic behavior for improved Varroa mite resistance and increasing bee habitat and nutrition.

Ellis agrees with the reports findings on pesticide use especially the use of neonicitinoids.

"People think its all about the spray and drift, but its also in the seed coating," he said.

Dust from the coating may come off the seed at planting. When bees come in contact with it and bring it back to the hive, bee kill numbers go up. It has been linked to bee deaths in Canada, he said.

Farmers aren't to blame, Ellis said. Many are unaware that the seed coating can lead to bee kills. Instead, he points to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"I am very disappointed in the EPA," he said. "A year ago we petitioned the EPA to protect bees and they refused to take action."

Ellis and three other beekeepers have. They filed a lawsuit four weeks ago against the EPA calling for the agency to stop the use of two pesticides and to create better labels on how to use the products.

The EPA has allowed the use of some products without testing the affects on pollinators, Ellis said.

The European commission has already put a two-year restriction on neonicotinoids after 15 countries in the EU voted for the ban. Some restrictions are already in place for neonicotinoids in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia.

He's met with companies that produce pesticides and, with other beekeepers, has laid out the issues concerning pollinators.

"It's proven to be a very difficult problem to get resolution to," he said.

Some critical problems exist in the system when it comes to looking into bee deaths, he said. Individual states have been given pesticide use oversight, he said. Sometimes pesticide poisonings go uninvestigated or a partial investigation takes place.

The USDA and EPA report calls for improved collaboration and information sharing. Best Management Practices associated with bees and pesticide use exist but are not widely or systematically followed by members of the crop-producing industry, the report stated.

"There is a need for informed and coordinated communication between growers and beekeepers and effective collaboration between stakeholders on practices to protect bees from pesticides," the report said.

Beekeepers emphasized the need for accurate and timely bee kill incident reporting, monitoring and enforcement.

Ellis knows the legal process will take time. It could be another two to three months for motions to be heard in the case.

"But we are really getting to a critical shortfall of pollinators," he said. "We need to provide them some reasonable protection. I feel strongly that the system needs to change."

His interest is not only with his bees but all pollinators, Ellis said.

"Pollinators don't have anyone looking out for them," he said. "...Many of these pollinators are actually endangered species. They are vitally important in the food chain. There are some wildflowers that are pollinated by specific types of pollinators. One can't survive without the other. Whether it's vegetables, berries or crops, the food chain connection is huge and pollinators play a big role in it.

"And they need something done now to ensure their survival."