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Friday, September 6, 2013

Overuse of pesticides is killing off bees essential for pollination

Dead bees under trees sprayed in a mall in Wilsonville, Ore. [Photo by Rich Hatfield of the Xerces Society.]
By Deanna Crumbling

In Wilsonville, Ore., on June 17, it was discovered that a chemical weapon of mass destruction had left over 25,000 carcasses in the parking lot of a shopping center, and the bodies were still falling. By the time rescuers could stop the carnage, 50,000 bumble bees died within a few days. The chemical weapon was an insecticide called Safari. Ironically, it was the first day of National Pollinator Week.

Fifty-five European linden trees had been planted throughout the huge parking lot. These linden trees were covered with cream-colored blossoms that give off a strong, sweet fragrance irresistible to pollinators like bees and butterflies.

Aphids had also settled in the trees. Although they were not numerous enough to harm the trees, aphids excrete tiny droplets of sugary fluid. To keep droplets of sugar from landing on cars, the landscape company looking after the trees sprayed them with Safari to kill the aphids. You might think a “landscape company” would be better educated. Unfortunately, like most users of highly toxic pesticides, no thought was given to what else would be killed by the spray.

The ladybugs and other beneficial insects that came to eat the aphids were indiscriminately killed. The pesticide residue coating the leaves and flowers guaranteed that any insect landing on the trees for weeks afterward would be killed. Bumble bees and honey bees “rained down” dead or dying from the trees within minutes of foraging for pollen and nectar. 

Heartbroken citizens and scientists could only stand by until someone had the idea of covering all 55 trees with netting that could keep bees off the flowers. Cherrypicker lifts were called in to place the netting. By the end of June 21, netting was completed, but by then the bumble bee death toll represented the extermination of about 300 wild colonies.

If allowed to live, those bumble bees would have pollinated thousands of acres of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, berries, fruit trees, and other produce grown in the nearby Willamette Valley. “We are very concerned,” said Mark Ottenad, Wilsonville’s public and government affairs director. “The city is adjacent to some of the most productive agricultural land in the state and bee pollination is essential to the agricultural industry.”

Why did it happen? There is nothing to stop someone from buying and using dangerous pesticides in ways that indiscriminately kill vast numbers of beneficial insects. In fact, pesticide companies spend millions of advertising dollars to convince the general public that widespread use of poisons is a routine and necessary part of having a lawn or garden.

Advertisements make no attempt to educate users to read the “and abide by” language on pesticide labels that warn (like the Safari label did): “This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment or residues on blooming crops or weeds. Do not apply this product or allow it to drift to blooming crops or weeds if bees are visiting the treatment area.”

Throughout the United States, there is little land remaining that has not been converted to agricultural, timber, and suburban uses. Current strategies for these uses involve heavy applications of pesticides to get rid of “pests.”

Bees, butterflies, dragonflies, and any other insects in the vicinity of vast acreages of flowering cotton fields in the South are regularly wiped out by routine aerial insecticide spraying. Spraying for mosquitoes and gypsy moths also kills other insects. Monoculture crops genetically engineered to resist herbicides allow blanket spraying to kill “weeds” and wildflowers in and around fields, destroying plants that could have provided pollen and nectar for pollinators. Little wonder our valuable populations of bumble bees and other native bees are in steep decline.

It is illegal to violate the instructions on pesticide labels. To reverse the decline of our insect pollinators, everyone purchasing and applying insecticides must be educated to use them properly. It starts with awareness: Read the label! If you observe possible illegal application of pesticides, report the incident to authorities.

You can learn about Virginia's laws on pesticides online. To report possible illegal pesticide application, contact the Office of Pesticide Services in the Virginia Department of Agriculture, 804-786-3798.

If you observe numbers of dead or dying insects near crops or along a road that include honey bees, bumble bees, or small native bees (like green, gold, and black sweat bees), report the kill to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via email to The EPA also has lots of resources about protecting pollinators

Greater documentation of pesticide-related bee kills will provide the hard evidence government agencies need to punish violators and discourage misuse of these environmental poisons.


  1. I know my wife and I are not the only beekeepers in Annandale. Its a hobby that can help support the flagging bee populations, supports pollinators, and if you're lucky results in some tasty honey. Me? I'm hoping to end up with some homemade mead.

    The state of Virginia is starting to support beekeeping with a beehive grant program, and Northern Virginia has an active beekeeping club. Still, it feels like a losing fight sometimes, especially when I see signs out advertising mosquito bombing yards, and door-to-door insecticide peddlers. More hives than usual were lost last year throughout Northern Virginia. Lot of suburban bees just didn't make it to or through the winter.

    Thanks for the awareness on the issue.

  2. I agree with the support of the bees through being aware and acting with respect toward the environment.

    Insecticide and weed killers should be used within the limitations of the labeling.

    It is wrong to blanket your yard with pesticides when what is needed is intelligent applications.

    Mosquitoes can be controlled more effectively by removing containers of water from your yard and keeping lawn and bushes cut back than any amount of spraying that is done.

    I keep 18 hives in Annandale, over 30 in total. I disagree with the previous beekeeper about the value of Government involvement in beekeeping through using Taxpayer money to pay beekeepers to do what they are already doing without other people's money. That is misguided feel good environmentalism.

    If you want to see what happens when people decide to help out agriculture look at the Government's Tobacco support program which was running at the same time they were posting warnings on cigarettes not to smoke!

    I would ask you to be aware, but don't be naive.