Who’s Killing the Bees?

On June 18, 2013, I attended a workshop on providing habitat for beneficial insects. One of the instructors mentioned that he had just been checking on dead bees in a parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon, on I-5 near Salem. The next day, the local media reported a mass bee killing at that parking lot. Mass – 50,000 dead bees was the estimate.

The details are these: people using a Target store parking lot noticed dead bees lying on the asphalt and started asking questions. It turns out, the trees in the parking lot had been sprayed with a powerful insecticide to get rid of aphids. The aphids exude a substance called honeydew, which is essentially the plant juice that shoots out the back end of the insect as it inserts its mouthparts into the plant’s vascular system. Aphid poop is mostly excreted sugar syrup, too. This drips on cars if they happen to park underneath (I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you). The trees were sprayed to avoid the mess of the honeydew by killing the aphids.

Over the next week, the story of mass bee death was briefly in the national news, including a 10 minute interview on CNN, with the director of the Xerces Society – the organization that my workshop instructor worked for.

To their credit, the Oregon Dept of Agriculture (ODA), the Xerces people, and local municipal folks got together and decided to deal with the problem immediately. In one day, they had bagged all the trees with netting to keep the bees from landing on them. It took a ton of volunteers, cherry picker trucks, and a lot of netting. Quite a story, but actually, only the beginning.

The ODA temporarily banned the use of the pesticide in question – dinotefuran – along with the whole class of insecticides (neonicotinoids) it belongs to. These are active ingredients in a lot of pesticides used by agriculture, horticulture and homeowners.  Congressman Earl Blumenauer, bless his heart, introduced a bill to prevent the use of this pesticide until the EPA determines how it might be used in order not to kill off our pollinators.

There are lessons here. Lessons aplenty.

I am going to write some historical fiction about a possible sequence of events and misadventures, for analysis:

Sticky stuff was dripping on customers’ cars (iconic American identity symbol) in a parking lot.

Someone decided aphids must be the problem.

To solve the problem, (they thought) kill the aphids, using the cheapest, easiest, fastest, and most permanent means available. Talk to the landscaper and have them deal with it. That’s what we pay them for (besides shearing those shrubs into cubes).

Landscaper’s employee grabs the aphid killing stuff off the shelf. Do they read the label?? There has been complete silence on this score. No one has publicly interviewed or disclosed the name of the landscaping company that did the spraying. There seems to be some mystery about whether they actually used the pesticide legally, i.e. according to the instructions on the label (trade name Safari). What is clear is that this whole class of very common, easily available insecticides, called neonicotinoids, is highly toxic to bees. As toxic as the terribly toxic ones they were supposed to replace (carbamates and organophosphates).

I suspect a mad scramble behind the scenes to find out who is liable for what. Lawyers involved. Big money. Pesticide companies have lots of both.

Anyway, the trees got sprayed, and a few days later, 50,000 bumblebees were lying in the parking lot dead.

You may be surprised that there could be that many bees in a parking lot. It’s important to know that this strip mall was plunked down next to an agricultural area, probably itself a former field. The Willamette Valley is full of relatively small farms that produce vegetables, row crops, grain, nursery crops, fruit and nuts. One of the charming things about the valley is the proximity of these fields to towns and cities.

However, do not think that even in the middle of a large city, like Portland or Seattle, there are not bucket loads of ‘wild’ beneficial insects and pollinators that go unnoticed.

The urban/rural interface is everywhere, as malls and developments push out into the country, regardless of one of the strictest urban growth policies in the country. This parking lot is right next to an area where 50,000 bees could easily find a place to nest – these are wild bees – cavity and ground-nesters that live in spite of what we do with our concrete, and plows. No one was raising these bees – they provide pollination services worth millions, perhaps billions of dollars to Oregon agriculture. Additionally, native plants rely on them to survive and the loss of the pollinators they evolved with is endangering many species.

In addition, the trees in question were Lindens – full of flowers irresistible to bees of all kinds. Bumblebees may have been exceptionally vulnerable because this species of non-native tree has nectar that is also toxic to these bees, but mildly so and never on this scale.

The thing is, aphids are not the problem. Aphids are fodder, the lowest on the food chain, for countless insects that parasitize and eat them outright. When you kill them, you also kill a mind-boggling number of beneficials, not just pollinators. These are the beings that keep us alive, with ecosystem services like pollination, pest control, and healthy plants.

We have got to start thinking about our actions, and the context of our actions in bigger, more inclusive and smarter ways. What is important – is it the blind elimination of stuff that bothers us, or is it to pay attention to the quality of our lives and the creatures that make life possible?

One part of the problem is planting trees that were susceptible to aphids, and, in a parking lot – over 50 of them in this case. If any good is to come of this, landscape architecture schools everywhere will take note. Do not create a pest problem by specifying a vulnerable plant in your landscape.

Another problem is thinking that killing aphids with something that makes every part of a plant toxic is in any way a good choice. Where did we get the idea that poison does not affect other, so called “off-target” species?  We put out rat poison, for example, and never think about the hawks, owls, or scavengers that might be poisoned when they eat the rat. The sap, pollen, nectar, leaves and bark were ALL highly toxic in these trees.

Mistakes like this are the result of ignorance and lack of education, and if anyone claims they have no interest in, or knowledge of nature or science, that is no excuse. Our responsibility is to others and to the natural world. Information is available in this information age.

Something else equally important is that these pesticides are widely used in agriculture and by homeowners. The parking lot incident was pretty small potatoes (so to speak) in the scheme of things.

What scientists have been trying to get people to acknowledge is true: pesticides are killing off pollinators in record numbers, and no one (till now) really noticed because they didn’t die in a suburban parking lot, as Mace Vaughan, of Xerces said in one of the news items

Large-scale deaths of domestic honey bees have been reported in recent years, but among wild pollinators, documented poisoning incidents of this scale are largely unprecedented, according to experts. “Wild bees are killed all the time in agricultural fields where nobody sees it happen,” said Vaughan. “The fact that this happened in an urban area is probably the only reason it came to our attention.

Now that we’ve all had a chance to see the results, perhaps real protective measures will gain traction.

If you wonder what you might do to help, here is a good list of actions you can take.

And if you find you have an imbalance of pest species in your garden, please contact Taylor Gardens for a consult on safe methods before you grab the can of pesticide.

Argiope spider in fall
pollinating fly on goatsbeard
pollinator on goatsbeard
native bee on apple blossom. photo credit: Phil Huntley-Franck /Cornell Chronicle online
native bee on apple blossom. photo credit: Phil Huntley-Franck /Cornell Chronicle online

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