An estimated one hundred people braved scorching outdoor temperatures to attend a memorial service earlier this month. The honorees, however, were not heroes, community figures, or even human. They were bees apparently killed by accident in Wilsonville, Ore. Deemed a "bee kill," the insects were found dead in a Target parking lot after a pesticide was sprayed on trees infested with aphids.
Media attention to the incident has been heightened by anti-agricultural pesticide activists trying to score political points off the dead bugs. According to experts, however, the problem wasn't the pesticide, it was the application.
"The mistake was that the trees were sprayed while they were in full bloom," said Dr. Dewey Caron, an affiliate professor of horticulture at Oregon State University. The pesticide was sprayed during a window of time in which bees were most attracted to the trees. "It was a bad oversight," he said. "They should well have been aware that there could have been some collateral damage on some unintended targets."
It turns out that failing to read and follow the labels is a big threat to bees. According to Tim Wessels, president of a beekeeper association in Portland, improper use of legal retail pesticides contribute to the death of four out of every 10 urban pollinating bees. Bees play an important role in pollinating many agricultural crops, from fruits and nuts such as oranges, blueberries, apples and almonds, to row crops such cotton, canola, and soy.
Instead of blaming the apparently inept users, the Oregon Department of Agriculture is blaming an entire class of pesticides. The agency has instituted a six-month ban on spraying any plants with any product containing dinotefuran, the active ingredient in the pesticide, Safari, thought responsible for the dead bees. In its statement of justification, the department illogically claims that the temporary ban will protect pollinating insects till their investigation is complete.
As long as people fail to heed product labels, misuse will have consequences. This is true whether the label warns, "do not ingest" or "not for use on blooming crops or weeds." By banning products containing dinotefuran, the Oregon agriculture department is blaming a product for simple (and blatant) human error. That's like banning electricity because improper use can cause electrocution. While it is truly unfortunate that bees were killed by misuse of a safe product, subsequent regulatory over-reach over the deaths is a different matter.
Why the hysteria? Activists, already engaged in litigation, lobbying, media campaigns and fundraising are seeking a broad ban on the class of pesticides that were misused in Oregon. With bee memorial services, Facebook pages in honor of the dead bees, and Twitter hash tags, they've created an environment where their advocacy-driven claims are taken at face value.
Consider the wildly differing claims about the number of bees actually killed. Estimates have ranged from 25,000 to more than 50,000. A spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture admitted that the agency never even attempted to count the bees. Instead, they relied entirely on a claim by an advocacy group, the Xerces Society, which reached the 50,000 number by extrapolating based on a count of bees in one confined area. Now, that unchallenged estimate has turned into unquestioned fact which became the basis for drastic regulatory action.
Adding to the absurdity is the fact that in the name of protecting pollinators, activists are in fact going to harm them. If activists who prefer fear to facts had their way, the class of pesticides to which dinetefuran belongs - " neonicotinoids - would be banned.
Nevermind the fact that "neonics" are a safer alternative to other pesticides, which ironically, activists also sought to ban. As environmental economist Richard Tren explains, "If neonicotinoids are banned, farmers will have to use older insecticides such as organophosphates, which are potentially more harmful to the environment. These older insecticides have been banned in some countries. Without alternative or better means of pest control, crop yields would likely decrease. More land would be needed for agriculture, leaving less habitat for wildlife - including wild bees."
By banning a safe product, the Oregon agriculture department is playing into activists' hands who want to demonize an entire class of pesticides that are safe when used properly.
The problem in this bee kill wasn't the product, it was the misuse. Instead of demanding that a useful product that has been tested extensively be banned, activists would do more for bees by mounting a public information campaign about the importance of heeding label instructions. But they haven't, and they won't. Perhaps it is time to question not the pesticides, but the activists.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffAStier.