Encinitas could ban pesticide implicated in bee die-off


James McDonald pulled up and examined panels crawling with bees on his Olivenhain property. Nearby bee boxes once buzzed with activity as well, but not in recent years.

“I lost half my bees this year,” McDonald bemoaned.

A beekeeper by trade and also an avid hobbyist, McDonald’s plight is playing out across the nation. About a decade ago, honeybees started dying off at an alarming rate.

“We need bees to pollinate,” McDonald said. “They’re vital to fruits and vegetables and our food supply as a whole.”

Neonicotinoid insecticides — commonly sprayed on trees, shrubs and lawns — have been linked to the die-off.

“They weaken the bees’ immune system, making them very susceptible to other problems that kill them off,” McDonald said.

So, he recently launched a campaign to ban the use of neonicotinoids on city property within Encinitas. Such a move would follow in the footsteps of three other U.S. cities.

A prohibition, he emphasized, wouldn’t apply to private property.

However, he said legislation would also get the word out about the harmful effects of neonicotinoids. In turn, he believes growers and consumers would be more inclined to go organic or choose alternative sprays without the chemical.

Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz has voiced support for McDonald’s effort.

Kranz sits on a council subcommittee that’s currently drafting an urban agriculture ordinance, encompassing everything from permits to livestock buffers. It will go before the full council for consideration sometime this fall.

He expects the subcommittee to also bring forward a separate resolution or ordinance that would prohibit neonicotinoids on city property.

“If passed by the full council, we would require our landscapers and city services not to use pesticides with neonicotinoids in them,” Kranz said.

He added: “This is something that’s important both environmentally and economically.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that bee pollination adds $15 billion a year to crop values. And honeybees are needed to pollinate one-quarter of the food consumed in the U.S.

Yet over each of the past eight winters nationwide, an average of 29.6 percent of managed honeybee colonies were wiped out, according to another report from the department.

“That number is above the 18.9 percent level of loss that beekeepers say is acceptable for their economic sustainability,” the report stated.

Locally, beekeepers like McDonald reported even greater losses last winter, a problem some believe is exacerbated by the drought.

Plants and flowers absorb neonicotinoids, leading bees to consume it.

Rather than blaming neonicotinoids, some scientists and chemical companies point to other factors like varroa mites as the main culprit in what’s called “colony collapse disorder.” They also say neonicotinoids are key for boosting crop yields.

James Nieh is a biology professor at UC San Diego who studies bees. He said research over the past few years has established a link between neonicotinoids and the bee decline.

But Nieh stated there isn’t a strong correlation at this point.

“When looking at neonicotinoids and bees, there’s been a shift to greater concern in the scientific community in the last five years,” Nieh said.

Nieh’s own research has shown that a small dose of a neonicotinoid called imidacloprid turns honeybees into picky eaters and impairs their ability to recruit others in the hive to good food sources.

Exposure to the pesticide, formerly considered safe, may hurt the health of honeybee colonies, a summary of the research stated.

Nieh said some growers have opposed switching from neonicotinoids due to the increased cost. He went on to say that at the very least residents and farmers using the chemical should be encouraged to spray less or at least focus on targeted areas.

“Colony collapse is truly complex,” Nieh said, adding there isn’t a silver bullet to solve it.

McDonald agreed with that assessment. But he believes the combination of a ban and increased education would jumpstart the local bee population.

Cities like Eugene, Ore., have only recently prohibited neonicotinoids on city property and thus haven’t weighed in yet on whether legislation might aid bee populations.

Last year, the European Commission adopted a two-year moratorium on the use of three neonicotinoids. Scientists are taking the time to gauge the impacts on bees.

“I think time will tell they’re harmful,” McDonald said. “Encinitas could be a trailblazer.”