Honeybees and Groundwater: Canaries in the Pesticide Coalmine

Maryland’s Pesticide Reporting and Information workgroup heard from a new voice about the need for a centralized reporting system for basic information — information that is already legally required — on when and where pesticides are used commercially in our state.

In his testimony to the workgroup, President of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Roger Williams provided the startling statistic that, last year, Maryland beekeepers lost half of their beehives.

What’s really alarming, however, is that the cause of such a massive and continuing beehive loss remains unknown.

Fungicides and other pesticides together make up one of four major areas of concern for beehive loss. But without knowing which pesticides may have been used in areas where bees have died, beekeepers and researchers are at a loss. As Williams put it, “research regarding on-the-ground impacts is stymied because we lack specific data to guide monitoring studies on what may be impacting hives.”

Losing beehives isn’t just a problem for the beekeeper’s business – it also seriously affects farmers and our own food supply as well. Williams said food at risk includes seasonal fall favorites, like pumpkins and squash, that require bee pollination.

Researchers increasingly draw links between pesticides and serious illnesses like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, birth defects, and a host of others, as well as impacts on aquatic life, such as the Potomac River’s very own intersex fish. Lately the mystery surrounding worldwide beehive loss is leading researchers to question when, where and how pesticides are used and how they affect bees. Maybe the beekeepers’ demand for the most basic pesticide information could be a tipping point in the quest for a reporting database.

Scott Ator of the U.S. Geological Survey also testified, presenting detailed maps illustrating that numerous pesticides have been detected widely throughout Maryland’s groundwater.

While pesticide limits in drinking water were not often exceeded in the USGS study, limits for aquatic life often were. In fact, more than one toxin was found in 90 percent of Maryland’s streams – a problem for scientists, since they have little data or standards on the combined effects of these chemical compounds. When asked if pesticides data would help his research, Ator replied that “any information we have to lower uncertainties would improve our ability to understand these compounds.”

One troubling example Ator provided was the prevalence and persistence of the pesticide dieldrin, which was outlawed in the U.S. in 1987 due to “harmful effects on humans, fish, and wildlife.” However, groundwater studies a decade later revealed that 70 percent of wells still tested positive for dieldrin.

Williams said that “honeybees may well be the new canary in the coalmine, and their loss should speak to all of us.”

Ator’s presentation about the prevalence of pesticides in our waterways, underscores that humans are likely  the canary in the coalmine when it comes to pesticides and other toxic chemicals. That’s why basic information about where, when and how these chemicals are used must be shared with researchers.

Now that the workgroup has spent three work sessions listening to the experts (read coverage of these previous meetings here and here), the workgroup co-chairs Senator Manno and Delegate Lafferty have tasked  the workgroup with getting down to the real work.

At the October 17th meeting, the workgroup will be talking about its primary charge: “to identify any data gaps in pesticide use and reporting that need to be filled and how best to fill them.”  The meeting is open to the public and is held in the House Environmental Matters Committee Room in Annapolis.

The time for talking about the problem is over; the time to work on solutions has come. The workgroup has just three more meetings over the next few months to develop recommendations for workable legislation that we can pass in the 2014 Maryland General Assembly session.

Because of our united efforts in 2013 this workgroup was established.

Stay tuned – we will soon once again need the power of our collective voices to speak out about why we need comprehensive information on pesticide use in Maryland — for the sake of the bees that ensure our food supply and for safe water and healthy kids.