Cities can take steps to protect bees’ vital place in agriculture

Last Monday, the city of Seattle unanimously passed a resolution prohibiting the use of neonicotinoid (or ‘neonic’) pesticides on city-owned property. City departments worked to create the resolution and will seek to use only pollinator-friendly methods of weed and pest control. How does a ban on pesticides in Seattle have a positive impact on bees? And, what does this mean for Everett and Snohomish County?

I testified in support of the ban as a representative of Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). NCAP is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from harm caused by pesticides. Our programs are focused on advancing sustainable agriculture through practice and policy, reducing pesticide use in urban environments, and securing better safeguards for wildlife and waterways most affected by pesticide pollution. After recent neonic bans, we worked in Eugene, Oregon, to promote alternatives and Spokane to encourage planting bee-friendly habitat.

Our nation’s food and farming system relies upon honeybees for continued prosperity. Of the food we eat, 1 in 3 bites is depends on pollination by honeybees. In Washington, the production value of crops pollinated by honeybees is approximately $2.1 billion.

North America’s native bees rely on local food and nesting habitat in residential and agricultural areas to survive. Native bees are particularly important to the pollination of specialty crops, such as blueberries, grapes, cherries, apples, and cranberries. Native bees are also important pollinators of flowers and gardens in urban and rural areas.

Unfortunately, bee populations are declining at record-breaking rates across the U.S., harming our agriculture, gardens and economy. Scientific evidence increasingly points to pesticides as a key catalyst driving the die-offs of bees, in combination with disease, poor nutrition and other factors. Neonicotinoids— a class of neurotoxic pesticides that kill insects by blocking nerve impulses—are particularly harmful to bees and other pollinators because they move systemically throughout the plant to the pollen or nectar and can persist in the soil for several years.

Despite this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not taken decisive action to protect pollinators from neonicotinoids. By contrast, in December, the European Union instituted a two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, citing concerns about potential harms to bees. With beekeepers reporting unprecedented losses over the last few years, the need for action is increasingly urgent.

Seattle City Council took up the charge and responded with what the council is referring to as a ‘modest step’ by prohibiting the use of neonic pesticides and urging businesses not to sell plants treated by these harmful chemicals. Additionally, the resolution asks the EPA to suspend the registration of neonic pesticides and asks the U.S. House to pass the Save the American Pollinators Act (there is no corresponding bill in the Senate).

Even more important is the message this step sends: You don’t need pesticides to have a world-class city. Seattle is acknowledging the impact of harmful pesticides on our wildlife, water and public health. As council member Mike O’Brien stated, pesticides are not fully tested for safety, and people and wildlife have become the guinea pigs. In the case of neonics, bees are exposing their toxic side effects and we should use precaution.

Some ask, if they don’t use neonics won’t they use something more harmful? But, neonics are used prophylactically, before an indication of insect problems and are thought to be overused. We need to stress precaution when it comes to public, economic and environmental health and that’s why NCAP supported this historic resolution.

There are simple steps anyone can do to protect pollinators. First, avoid pesticide products and plants containing neonicotinoids with the highest toxicity to bees. Active ingredients to avoid: imidacloprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran and thiamethoxam. Second, grow a variety of neonicotinoid-free flowering plants throughout the growing season to provide bees with a constant food source. Third, contact your representative and ask them to support the Saving America’s Pollinators Act, HR 2692. More information is available at www.pesticide.org. Finally, ask your city or county council to follow Seattle’s lead and take steps to protect pollinators.

There is nothing to stop Everett and other cities from taking the same step as Seattle. Your city can be a safer place to live and work for people and bees.

Megan Dunn works in Everett as the Healthy People and Communities program director for the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides. She has worked with the Everett Parks Department to reduce pesticide use at city parks.

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