Beekeepers respond to EPA pesticide change

Photo by Michael Kelly Rodger Rowell, a Williamstown beekeeper, displays the type of box used for bee colonies. A recent EPA ruling lifted a ban on the use of an insecticide to which bees have a particular vulnerability.

Although they can inflict painful stings when disturbed, bees are sensitive creatures, and it’s difficult to overstate their importance to human welfare.

When the Environmental Protection Agency announced early this month the lifting of a rule that banned use of sulfoxaflor, an insecticide developed by Dow to replace several other compounds to which insects had become resistant, Mid-Ohio Valley beekeepers saw it as another in a host of threats to their colonies.

“You lose bees every year, that’s just part of it, and I have no idea if insecticides are the cause,” recreational beekeeper Rodger Rowell of Williamstown said Monday. “Fortunately, where I am, there are very little insecticides used. A few people around here have chemical trucks spray their yards, but there’s no use on the fields around here.”

Rowell has about 10 boxes of bees set up on the edge of forest where it meets a big field sown with clover on his property, just west of I-77 on East Eighth Street. Although fairly modest in size, it is home to tens of thousands of honey bees.

“You see losses of 25 to 35 percent a year, sometimes they get a bug, other times the queen dies. Bees have been around for 30 million years, and they’re a collective, they’re like the Borg in Star Trek, the only thing they think about is the survival of the colony,” he said, relaxing on the swing he calls his office, on a slope in front of his house overlooking the valley. Except for bees coming and going – in straight and determined lines – to and from a box on his back porch, the hives’ occupants are unnoticeable.

“My neighbors, they don’t even know they’re here unless I tell them,” he said.

Insecticides are just one of innumerable threats to bee colonies, and one that depends on neighboring landowners to mitigate.

Sulfoxaflor was first registered in 2013, developed by Dow Chemical after a host of other products intended to control bugs on crops had become less effective because insects had developed resistance to them. A federal court ordered the EPA to take it out of use in 2015 because the agency hadn’t acquired enough data to determine its effect on honeybees. This month, the EPA ruled that its use could be re-instated after EPA “reevaluated the data.” Like other insecticides, sulfoxaflor – marketed by Dow under the names Closer, Transform and Isoflex – comes with federally-mandated instructions on its labels, intended in part to minimize impact on bees. The directions generally instruct users not to apply it during times when plants bloom and pollinators like bees are attracted to the plant, to notify beekeepers within a mile of the treatment area, to minimize the risk by applying the chemical when bees are least active, about two hours before sunset, and to be mindful of wind drift when applying it.

“These changes reduced the risk to bees below EPA’s level of concern such that no additional data requirements are triggered,” the EPA said in a statement announcing the decision.

Michael DeVaughn is the apiary inspector for five counties – Washington, Belmont, Monroe, Guernsey and Muskingum – and owner of Indian Run Apirary near Marietta.

“We don’t really have any way to protect our honeybees from pesticides, that’s not in the hands of beekeepers. It’s in the hands everybody else – we know to be careful about pesticides,” he said Monday. “A lot of times I get calls, mostly in August, that somebody has a problem with bees dying in a hive. I can just ask questions, I don’t even have to go out to look, there’s a big pile of dead honeybees in front of the hive, they open it up and see the remaining bees, they’re stumbling around like they’re drunk, that means they’ve gotten into a pesticide and brought it back. Within 48 hours, that whole hive can be dead.”

Honeybees, he said, can forage a radius of up to two miles from their hive.

“If you run the math, that’s up to 8,000 acres. That’s such a large area, there’s no way to control what’s going on,” he said.

Beekeepers, he said, can register the location of their hives with the state Department of Agriculture, and anyone who applies pesticides to crops is supposed to consult that registry to determine whether there are bees in the area that could be affected, and act accordingly.

“But there’s nothing cut in stone. Anything you buy comes with labeling, and it’s federal law, but as a beekeeper, you’re just taking your chances, and honestly, the chances aren’t really very good,” he said.

Rowell said he raises bees for the honey, which he says is best eaten with the comb, straight out of the box. The honey has different flavors, depending on where the bees have been on their pollination trips.

“Really, there’s nothing like it in the world,” he said.

DeVaughn said a full third of the world’s agriculture crops depend on pollination by honeybees.

“Think about it, you go into a store one day, there’s no apples, no grapes, no strawberries, nor anything made from them,” he said. “The next time you bite into an apple pop-tart, thank a honeybee.”


• One of the class of sulfoxamine insecticides developed by Dow Chemical for farmers to use on crops that suffer from damage because of aphids and other piercing and sucking insects.

• Registered in 2013 for use in situations where farmers previously used carbamates, neonicontoid, organophosphate and pryethroid insecticides, and insects had developed resistance to those chemicals.

• Use suspended in 2015 after a federal court found that not enough data had been collected to determine the effect of sulfoxaflor on bees.

• Use reauthorized and expanded in July 2019, with the EPA having determined, from re-evaluation of existing data, that harm to bees could be minimized by following application restrictions.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.