Environment Montana asks governor to ban bee-killing pesticides

Montana is one of the top honey-producing states, so one environmental group is asking the state and homeowners to stop using bee-killing pesticides.

Over the past five weeks, canvassers have been knocking on doors in Missoula, Helena and Bozeman to educate residents about the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides and asking them to sign petitions asking Gov. Steve Bullock to ban certain pesticide uses.

The campaign, dubbed “No Bees, No Food,” was organized to highlight the fact that people need bees because about 90 percent of our food supply depends on bees for pollination. Locally, that applies to apple and cherry tress and alfalfa.

However, bee populations worldwide are in decline, and colony collapse is a big problem. A University of Vermont study found that the U.S. wild bee population declined by 23 percent from 2008 to 2013. The most worrisome shortfalls occurred in key agricultural regions, including California, the Pacific Northwest and the Mississippi River Valley.

Part of the cause is widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides in agricultural and urban areas. About 60 products contain neonicotinoids, although in late May, 12 products were cancelled as the result of a court settlement related to the Endangered Species Act.

Even in small amounts, neonicotinoids interfere with bee behavior, which can cause whole colonies to collapse. The toxicity of neonicotinoid pesticides to bees has been shown to be 7,000 times higher than even the toxicity of DDT, a substance banned in 1972.

And now, a Canadian study is showing that neonicontinoids also kill hummingbirds.

In an effort to reverse that decline, Environment Montana director Skye Borden said 15 workers knocked on thousands of doors and collected more than 4,300 petitions. Borden said many residents were already tapped into the neonicotinoid problem.

“We had over a 50 percent ‘yes’ rate – I don’t know that we’ve ever had that before. A good campaign is usually in the 30s. But people really love bees,” Borden said. “I feel like every day our people came back with a story where they knocked on a door and somebody brought them to their backyard to show them their hive or they gave them some food that was made from an orchard that was pollinated by bees. A lot of people have personal bee stories – it was really interesting.”

Borden delivered the petitions to Bullock on Friday, but the group is still collecting signatures online.

Borden said the governor could work with the state Department of Agriculture to ban two uses of neonicotinoids: neonicotinoid-coated seeds and retail sales of neonicotinoid pesticide sprays. Connecticut and Maryland already have such bans in place.

About 80 percent of corn seed is coated with neonicotinoids, and barley, lentils and peas are to a lesser extent. The problem is that the resulting plant remains toxic to bees throughout its lifetime.

“(Coating seeds) is prophylactic, and in many cases, it’s unnecessary,” Borden said. “A 2014 EPA study on soybeans found the benefit was zero dollars.”

In town, the biggest problem is people spraying such pesticides on their property. Borden would ask the city of Missoula to institute a local ban, but state law doesn’t allow that.

Home Depot and Lowe’s stores have committed to phasing out the sale of neonicotinoid-treated plants within the year, but that isn’t the case for some other stores.

“Ideally, we would love the Department of Agriculture to act on these most problematic uses right away. But a good next step would be for the Legislature to permit individual municipalities to make their own rules about pesticide sales,” Borden said.

In the meantime, education, like the canvassing that Environment Montana did, may help.

“I’ll be keeping in touch with the governor and we’ll be formulating our plan based on what I hear back from him in the next couple weeks,” Borden said.