The Pesticide in Our Own Backyards
Silence is a powerful thing. I was on my way to the compost bin when I noticed an enormous mound of dead bees in front of my strongest hive. No buzz issued from the landing board. No industrious thrum from above. The absence of sound shattered the morning.
I was dumbstruck. When I opened that hive on the previous day, bees boiled from the top. Beneath them, rows of glistening cells demanded a second honey super. The colony had overwintered without a hitch and was looking like a winner. But that was yesterday.
Today the colony was dead. Except for multiple frames of brood, some of it emerging as I watched, virtually no bees were left. Although most were on the ground with tongues extended, many had fallen between the frames, their lifeless bodies blocking the entrance.
I didn’t need to look further because I had witnessed this haunting scene before. Here today, gone tomorrow. Like the 50,000 bumble bees in an Oregon parking lot, my bees were destroyed by the careless application of pesticide.
The bees in the adjacent hive hadn’t a care in the world, or so it seemed. They came and went, darting into the sky and disappearing from view. Others jammed the entrance, heavy with pollen and purpose. Little did I know they were next.
When people complain about “the pesticide problem,” they often point to Big Ag. It’s easy to fault large corporate farms because they are, well, large and corporate. And because they are in a nebulous “other place,” it’s easy and comfortable to assign blame. While it’s true that many modern farms use an enormous amount of pesticide—probably way too much—they don’t have a corner on pesticide use. Not by a long shot. In fact, if pesticides were kept on the farm, my bees wouldn’t be dead.
I live in a rural area dominated by forest. Here, enormous trees like Douglas fir, western red cedar, and big-leaf maple grow like weeds. No farms dot the landscape. No animals graze in planted fields. Instead, most land that isn’t in trees is zoned rural residential.
The person who wiped out my bees was not a farmer but most likely a homeowner, someone who noticed bugs—maybe even bees—on a flowering tree or shrub and decided to “take care” of them. Most people have no idea that a plant in flower shouldn’t be sprayed, or why. Most have no idea that harm may come from their actions.
Home Pesticide Use
Not much has changed in the last thirty years. Way back in 1989 I wrote an editorial about home pesticide use for the newspaper where I worked. At the time, much controversy surrounded government spraying for the Mexican fruit fly in southern California. Although the city gave plenty of advance notice and did all their spraying at night, people were worried. While I understood their concern, I felt that the pesticide abuse I saw all around me was a bigger problem.
Not a week earlier I had watched a women at the newspaper office empty an entire can of flying insect killer on a hapless spider. The rest of us were left to breathe the fumes and clean the greasy spot from the baseboard. Meanwhile, not being an insect nor capable of flight, the spider sidled off, damp and annoyed.
To me, the women’s actions represented the difference between knowledgeable agricultural use of pesticides and emotional, irrational use of pesticides by people who don’t understand their power. The woman injected all those chemicals into our environment, not caring what else might be injured. She didn’t bother to see if it was the right formula for the job, nor did she consider collateral damage to her officemates. She didn’t measure the amount, and she didn’t figure her costs—a few dollars to inconvenience one spider is ludicrous.
And please don’t think I’m picking on women. I’ve watched my neighbor carelessly spray his fence line while his two preschool children played beside him, breathing the fog. The girl ate a candy bar while the boy shot a plastic dart into the pesticide-soaked grass, retrieving it again and again. The dad probably thought the stuff was harmless, and maybe it was. But do you really want to test that theory on your kids?
Pesticides are Expensive
Conversely, growers who use pesticide have a completely different mindset. If they don’t consider their costs, they won’t be able to stay in business. Not only are pesticides expensive to buy, but so is the equipment used to spray them, and the help hired to apply them.
Because the expense is great, growers are careful to identify what they are trying to kill. In an effort to control costs, they use the recommended rate of application, the optimum timing, and the proper method of distribution. It is easy to forget that farmers have a tremendous financial incentive to use as much as necessary, but as little as possible. They don’t think like our spider lady, who operates under the theory that if some is good, more is better.
We Are the Enemy
While it’s true that some tracts of agricultural land are doused in chemicals, people like us—homeowners, building supervisors, and land managers—are making the pesticide problem worse than it needs to be. It seems we have a cavalier attitude about our own pesticide use while we view the modern farm as an evil dispensary of poison.
Instead of squashing a bug or pulling a weed, we prefer to spray the interlopers with something we can’t see. Something that just “disappears” after we use it. Except it doesn’t.
If you want some insight into how much pesticide goes into homes and gardens, just take a folding lawn chair into your local home-improvement store and have a seat in the pesticide aisle. For a truly spectacular display, choose the first warm day of spring. The bags, bottles, and boxes fly off the shelves faster than the employees can stock them. Thousands of pounds go out the door, yet most of the labels will never be read and most of the precautions will never be heeded.
Bugs are Bad
No, Big Ag did not kill my bees. Most likely it was a person who sprayed a tree in flower. Many people spray when they see any type of insect, even if they don’t recognize it. Others spray to avoid getting stung or bitten. In the meantime, a foraging honey bee returned to her hive and reported a rich cache of nectar. Following her instruction, her nest mates gathered at the site and, by the end of the day, all were dead.
Although a few people want to kill anything that moves, I believe that most simply don’t understand the consequences of spraying. Even when the label says, “Must not be used when plants are in flower,” many don’t understand why that is important. One woman told me she heard that pesticides can make the flowers wilt, but she tried it and her flowers are fine. An older man told me the warnings meant the chemicals would mask the flowers’ fragrance, but since he couldn’t smell, it didn’t matter to him.
I don’t know when we became so careless about pesticides. Most of us don’t remember when school children were dusted with DDT and read Dr. Seuss cartoons featuring Flit bug killer.1 Nevertheless, I’ve always thought that selling pesticides in the grocery store is a bad idea. It makes them feel safe. After all, we are generally not fearful of things sold alongside our food. When we toss a can of insecticide into the cart along with potatoes, baby food, and pork chops, it seems harmless. They wouldn’t sell it in a food store if it were dangerous, right?
The Largest Irrigated Crop
In terms of acreage, the largest irrigated crop in America is lawn. People use weed killers, insect killers, slug killers, mole killers, fungus killers, and moss killers to keep it green and flat. Every season seems to require a different chemical which someone is happy to provide. Then we water the lawn with our ever-diminishing water supply, and let it run off into our increasingly polluted streams, rivers, and lakes. Then we mow it—powered by fossil fuels that send carbon dioxide into the over-loaded atmosphere. What a system.
The history of lawns is a fascinating study of social pressure. Apparently, lawns developed as a status symbol in England back when only royalty could afford such a luxury. Everyone else needed every square foot to grow food and graze animals. Because grass lawns required resources instead of providing them, they became a demonstration of excess and wealth.
Soon, people all over the world tried to prove their worth by planting lawns. Grass lawns cropped up everywhere and now cover 40 million acres of the lower 48 states. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, US lawns require 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas, and 70 million pounds of pesticide annually.2
But the table has turned and we’ve become slaves not to the king, but to our lawns. We grow lawns to impress our neighbors—or so I’ve been told—but when is the last time you were impressed by someone’s grass? How often do you say, “Mr. X must be really important and successful, because look at his lawn!”?
Worse, legions of homeowner associations and local governments mandate that you maintain a lawn that suitably represents the community. People get fined or cited for not following the protocol, yet we are damaging our environment in service of something that has little value. How will we ever turn the tide on pesticide use if perfect lawns are required by law?
A Problem of Excess
Let’s think about one of those homeowners for a moment. He is a law-abiding citizen who just sprayed his lawn to avoid the wrath of the lawn police. Now that he’s done, what should he do with the pint that’s left in the bottom of the sprayer? He thinks for a moment, then decides to apply the rest. It doesn’t really matter that he’s already spread the maximum recommended dose because, seriously, what else would he do with it?
If you add together all the extra pints that are applied because the homeowner or property manager doesn’t know what to do with it, that alone would probably make a tidy profit for the manufacturers. It’s like ketchup. The profit in ketchup is stuck to the insides of the bottle. Even if it’s only five percent, if millions of people use only 95 percent of each bottle, the manufacturer can sell a heck of a lot more ketchup.
Luckily, more ketchup isn’t hurting anyone unless you consider all the extra plastic bottles that end up in the ocean. But the extra pesticide is probably hurting something—perhaps your honey bees. Or maybe it destroys some beneficial insects, like those that eat the dead things that would otherwise pile to the sky. Or cute things like lightening bugs that once charmed generations of children.
We Can’t Have It Both Ways
Yes, silence is a powerful thing. In retrospect, I was lucky because I lost only two colonies of honey bees. The others, further away, found different places to forage and were spared. For that, I am grateful.
But the colony deaths reminded me of the larger problem. We cannot expect commercial growers to operate without these powerful products as long as we demand them for our own use. We cannot expect changes in policy as long as we are unwilling to step on a spider or pull a dandelion.
No, Big Ag did not kill my bees. They were executed by someone not too different from you and me. They were doomed by a person doing what he thought was right, using a product with a label too confusing to decipher. I honestly don’t blame the individual. Instead I blame a society that encourages short-sighted thinking and devalues the natural world.
If we stopped spraying the things we grow at home, if we stopped planting lawns or at least decreased their size, imagine the opportunity for pollinators, beneficial insects, and the magical creatures of our childhoods. We simply must remember that the best place to begin fixing the pesticide problem in right in our own backyards.
Honey Bee Suite
- Allen W. 2008. The War on Bugs. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Talbot M. (2016. September 30). More Sustainable (and Beautiful) Alternatives to a Grass Lawn. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/more-sustainable-and-beautiful-alternatives-grass-lawn.