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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.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 159 No 1, January 2019, pp. 77-79.

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.

Assigning Blame

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

References

  1. Allen W. 2008. The War on Bugs. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  2. 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.
The pesticide problem: It’s hard to know what our bees get into, but the sudden appearance of a large pile below the entrance is often a sign of pesticides.
The pesticide problem: It’s hard to know what our bees get into, but the sudden appearance of a large pile below the entrance is often a sign of pesticides. Image by rostichep from Pixabay

Comments

Granny Roberta
Reply

What do you do with the hives? The frames?

And I am so sorry for your loss.

Rusty
Reply

Roberta,

They are still sitting unoccupied in my yard. I cleaned out the dead and just left them. Haven’t decided what to do next.

Susan M.
Reply

Rusty, I am so sorry for your loss. Words can’t describe how frustrated and saddened I am by the overuse of chemicals in all areas of our life. I hope that these kinds of losses at the very least will bring awareness to the dangers of pesticides and the cost to people and nature.

Plant Based Mama
Reply

This spoke to my heart. Been anxiously watching my three hives emerge from winter, plotting my alternative lawn, and coaching the kids in my community to make better choices. Thanks for sharing the tragic story of your bees and thoughts on how we can chose to be better.

Chet Calhoun
Reply

Great article!

Carl Miller
Reply

Hello Rusty,

I am not a defender of lawns. However, once a new home is built, the bare soil around it would be washed away by rain and the runoff would cause erosion with the result being sediment in storm drains and streams. What’s the most economical, effective, least labor intensive solution? Plant grass. Grass seed is relatively cheap, light, easy to transport, easy to plant, and covers a lot of ground quickly. Grass has a fibrous root system which holds soil in place preventing erosion. Contractors spread the grass seed. If the new homeowner wants to prevent soil erosion and runoff, he is forced to take care of the grass to keep the soil surrounding his home in place. And the chemical and fertilizer companies are happy to help him do so.

Carl

Rusty
Reply

Carl,

But it doesn’t have to be just grass. Back in the “old days” grass seed came with clover mixed it. With clover, you get a great root system and there is no need to fertilize because clover is a nitrogen fixer. But of course, the fertilizer companies don’t make any money.

Steve Rodney
Reply

Heartbreaking and very true. But don’t step on the spider. Move it outside where it can help balance the ecosystem.

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

A very good point, indeed!

Patrick
Reply

Great article. It wasn’t until I owned bees that I realized the importance of the plants that most of society deems undesirable. I haven’t used fertilizer or pesticides on my lawn since, and I treasure many of the wild things that grow in the yard. I still mow my lawn, but I cut it higher and less frequently. I educate people about the importance of wild flowers and “weeds” whenever I can, but I don’t ask or expect them to change. I just want them to understand a different perspective that values nature and environment over the “perfect lawn”.

JWPalmer
Reply

Heartbreaking. I am not embarrassed at all to invite fellow beekeepers to my backyard, about 1/2 an acre, which rarely gets mowed and is covered in white, purple, and yellow flowers. Later it will be covered in Dutch clover and won’t get mowed until late summer. No weed killers or insecticides. I just have to check myself for ticks when coming in.

Tim Fisher
Reply

Thank you! I grew up on a farm in PA and now live in a Washington DC suburb. I have long argued that farmers are unfairly regulated and my neighbors are not! I watch them dump all kinds of chemicals on their yards, then watch it wash down the gutter. I have bees in both places and my farm bees do far better in survival while my city bees produce more honey …but seldom survive. The reason is obvious to me!

Susan Knilans
Reply

I think it would be much easier to create “safe” pesticides than to get millions of people to read fine print and do what it says. These product–especially when mixed in the soil below–become toxic nightmares for us and for every living creature on the planet. You may say big Ag didn’t kill your bees. But big pharma did.

Janice Barczys
Reply

Hello, I am a backyard beekeeper and I am passionate about this issue as well. I am seeing post after post on my social media feed asking for recommendations on companies to come spray their yards for ticks. What can I say to these people as an alternative to this? They are afraid of Lyme and feel that the risk of Lyme is greater than the impact of spraying their yard.

Rusty
Reply

Janice,

I never even thought about that. We have a sign at the entrance to our property that says, “Warning: Tick Habitat.” I like the sign because it keeps people away. Spraying for them never even entered my mind. I just check for them after working outside.

Anna S.
Reply

Wow. I am so sorry, Rusty. I am sad and angry. Poor bees 🙁

People are not just careless, they are ignorant. I taught for 9 years, and I am now convinced most people are unwilling to learn and/or do anything that takes them out of their comfort zone. I have told people that spraying chemicals with unknown long-term effects on human health and environment is irresponsible and some looked at me in disbelief. I have a degree in bioengineering, so I can actually explain what the ingredients are …

My husband and I recently bought a house with 0.5 acres of backyard, trees, and a little garden. I am getting rid of ALL lawn and will plant flowers and a ground cover. We actually have seen ground-nesting bees feasting on the crocuses, so we are very motivated to plant more. We also rent a garden plot and saw native bees getting nectar from some little white flowers, no idea what they are, but they are staying for the bees. We will plant our vegetables around them. Needless to say, we do not spray, and we really don’t have to, because our organic vegetables are very hardy.

I am so sorry. How can someone possibly think that whatever they sprayed that smells so bad is harmless, is beyond my comprehension. Unfortunately, my opinion is that it is difficult to make people change the way they do things because, (1) they lack the understanding of what is going on, mostly because they are more interested in watching TV and similar frivolous activities, than learning, and (2) they want comfort, no matter what.

Yes, most people have no idea how much harm they do. My experience is that a lot of them don’t care. Oh, yes, and then there is the absurd fear of just about anything that flies or crawls. Modern society. Poor bees …

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

You are right about people not wanting to move out of their comfort zone. Yesterday my husband was explaining to some friends that we don’t use moss killer or bug killer or weed killer or fertilizer. They were dumbstruck, saying only that they needed it. No one stops using it long enough to find out if they need it.

As for learning, I think many people are so afraid they won’t be able to learn the science behind something that they just don’t try. Somehow, elementary teachers make science boring instead of exciting. When I was in grade school a teacher took a banana out of his pocket and took a bite. Then he dipped the rest of it in dry ice for a second, took it out, and threw it against the chalkboard. The banana broke like glass (and so did the chalkboard) but he made a scientist out of me!

Eileen Jankord
Reply

Thanks for educating and sharing information that helps influence behavior.

More info needed – how to manage bugs in a bee-friendly manner – lots of options that lots of people don’t know about.

Rusty
Reply

Eileen,

Yes, I agree.

Julia
Reply

Fantastic post. Thank you for all you do!

Lisa
Reply

Hello Rusty-

I enjoy your postings and the rich source of information you provide to such a large audience! Your point about pesticides was well taken. Thank you for sharing this.

However, in the section “The Largest Irrigated Crop” you conclude with commentary hinting of other environmental issues. Perhaps you would like to revisit and share with your followers the scientific information we all learned in grade school regarding “photosynthesis”. Instead of perpetuating false information about carbon, we might all be reminded that carbon is a NECESSITY for ALL of life on earth. Particularly plants, which our pollinators rely on for survival. As humans we rely on carbon and photosynthesis for oxygen and for our own food supply.

No carbon = no life, friends.

May we use our own God-given ability for logic and reason rather than trusting corporate/government agendas that are self-serving.

All the best,

Lisa

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

I’m not sure I follow your argument here. All green plants use carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, not just grass. You don’t need lawn to sequester carbon. Also, I just read several related articles that explained that in atmospheres extra-high in carbon, plants produce more sugars. So in the same volume of plant material you have fewer nutrients, meaning animals would have to eat more food to get the same of amount of vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Studies have shown that some pollen types have less nutrition than they used to, probably due to more carbon in the atmosphere. This could account for some amount of pollinator decline. This is all early research, of course, but it is scary nevertheless.

Cregg
Reply

Lost 4 hives last year to pesticides, thriving and looking great one day, dead the next. Thousands of dead bees littered the ground and found 4 dead birds in the yard apparently from eating the dead or dying bees.

Rusty
Reply

Cregg,

So sad, and those are only the ones we see. The native pollinators don’t even get counted.

Sean Govan
Reply

I have always hated lawns. They seem like such a pointless, boring waste of space. My favorite part of a lawn is the flowering weeds, which unfortunately get beheaded when I mow out of courtesy to the neighbors. It depresses me to remove those little spots of color and variety.

E.T. Ash
Reply

1) Without testing you are making some large assumptions about why this hive died. I witness this here frequently and it seem this mind set is not about education or experience.

2) It is often pointed out that farmers are constrained by economics in the use of agricultural chemicals.. In theory this sounds good but fail as a matter of practice.. The often overlooks (and hard to pin down) parameter is UNCERTAINTY … which is different from risk only in you can build a probability statement about risk but not so on UNCERTAINTY. How this works is some random event occurs which effects yields and the producer sets into practice doing something that may never occur again… his decision making (choice) is therefore defined by habit.

3) There are some natural things that will kill a bee and beehive just as certain as any man made product. And yes even some honeys that will accomplish the same ends. Add to this all the stuff that may be in a hive (The Honeybee Health Initiative is a good reference for how potentially large this problem really is) and which can act in a synergistic way to kill a bee or hive.

Gene in Central Texas…

Glen Buschmann
Reply

If only we could scoop up a beaker of dead bees and dust for fingerprints. Yours is the easy casualty — you replace the box of dead bees with live ones and move on. But within your story is the proverbial “Canary in the coal mine,” and for that reason we should put more emphasis on pesticide fingerprints. There are a lot of products, but only a few common ones in home use. Your bees managed to make it home from some unknown source, but what else has happened there? What about the dead zone suffered by the wild uncultivated short-distance pollinators? Is there a way to complete this story? Probably not. But I wonder if there is, could soon be, a way to find the bloody knife with the bloody fingerprints within the next bloodless hive? Because if you are right, this be murder.

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

As you say, there are a limited number of common household products, so even if you identify the product, how do you know who used it or where?

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Rusty–

True, you don’t know who and where. But if you can identify the weapon, you have enough to make a story and make a stink. Until then you’re just some foolish hysterical environmentalist et cetera. It takes facts and tenacity. You and I know that most hive losses are other than pesticide poisoning. At the same time, the careless beekeeper or overreaching activist can always find fault outside of themselves, and then the true poisonings can get lost in the muddle of whining and finger-pointing.

As you pointed out, poisoning is usually the fault of people who’ve gone off label. But just like over-the-counter medicine, if too many people get injured, a prescription becomes required for a med that was OTC, and in worse cases the medicine can even go away. Even a few stories that are rock solid could lead to changes in marketing and packaging and legislation and education. But we need proof, not rumor.

Rusty, I trust you to generally recognize why your bees died. I don’t trust most beekeepers to be able to do so. I don’t know that colony collapse disorder truly exists as a single disorder—and that is part of this conversation—nor who or what is to blame for pesticide poisonings. I do know that our best guess is not going to be enough.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Glen.

The purpose of this essay was to get people to think about their own pesticide use rather than just pointing the finger at someone else. What we do as individuals can have a cumulative and far-reaching effects.

One thing I deliberately glossed over was the health effects of these chemicals on humans. I think one day we will find a much tighter correlation between chemical use and human conditions such as cancer and autoimmune diseases. To me, that alone makes me wary of anything conceived in a test tube. I would rather take my chances with ticks and mosquitoes than with a chemical designed by corporations with a duty to their shareholders.

Chris Tornow
Reply

So sorry to hear that. We work so hard to keep them healthy and then there are things out of your control. So are you able to use those frames of brood and any honey stores? Is there a way to test what pesticide it might have been?

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I could have had it tested, but I didn’t. I was getting ready to leave town and I just didn’t want to mess with it. There was very little honey and I didn’t want to put the brood frames into healthy colonies.

Marian I
Reply

Rusty,

So sorry for your loss and our collective loss. Thank you for taking the time and writing so clearly—at least those who read it will get it. And now I have a great article to share with others who might also care. Perhaps a very small silver lining?

Gabby
Reply

Hi Rusty,

That’s a sad story. I have to agree with your point that pesticides are frequently misused and overused by homeowners. People freak out about bugs and I don’t understand why. I am a research assistant in the plant science dept of a state university. I have a plant science degree, a pesticide applicators license, and a certificate in biological control. Most farmers I work with in New England are trying to use fewer pesticides (they are a huge expense), while calls fielded from homeowners just want to know “what can I spray”?

Rusty
Reply

Gabby,

Yes! That is exactly why I think we need to educate the homeowners. Thanks for illustrating the problem.

Trish Stretton
Reply

I just had this same thing happen, only I think my neighbor sprayed herbicide over my hive and the surrounding area. Now, I have no bumblebees in my pineapple sage this year- not even one because they had been all over another plant near my hive. I can replace the honeybees but I cant replace or buy bumblebees….Gutted!!!

Rusty
Reply

Trish,

Your neighbor has no right to spray your property. Make sure you let him/her know. It’s just plain wrong.

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