Spring has officially sprung in Massachusetts, kicking off the start of planting season for home gardeners and the pollinating season for bees. But the change of seasons has also brought along a new regulation from the state to protect the bees from the gardeners.
Earlier this month, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to use regulations to restrict the use of widely used pesticides — called "neonicotinoids," or "neonics" for short — that can negatively impact the health of bees and other pollinators. After years of advocacy from local beekeepers, legislators and various interest groups, the state’s Pesticide Board Subcommittee voted to categorize neonics as "restricted-use products" and to remove them from all retail store shelves. A handful of other states have passed legislation restricting neonics, but Massachusettes is the first to do so through regulations.
Under the new rules, homeowners will no longer be able to buy or use neonics made for "turf/lawn, tree/shrub, ornamental and vegetable and flower gardens." The regulation goes into affect starting July of next year.
“The Pesticide Board Subcommittee determined that these uses may pose unreasonable adverse effects to the environment as well as pollinators, when taking into account the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of their use in the commonwealth,” a spokesperson for the Pesticide Board Subcommittee wrote in an email.
A variety of garden and yard care products containing neonics are currently available to the public — things like flower care fertilizers, grub control sprays and even flea collars for pets.
Beekeepers across the state say that neonics are more damaging to their colonies than other types of pesticides. Neonics are notoriously systemic, meaning that they can be absorbed by a plant and distributed to every part of it: roots, stem, flowers and fruit. They can also last in the environment much longer than other types of pesticides, according to Anita Deeley, founder of Beverly Bees.
“Neonicotinoids last for a long time," she said. "They get into every cell of the plant. They get put into the soil that the plant grows in. They go into our water supply. And they get into the pollen and the nectar that the bees eat. So that’s how the bees get poisoned.”
Mark Amato, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, has been working in the agricultural industry for over 40 years and uses neonics at his own farm in Concord.
“The reason I do is because they were developed to be much safer for me to use than chemistry that existed before neonics,” he said. “Some of the older [pesticides] were very toxic to handle and required a lot of precautions that made application very difficult and dangerous.”
Amato credits neonics for their effectiveness at eliminating pests that were driving him out of business. “I’ve planted strawberries every year for the last 40 years, and it’s become more and more difficult to grow strawberries because of an insect pest that we’ve been fighting called a root weevil,” he said. “It became almost impossible to manage this pest — it almost drove me out of the strawberry business. But when [neonics] came along, I was able to solve that riddle. For the last ten years, I’ve been raising strawberries successfully.”
Amato said that he’s not aware of any alternative products that work as well as neonics do for pest control on his vegetable and small fruit crops. The state’s new rules will not prevent him from using the pesticides, since farmers who become licensed applicators are exempted. Other certified applicators, including landscapers and arborists will also still be allowed to use neonics.
But Drew Toher, community resource and policy director at Beyond Pesticides, encourages farmers to consider an ecological pesticide approach.
“We have a large and growing market of alternatives in organic production that could replace chemical farming with the right government incentives,” he said.
Canada and the European Union have eliminated outdoor use of neonics and have faced no major disruptions to their agricultural industries, according to Toher.
“Folks have preconceived notions about organic being too costly, but what we have to understand is that these pesticides cost us more than the price on the bottle,” he said. “The true cost of pesticide use is the cost to clean up water, air, soil contamination, the loss of pollinator and ecosystem services, the cost of public health. So if we factor all those in, organic almost certainly would be the less expensive option.”
Some local advocates say they hope the new pesticide rule will help the state’s failing bee populations. Last winter, Massachusetts beekeepers reported a 47% drop in annual colony numbers, according to a survey from the Bee Informed Partnership. While multiple factors impact bee health, a scientific review conducted by the Pesticide Board Subcommittee found that 42 out of 43 studies proved neonicotinoids negatively affect pollinators. The one outlier was a study funded by the pesticide industry.
Neonics are very toxic to invertebrates of all kinds, not just honeybees, said Dick Callahan, legislative director for the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association.
“Honeybees are really the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “What’s happening is the whole insect population around the world is crashing — around 40 to 50% of insect species are declining.”
When insect numbers drop, so too do bird populations that rely on insects for food, setting off a chain reaction. “So [neonics] are having a devastating environmental effect. But this regulation will minimize its uses around the home by the average home gardener,” Callahan said.
While the new regulation isn’t a cure-all, Callahan sees it as a testament to the beekeeping community’s advocacy. “I think we’ve worked on this for like ten years. It’s a lot of work for a small but significant critical advance, so we’re happy about it,” he said.