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Mares: Pollinators

Vermont has just held its first ever conference on beetles, bees and butterflies, to consider the threats that all pollinators face in Vermont. The conference was a response to President Obama’s directive to create a national strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.

As a member of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, I went as a representative of the honeybees, pollinators for roughly $20 billion of U.S. crops. Worldwide, all pollinators are critical to $500 billion dollars’ worth of food crops.

Conference speakers described a witch's brew of stresses. Honeybees are threatened because of their intensive management and transport for crop pollination, the globalization of parasitic mites and diseases, and nutritional deficiencies and pesticide exposure outside and INSIDE the hives.  By contrast, threats to wild bees and other pollinators include pesticides, pathogens and climate change.

Common threats to ALL pollinators include the loss of habitat - through edge to edge cultivation for farm corn, the early cutting of forage crops, and in home-owners'  obsession with uniformly green lawns.

Numerous speakers pleaded for an end to prophylactic (or automatic) application of pesticides to crops and lawns.  One speaker urged the audience to accept more "messy" gardens which would be richer in nutrients and less toxic to pollinators. "And stop treating dandelions as horticultural terrorists," I thought! "They provide great bee food!"

Meanwhile in Montpelier, a bill proposing to ban certain pesticides was amended to regulate what are called “treated articles.” This is the term the Environmental Protection Agency uses to denote products treated with pesticides, such as utility poles, commercial crop seeds, and lumber. That bill passed 123-16.

I’m not sure we need a ban on neonicitinoids because one of the largest beekeepers in Vermont manages to keep hundreds of colonies healthy right next to fields full of seed treated corn. And that kind of ban could create conflict between dairy farmers and the rest of agriculture.

Twenty years ago, advocates for honeybees were forced to compete with other pollinators for government funding and public attention. The co-author of a book called, "The Forgotten Pollinators" actually burst out at one meeting, "I hate honey bees!" Today, pollinator advocates of all stripes are more likely to agree than disagree.

Working together still isn’t always easy, but the conference atmosphere was resolute, reminding me of Ben Franklin and his revolutionary words that "We must hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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