Thousands of beekeepers across Massachusetts are feeling the sting of a proposed state plan they say fails to curb the use of harmful pesticides and makes it harder to protect their increasingly imperiled hives.
Bees, which pollinate about one-third of crops in the United States and account for some $15 billion in revenue for the agricultural industry, have suffered in recent years. Roughly half of all bee colonies now collapse at the end of each winter, scientists say, double the amount of a decade ago.
Beekeepers say the use of certain kinds of pesticides is largely to blame for the problem, known as colony collapse disorder, and in Massachusetts they have urged state officials to limit their use.
But the new plan, released last week by the state Department of Agricultural Resources, listed pesticides as the last in a long list of potential culprits, which also include parasites, diseases, a lack of genetic diversity, and climate change.
The “pollinator protection” plan, presented to beekeepers at a tense meeting this week, also calls for some changes to the state’s apiary inspection program, encourages more outreach and safety training for farmers and others who spray pesticides, and outlines a variety of other changes for beekeepers.
The proposed reforms have enraged beekeepers, who say the state has ignored their plan to address the problems and underestimated the threat pesticides present to bees. They complain that the plan was drafted mainly by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, a private group that represents many of the state’s nearly 8,000 farms, many of which rely heavily on pesticides.
“This is egregious,” said Ann Rein, president of Plymouth County Beekeepers Association and an author of the rival plan. “The beekeepers’ plan would help bees. [The department’s] plan will not.”
While the dispute may appear marginal, the stakes are high. Massachusetts relies on bees to pollinate crops on nearly half of its 523,000 acres of farmland, and colonies have suffered mightily in recent years.
Rein and other beekeepers said the state’s plan presumes that farmers should have more influence over the industry than beekeepers.
“I take complete umbrage at the asinine thought they know how to take care of bees better than we do,” Rein said.
State environmental officials insisted that the plan includes suggestions from beekeepers and made it clear the proposals are not final. They plan to hold additional public meetings this month.
“The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources recognizes the critical role of beekeepers in Massachusetts and looks forward to continuing to work with the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, beekeeping groups, and stakeholders to develop a final Massachusetts pollinator protection plan that ensures apiaries across the Commonwealth remain viable,” said Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, in a statement.
The agency declined to make John Lebeaux, the department’s commissioner, available for an interview.
Farm Bureau president Ed Davidian, who owns a 200-acre fruit and vegetable farm in Northborough, said he has listened to the beekeepers’ concerns and worked with them to incorporate their ideas into the plan.
He said farmers do their best to limit the use of neonicotinoids, a pesticide used more commonly in recent years to control insects and other pests. But the chemicals are safer for people than harsher pesticides, he said, saying the collapse of beehives have more to do with parasitic mites.
“I do understand that my livelihood rests on bees, and we use the pesticides as sparingly as possible,” he said. “But if we’re going to feed the world, there can’t be an all-out ban on pesticides.”
Beekeepers, however, said they felt Davidian ignored their interests at Monday’s meeting in Westborough, and that he and state officials are promoting the interests of pesticide companies.
“It was very upsetting, very hard to keep my cool at that meeting, especially after Davidian spoke to us in a condescending way,” said Lucy Tabit, owner of Hana’s Honey in Westport, where she manages several dozen hives. “We gave them a list of things that the plan didn’t do that it should.”
Beekeepers said the plan calls for beekeepers to avoid pesticides, rather than curbing them. It fails to identify or create space for bees and other pollinators like butterflies and moths to forage in pesticide-free areas, and strips beekeepers of their ability to teach others their craft, instead placing the responsibility with state officials, they said.
The state’s plan also imposes “unfair regulation” and “unrealistic policies” on beekeepers, preventing them from being able to manage their bees successfully, they say.
State officials declined to answer questions about the beekeepers’ complaints.
In 2012, a Harvard School of Public Health study found that a neonicotinoid known as imidacloprid, a relatively new pesticide used for crops such as corn and soybeans, was the probable culprit in the destruction of honeybee colonies around the world.
Bees are exposed to the pesticide through nectar from plants or through high-fructose corn syrup, which beekeepers use to feed their bees, the researchers said. Corn grown in the United States has been treated with imidacloprid since 2005, a year before scientists began noticing a sharp rise in colony collapse disorder.
Wayne Andrews, a beekeeper from Dighton, said he has witnessed the destruction firsthand, and hopes the state takes the dangers seriously.
“Bees are really taking a beating,” he said. “We are the experts, and we hope the state stops ignoring us. We all need to take a deep breath and do the right thing.”