CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included incorrect information in a quote from Randall Austin. Austin said that many neonicotinoid insecticides are much more benign than alternatives. The story has been updated with the correct quote. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
A recently introduced bill in the General Assembly is seeking to protect bees and other pollinators in North Carolina, but some say it may not solve any problems, and perhaps might make matters worse.
Senate Bill 496, or The Pollinator Protection Act, was filed on April 2, with the goal of regulating certain insecticides known as neonicotinoids. N.C. Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, is the bill's primary sponsor, and is supported by N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Orange. Woodard said these insecticides are extraordinarily harmful to pollinators that are crucial to plant life and agriculture.
“We’ve seen a huge decline in pollinators in the last couple of decades, and I think the decline has been particularly alarming in the last 10 years or so,” Woodard said.
Woodard said he would suggest neonicotinoids are the most significant cause of this decline and are particularly dangerous when placed on large-scale crops like corn and grain.
“I hope by placing greater restrictions on these, that people will turn to the alternative forms of pesticides, because there are plenty out there,” he said.
However, there is not a complete consensus that neonicotinoids are the main problem, or even that bee populations are in decline. Randall Austin, the master beekeeper coordinator with the Orange County Beekeepers Association, said this legislation will not address challenges facing honey bees specifically.
“Furthermore, the legislative proposal is a knee-jerk reaction by uninformed policymakers. There are many different neonicotinoid insecticides; many are more risky for pollinators but many more are much more benign than the alternatives,” Austin said in an email.
David Tarpy, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, also said he thought the ability of this legislation to provide protection is not certain. He said while domesticated honey bees are the typical pollinators, there are 4,000 other species of native bees in North America. He said a lack of information about pollinators makes it hard to say if neonicotinoids, while toxic, are a threat to them.
“We do know that in managed apiculture, when you go out and you look at bees that have died or are suffering from maladies and you measure them for pesticides, you do see a lot of pesticides that they pick up and bring back to their hives,” Tarpy said. “But there’s actually a shockingly low percentage of those pesticides that are neonicotinoids."
Tarpy said it is still possible that these chemicals play a role with wild pollinators, but he thinks the issue is more complex than one pesticide.
He also raised concerns that alternative pesticides might actually be worse than neonicotinoids, and he said he thinks research should focus on fungicides.
Woodard said bee populations have been in decline, with a loss of 40 percent over the last ten years, but Tarpy said this idea is more complex than it is being presented.
“Ten years ago, we had about 2.4 million bee hives in the United States back when colony collapse was making all the headlines,” he said. “And since then we’ve been tracking the mortality every year of the bees, and sure enough about every year about 40 percent of the managed beehives die off at some point in the middle of the year, which is really problematic."
However, Tarpy said beekeepers are able to rejuvenate their bee populations again each year.
"So actually right now, we have something more on the order of 2.9 million beehives,” he said.
Tarpy said the situation with the bee population would be better characterized as unstable rather than declining.
Woodard did not respond to a follow-up addressing concerns raised about his bill.