- Caleb Kenna
- Pesticide-treated corn seed
Vermont's bees are dying at unprecedented rates, and it's not a whodunit: Study after study points to a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids as being at least partly responsible for the staggering rate of colony collapse in Vermont and around the world.
And yet state lawmakers remain unwilling to address the No. 1 source of these toxic chemicals in the Green Mountains: imported feed-corn seeds that have been treated with the pesticides. A bill to ban their use is being blocked by powerful dairy interests who contend that the coated seeds are essential to make sure pests don't eat the corn grown for cows.
The battle is between two vital but beleaguered agricultural sectors, both of which are fighting to survive and neither of which wants to harm the other.
"I don't know how long I'm going to be able to stay in business," Chas Mraz, the owner of Champlain Valley Apiaries of Middlebury, told lawmakers late last month. His grandfather started the company in 1931. "There is no light at the end of my tunnel right now. This is not sustainable."
Bee colonies used to thrive for decades but are now lucky to last just a few years, forcing commercial beekeepers such as Mraz to spend so much time, energy and money rebuilding their hives following devastating winter die-offs that there is time for little else.
"We're not beekeepers anymore — we're bee replacers," Mraz told the Senate Agriculture Committee. "All we do is replace dead hives."
Dairy farmers, who grow most of the state's 85,000 acres of corn, counter that they need the pesticide-covered corn seeds more than ever. The vast majority of corn and soy seeds sold in the state come treated with pesticide.
In recent years, many dairy farmers have sought to nurture healthier soils by planting cover crops and employing no-till planting. But those practices have increased the risk of pests damaging young corn, Marie Audet of Audet's Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport told lawmakers.
All of the organic material that farmers work so hard to preserve in the soil also improves conditions for wireworm, white grubs and seed corn maggots, she said. Her family grows 1,400 acres of corn to feed their 1,500-strong herd and needs those coated seeds to ensure that the plants survive, especially during their first couple of weeks in Vermont's cool and moist spring soil.
What beekeepers face is scary, Audet conceded, yet she asked lawmakers not to ban "technology" that growers depend on.
"We ask that you consider the unintended consequences of taking this tool away, because it does upend [the] entire system we've been working so hard to build," she said.
By the time Audet made her plea, however, the neonicotinoid bill had already been downgraded from a proposed ban to a measure that would give the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets a couple of years to develop voluntary guidelines for using the seeds.
That has frustrated desperate beekeepers and disappointed lawmakers and activists who had hoped mounting evidence about the pesticides would win over farmers, many of whom depend on pollinators.
"This isn't only my problem. This is really all our problem," Mraz said. "This is jeopardizing the future of ag in Vermont."
In the Statehouse, however, even a weakened dairy industry holds tremendous power, a fact that Andrew Munkres, president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, noted ruefully during testimony.
"You can bet that if the dairy farmers were losing 50 percent of their cows every winter, you guys would have done something about it!" he said.
- File: Caleb Kenna
- Chas Mraz
Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told Seven Days it was profoundly frustrating to have two important sectors of the agriculture industry facing off over an issue with no clear-cut solution.
"This is a bummer," Starr said. "What the hell are we supposed to do?"
On one hand, he's sympathetic to the plight of the beekeepers, whose small industry not only makes honey but plays an integral role in the success of orchards and vegetable farmers. On the other, Starr, who grew up on a dairy farm, said he's hesitant to make it harder for struggling dairies to feed their herds.
"Most of 'em haven't got two pennies to rub together," Starr said.
Many dairy farmers have already left the industry. The number of Vermont dairies fell by 42 percent in the last decade, to 568 by the end of last year. Low milk prices, competition from larger western dairies and new plant-based beverages have all put tremendous pressure on dairy farmers, especially smaller ones.
Large Vermont farms used to buy herds when smaller ones threw in the towel, and milk production remained stable. But since 2017, the total number of cows has fallen 7 percent, to 119,667, while production slid 6 percent, to 2.6 billion pounds.
The challenges in the organic milk market have hit Vermont's smaller dairy farmers particularly hard. Many went organic after conventional milk prices plunged in 2014 and 2015. They soon faced production caps and lower prices.
Since 2017, the number of organic dairies has fallen 18 percent, to 162. The pressure on them is only likely to increase. One of the largest buyers of Vermont organic milk, French dairy giant Danone, informed 28 farmers last summer that it was canceling their contracts under the Horizon Organic label as of August 2022. The farmers won a six-month reprieve, until February 2023, but face huge challenges finding markets for their milk after that.
One of the ways farmers keep costs down is by growing as much of their own feed as possible. Treated seeds help farmers increase yields with less applied pesticide, Thomas Eaton, a Vermont-based farm consultant, told lawmakers.
Farmers used to have boxes mounted on the side of their tractors to add pesticides to the soil as they planted, but now virtually all of those boxes are gone and the seeds come pretreated from large Midwestern companies.
The path for a ban on the treated seeds is steep. In 2019, Vermont lawmakers restricted use of the chemicals to licensed professionals who can apply them to kill grubs and aphids. But treated seeds, typically corn and soy, were exempted from the bill, meaning farmers got a pass.
This year, the original version of H.626 called for an immediate ban on treated seeds until the state drafted rules for use. If rules weren't in place by July 1, 2024, the ban would have become permanent.
The bill's sponsors, Rep. Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury) and Rep. Chip Troiano (D-Stannard), argue that planting pesticide-covered seeds to protect against pests before knowing whether they are even needed violates the basic tenets of integrated pest management.
"We are wantonly killing the pollinators and other insects upon which food systems and ecosystems depend, to our own peril," Sheldon told Seven Days.
A 2017 report by the legislature's Pollinator Protection Committee reached similar conclusions, but most of the group's recommendations were never implemented.
The proposed ban ran into stiff opposition in the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. Chair Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) said she worried that a ban would leave dairy farmers "high and dry" because the market for untreated seeds is so small.
"I'm not in favor of an immediate ban," she said. "I don't know if I'm in favor of a ban at all, even down the road."
The renewed push for a ban followed continued drops in local beehives and wild bee populations, and mounting scientific research linking neonicotinoids to bee decline.
It's not just honeybees that are in trouble. Nearly half of all bumblebee species either have vanished or are in serious decline in Vermont, according to a 2020 report from the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont.
To better understand the wild bee populations, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies is building the state's first online wild bee atlas. Since 2019, professional and citizen scientists have identified more than 300 wild species. Earlier this year, the state listed the American bumblebee as endangered in Vermont.
UVM research assistant professor Samantha Alger said the state had the second-highest rate of bee colony death in the nation last year, with an average reported loss of 67 percent, citing data from the Bee Informed Partnership, which tracks bee health nationwide.
Alger explained that the neonicotinoid pesticides are problematic because they are systemic pesticides that are drawn into the plants and are found in their nectar, pollen and even the water droplets in the crooks of their leaves.
Bees gather the pesticide-laden pollen or water, return to the hive, and feed it to their larvae. Many studies found that neonicotinoids harm bees' ability to communicate and navigate, Alger said. She has reviewed more than 100 scientific papers establishing pollinator impacts, and she told lawmakers the connection is certain.
And yet, other factors such as habitat loss and mites that infect hives are harming honeybees, as well, she said. "There is not a cause. There are lots of causes," she told lawmakers.
Dairy interests and state agricultural officials seize on that lack of Vermont-focused studies when arguing against banning the seeds. Margaret Laggis, a lobbyist representing regional dairies and feed sellers, downplayed Vermont studies that have shown runoff of neonicotinoids in creeks and their presence in a few hives.
"We really don't have any evidence whatsoever that neonicotinoids are actually causing a problem in Vermont," Laggis asserted.
She urged lawmakers not to pass even the downgraded bill and instead to wait for the new Agricultural Innovation Board to take up the issue. The 13-member board was just formed.
Cary Giguere, director of public health and resource management for the ag agency, thinks the varroa mite, which preys on bees, is likely a greater factor in hive collapse than pesticides. Beekeepers contend that the pesticides are weakening bees and making them more susceptible to the mites.
That suspicion is understandable, Giguere said, but without more studies confirming the impact of Vermont pesticide use on bees, a ban isn't justified. "I need proof," Giguere told Seven Days. "We don't have sufficient published research, so we've got to do it ourselves."
Beekeepers such as Munkres are frustrated that five years after the last study group, a new one without a single apiarist could be tasked with delivering another report. Munkres said that amounts to "kicking the can down the road."
Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden), vice chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, echoed that on Tuesday, calling the latest version of the bill "sadly weak."
"We keep coming back to, 'Should we study this?'" he said. "The legislature does that when there are inconvenient and hard decisions, and that's what I'm seeing."