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In Annapolis, it's the year of the bee

Rachel Baye

Monday is the last day of the 2016 General Assembly session. Among the many things legislators did in the last 90 days was pass two bills aimed at protecting bees.

One bill will prohibit stores from selling to the average consumer — anyone who isn't a farmer or a veterinarian — a class of pesticide called neonicotinoids beginning in 2018.

The other requires three state agencies to develop plans to protect the habitats of bees and other pollinators.

The measures are part of a larger concern for bees' welfare. President Obama called for a plan to protect bees a couple years ago following pollinator deaths nationwide. 

But a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Maryland has one of the highest rates of bee deaths in the country, at 61 percent.

April Boulton, a biology professor who specializes in insect ecology at Hood College, said bees have been dying around the world for more than a decade.

"Beekeepers are used to losing between 10 and 15 percent of their colonies over winter," she said. "All of a sudden we were starting to see 30, 40 percent.” 

The trend prompted a group of scientists from around the world to examine the effects of a variety of pesticides. The research pointed them toward neonicotinoids, the chemicals targeted in the bill Maryland lawmakers passed last week.

Boulton said these pesticides are treacherous because they don’t directly kill bees.

“This class of pesticides accumulates in very low levels long term in bees, and eventually it compromises their immunity," Boulton said. "They end up dying from various parasites that normally do not bother them."

That also makes it easy for corporations that produce the chemicals to claim they don’t harm bees. However, preliminary findings from the Environmental Protection Agency indicate otherwise.

Regardless of the cause, bee losses have serious implications.

"I like to show a picture of your breakfast, and it's a bowl of oatmeal. And that's your breakfast without pollinators," she said. "And then I show that same bowl of oatmeal filled with fruits, nuts — blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, almonds — you name it. And that's your breakfast with pollinators.”

Every third bite a person takes was grown with help from pollinators, she said.

The losses also hurt beekeepers.

“A loss of beehive costs a beekeeper about $1,500," said Bonnie Raindrop, a beekeeper in Baltimore and the legislative chair of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association. "That would be in lost revenue from honey and hive products and then replacement costs, and a beekeeper works then for the whole year for nothing.” 

Raindrop said Maryland beekeepers lost $16 million from bee deaths last year.

But neonicotinoids are not the only bee killer.

Boulton said pollinators are also losing their habitats to a variety of causes, including human development and global warming.

State Delegate Steve Lafferty, a Democrat from Baltimore County, hopes the bill he sponsored can help address this cause of bee declines. 

“We want the state basically to take the lead, or help take the lead, in creating more habitat so pollinators can thrive in Maryland," he said. 

The measure requires the state Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland Environmental Service and the State Highway Administration to each come up with a plan to protect pollinator habitats.

"It could be planting wildflowers along the highways," Lafferty said. "It could be making sure that the trees that are planted are flowering trees and therefore provide more opportunities. It could be protecting certain planted areas already and not mowing them all the time.”

Boulton said ideal habitats have a diverse range of pollen and nectar, with flowers that bloom at different parts of the season.