For about seven years, many Western beekeepers have been plagued by unexplained die-offs in their hives. It happened recently to Mark Emrich.
"I was doing great until about five weeks ago," he says. "Then I came down and opened up the hives and I had five dead boxes of bees. That was a huge hit."
He lost one third of his production on his small farm near Olympia.
"It is very hard to deal with bee losses," says Emrich, who is the president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association. "They are kind of like your little livestock and you try to really manage them and take care of them the best you can. When they die off, you feel that you've failed."
Even before the die-off in his hives, Emrich was writing letters to government officials. He wants some potentially risky and widely used pesticides pulled from store shelves.
The insecticides in question belong to a class called neonicotinoids -- "neonics," for short. They appear in more than 100 different garden products sold under brand names such as Bayer, Ortho and Scotts.
Pixie Honey Company founder Benjamin Pixie says, "I really believe neonicotinoids are connected" to the heavy annual losses in his hives, also near Olympia. Every year he has had to buy replacement bee colonies. "As a business, it's not really worked," he says regarding his predicament.
National environmental groups and foreign governments have the same products in their sights. On Monday, the European Commission decided to put a moratorium on three popular insecticides judged to pose high risk to bees. A statement from pesticide maker Syngenta promptly criticized the EC for relying on "poor science" and ignoring evidence "that these products do not harm the health of bees."
In Washington state, beekeepers calculated that an outright ban might be harder to achieve than limitations on home and garden use of common bug killers, rose and flower treatments, and grub controls. Consequently, a petition for rulemaking now before the Washington State Department of Agriculture leaves big agriculture alone. Rather it proposes to limit sales of specified insecticides to people with a pesticide applicators license, something farmers and ranchers commonly possess but the average consumer does not.
"We have people who are using (the insecticides) who don't understand all the implications and the labeling is inadequate as far as what it actually will kill," Emrich says. "So basically, the idea is at least we'll get it out of the hands of the general public."
A range of studies have shown significant adverse affects on bees exposed to high doses in the lab, but separate studies using more realistic field conditions frequently show minimal harm or are inconclusive.
Pesticide makers argue banning neonics would not save a single hive.
"If we use these products according to the label, then we don't see an effect on pollinators - or honey bees - that are contiguous to these fields where we're using these products," says Barb Glenn. She oversees science and regulatory affairs for an industry association called CropLife America.
Glenn says it's in her industry's best interest to safeguard bees because agriculture needs pollinators to thrive -- especially at this time of year. In her view, many factors conspire against bee survival. "Diseases. Parasites. It includes the availability of habitat and also cultural practices and nutrition," she says. "Pesticide use is also a part of that continuum."
For what it's worth, her list looks almost the same as a new report from the USDA and EPA and the consensus of researchers at Oregon and Washington State Universities. WSU entomologist Steve Sheppard says a lot of new research is focusing on the pesticide angle.
"There's not a consensus I think in the scientific community that the levels that are found in agricultural crops for example have been directly linked to colony losses," he says. "But some countries - in Europe for example -- have taken a more prudent approach to not use those pesticides until they feel all of the data are in."
That's also the gist of the petition for rulemaking before the Washington State Department of Agriculture. The department's initial response was to ask all affected parties to send in their best science. The state plans to announce in early June whether it sees enough evidence to draft tighter rules for home and garden bug killers.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of California have previously announced a reevaluation of the most common neonic insecticides. Their joint safety reevaluation is slated to take around five years.
That timeframe was judged unacceptably long by a coalition of environmental groups and beekeepers led by the Center for Food Safety. In March, the coalition sued the EPA to suspend the registration of two neonic pesticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.
Impatience with slow moving national processes also influenced the strategy of the beekeepers in western Washington. Thurston County beekeeper Emrich is hoping for quicker results by working through the state Agriculture Department.
"Our losses are becoming catastrophic," said Emrich. "We've sat back on the sidelines long enough trying different venues to get this stuff off the market, so we're (now) going to the county commissioners" and state government.
On the Web:
Apiary and beekeeping information - Washington Department of Agriculture
Beekeeping news and information - Washington State Beekeepers Association
OSU Honey Bee Lab - Oregon State University
Pesticides and honeybee colony collapse - Environmental Protection Agency
Protecting our Pollinators - CropLife America (industry group)
Report: Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees? Xerces Society
Bees & Pesticides - European Commission
Pollinators and pesticides - Center for Food Safety