By Timothy B. Wheeler
Maryland’s pioneering law to restrict the sale and use of insecticides implicated in honeybee die-offs had a bumpy debut this year.
Spot checks of home and garden, hardware and other stores around the state found some of them still stocking bug-killing products that should have been removed from retail shelves.
The Pollinator Protection Act, passed in 2016, made Maryland the first state in the nation to adopt legislation aimed at keeping consumers from using neonicotinoids, a widely used class of insecticides that some studies have linked to steep population declines of bees and other pollinators. At least eight other states have adopted different legislation aimed at protecting pollinators from pesticides.
Maryland’s law, which took effect Jan. 1, effectively bans all consumer bug killers containing neonicotinoids if intended for outdoor use. Only stores with state permits to sell restricted-use pesticides may carry those products, and they must be kept behind the counter. They can only be sold to state-certified pesticide applicators or farmers, who are exempt from the ban.
The law also exempts neonicotinoid-containing flea and tick repellants for pets, lice and bedbug treatments as well as other indoor insecticides, including ant baits. Neonicotinoid class pesticides include those with the following active ingredients listed on the product labels: imidacloprid, nithiazine, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, thiacloprid, or thiamethoxam.
Activists who successfully campaigned for the law’s passage say they discovered to their dismay that at least some banned products were still being sold to consumers throughout this year’s growing season.
Volunteers visit stores
“We started hearing about this in the spring, in the bee club meetings,” said Bonnie Raindrop, legislative chair for the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association.
So, she and six other volunteers visited 30 stores from May to October and found products that should have been removed from shelves in 11 businesses in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. The products, many of them listing the neonicotinoid imidacloprid as an active ingredient, were on sale in locally owned nurseries as well as in outlets of several national retail chains that sell gardening supplies.
In a number of cases, Raindrop said, they took photos of the products on display. And in some instances, they spoke to store managers or clerks.
“I’ve taken bottles off the shelf and taken them up to an employee or a manager, and said, ‘You really need to stop selling this stuff — it’s illegal,’” said Steve McDaniel, a master beekeeper in Carroll County who participated in the volunteer spot checks.
But not all store personnel responded positively when confronted, said Ruth Berlin, executive director of the Maryland Pesticide Network.
“They said, ‘So what? It’s OK. No one’s going to make us take it away,’” Berlin said. The volunteers’ findings, she said, were reported in late summer to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which regulates pesticide use in the state.
Dennis Howard, the MDA’s manager of pesticide regulation, said the law’s language can be a little confusing, but it does prohibit sales to the general public of neonicotinoid pesticides for outdoor use.
“They should be behind the counter,” he said, “for the folks who can actually apply it under the legislation.”
Howard said that enforcement of the law has been hampered because his office has been short-handed lately. He explained that he’s only had five of the seven inspectors he normally has to check on hundreds of businesses statewide and respond to consumer complaints. But after speaking with Berlin, he said, he directed the staff he does have to “beef up” their checks for neonicotinoids.
“I told the inspectors to try to do as many as they can,” he said, “… and speak to the managers of stores, so sales people won’t let [consumers] purchase it.”
Howard said two of his inspectors did find stores still selling products that shouldn’t be available to consumers. They were advised to remove the items from the shelves, he said.
Berlin said she realizes the state may lack the staff to get around to all stores, and she said she offered to continue reporting what volunteers find. “We’re trying to collaborate,” she said.
But she noted that the law provides for a $250 fine for a first offense, going up to $500 for a repeat infraction. Fining a few retailers, she suggested, might send a message to the rest to pay attention and follow the law. And it might help, she added, if retailers got a letter in advance of the 2019 growing season, reminding them that it’s illegal to sell outdoor neonicotinoid pesticides to untrained consumers.
Loss of bee colonies continues
Beekeepers have been experiencing severe losses of their colonies for more than a decade. Scientists attribute the die-offs to a variety of factors, including mites, disease, lack of adequate nutrition and habitat loss. But a number of studies — though disputed by chemical manufacturers — have suggested neonicotinoids also could be involved.
Neonicotinoids disrupt the central nervous system of insects, and some studies have found evidence that even sublethal exposure to the chemicals can affect bees. Their widespread use in agriculture as well as home gardening has led to their being detected in 59% of streams sampled nationwide, including the Chesapeake Bay watershed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Most people, they really feel like because we got the law passed, we’re out of the woods on bee deaths,” Raindrop said. “What we’re seeing is a trend that’s getting worse.”
In a nationwide survey released in May, beekeepers reported losing 40% of their hives on average last year, up from 33% the year before. In Maryland, the average annual loss was even higher, at 49%.
McDaniel, the Carroll County beekeeper, said he lost all but three of his 26 hives last year, and many other keepers he spoke with saw more than half of their colonies die off.
McDaniel said he has been willing until now to give store managers the benefit of the doubt, because they may not have gotten the word about the new law. But with beekeeping being so challenging these days, he said his patience has limits.
“If they’re still carrying it next spring,” he said, “we’re going to come down on [them] with both feet.”