Legislation pending in the state legislature that aims to protect honey bees is being opposed by a pair of agricultural biotechnology companies with a major presence in the Triangle.
The Pollinator Protection Act, filed last week with two Republicans and two Democrats as primary sponsors, would outlaw consumer use of a class of insecticide called neonicotinoids. However, the bill would not stop farmers, licensed pesticide applicators and veterinarians from using neonicotinoids, often called neonics.
The bill, H.B. 363, comes against a backdrop of what many consider to be an alarming mortality rate of bee colonies in recent years. In 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beekeepers reported losing about 40 percent of honey bee colonies.
Environmental groups and pesticide makers have wrestled for years about the effects of neonics on bees.
The bill’s preamble states that scientists have linked “neonicotinoid insecticides to the rapid decline of honey bees and other pollinators.”
But Agbio giants Bayer and Syngenta, both major producers of neonicotinoids, contend that, when properly used, the insecticides are safe and allow honey bees and other pollinators to thrive.
Becky Langer, who heads Bayer’s bee care program, said the bills pending in North Carolina and other states disregard the science of bee health. The North Carolina bill, she continued, ignores the principal threats to bee health, especially the Varroa mite, “a giant tic-like organism that attaches to the bees” and can be deadly to them.
Bayer, which last year sold its consumer products business, also asserted in a statement that the bill would “take away an important tool homeowners use to protect their own homes and gardens and potentially force them to use more toxic products.”
Sen. Pricey Harrison, the Guilford County Democrat who is the bill’s lead sponsor, said the measure is similar to legislation that passed last year in Maryland and Connecticut. By her count, 18 other states are also contemplating “some sort of pollinator protection, much of which deals with the neonic issue.”
Harrison noted that the the bulk of neonic use is by farmers and licensed appliers, which wouldn’t be affected by the legislation.
“So it’s not really going to significantly impact the industry,” she said. “But it will limit the use to those who have some expertise.”
The legislation is needed in part because “there has been so little good supervision at the EPA level, and we expect a lot less now” with the election of President Donald Trump and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Harrison said. “I think it’s going to be up to the states to act.”
Bayer employs about 1,000 workers in Research Triangle Park, and Syngenta has 350 employees in RTP and about 730 in Greensboro.
“I don’t think it’s going to put the companies out of business to limit the use of this chemical,” Harrison said. “Obviously I’m mindful of employers, but I’m also mindful of the need to protect the public health” and the honey bee population.
“We need pollinators for agricultural production,” she said. “We’re taking a precautionary approach to this and a limited approach.”
The bill also calls for the little-known N.C. Pesticide Board to study and report on “any legislative or regulatory changes necessary to protect pollinators within the state” and whether the state should regulate the sale of seeds treated with insecticides such as neonics.
Syngenta spokeswoman Ann Bryan wrote in an email that the bill is “unnecessary” and “presents an inaccurate picture of the bee landscape.”
She said that honey bee populations “have been stable or growing” in the United States, Canada and Europe for more than two decades and that “most scientists and bee experts agree that bee health is affected by multiple factors, including parasites, diseases, habitat and nutrition, weather and hive management practices.”
Environmental Groups such as the N.C. Sierra Club and Toxic Free NC support the bill.
Preston Peck, policy director for Toxic Free, said the bill represents “an easy step forward for the state to get these harmful chemicals out of untrained applicators’ hands while still maintaining respect for agriculture and their use in agricultural production.”
He added that Toxic Free ultimately would like to see the agricultural sector “move away” from using neonics.
In addition to Harrison, the bill’s primary sponsors are Republicans Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson and Rep. Mitchell Setzer of Catawba and Democat Rep. Grier Martin of Wake. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Environment.