Beekeeping in Vermont

From the Pollinatoir Working Group:

Montpelier, VT – Today, on World Bee Day, Gov. Phil Scott today vetoed legislation meant to protect bees and other pollinators from a widely-used neuorotoxic pesticide. The bill (H.706) would  eliminate most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics) in Vermont, which have been associated with alarming losses of managed and wild bee populations.

Neonic insecticides are used on almost all corn grown and much of the soybean grown in Vermont. They’re also sprayed on apple trees, other fruits and vegetables, and ornamental plants. 

A comprehensive 2020 study from Cornell University found that neonic-treated seeds were more costly and yielded no substantial benefit to farmers in terms of crop yields for corn and soybeans. In Quebec, where neonics have been banned on field crops since 2019, farmers have adjusted well to using other alternative seed treatments, and many are using no pesticide treatment on seeds at all and finding no loss in yield.

While neonics provide little benefit to most farmers, they can cause substantial harm. Since their introduction in the mid-1990s, neonics have made U.S. agriculture48-times more harmfulto insects and been linked with massive losses of bees. Over the most recent five-year period for which data are available, Vermont beekeepers lost an average 53% of their hives every year. These losses of managed bees provide insight into the losses occurring each year in Vermont’s 300+ species of wild bees, which undergird ecosystems and are also important crop pollinators. 

“It’s hard to believe that the governor chose World Bee Day to veto this sensible legislation to protect bees and other pollinators from toxic pesticides while supporting farmers through a just transition to safer alternatives,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Legislators will have a chance next month to override the veto and stand up for both pollinators and public health.”

Statewide polling released in March found nearly universal agreement among Vermonters about the importance of pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and moths, and deep concern over their declining numbers. 

The survey also found 83% of Vermonters in support of “a phaseout of nearly all neonic pesticides in Vermont, with exemptions available in case of emergency.”  This language tracks the key elements of H.706. 

“It is disappointing that Governor Scott has chosen to veto this bill and the wealth of scientific research that supports it,” said Emily May, Pollinator Conservation Biologist, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “The Xerces Society has been sounding the alarm about the negative impact of neonicotinoids on bees and other beneficial insects for decades. We are grateful to Vermont's legislature for passing H.706 to protect Vermont’s pollinators from excessive use of this highly toxic class of insecticides while ensuring a just transition for farmers. We look to them again to lead on this issue by overriding the Governor's veto." 

It’s not just pollinators that are threatened by neonics. Last month, a group of doctors and medical experts weighed in with a letter to senators considering the bill. They noted that:

“Exposures to neurotoxic chemicals like neonics during pregnancy and early in life raise special concerns— similar to those raised by lead and mercury—because of the exquisite sensitivity of the developing brain and nervous system. Tragically, experience demonstrates that even minuscule exposures to lead and mercury can lead to lifelong neurological harm, including reduced intelligence (i.e., lower IQ scores), shorter attention spans, and behavioral disruptions.”

One national study testing 171 pregnant women across the country found that neonics were detected in over 95% of the participants.

“The world is moving beyond these destructive pesticides, and with New York recently following in the footsteps of Quebec’s successful model for eliminating needless uses, it should be a no-brainer for Vermont too,” said Dan Raichel, Director of NRDC’s Pollinators and Pesticides Initiative. “We hope the legislature continues their leadership and takes up this important bipartisan bill in the veto session to make sure Vermont doesn’t fall behind its neighbors in protecting its people and pollinators.”

In his veto message, the governor repeated the debunked claim that the honeybee population is growing in Vermont. In fact, Vermont bee colonies are in decline. Many bees are imported into the state for temporary use, but scientists made clear in testimony before the legislature that importing bees is not an indication of bee health in Vermont. 

“It appears that the governor was misled by his advisors on this one,” said Burns. “It’s a shame he didn’t take the time to listen to farmers in places that have moved past using toxic neonics. It’s possible to help save the bees and support farmers too. That’s what this legislation does.”

Despite the governor’s veto, the bill can still become law if legislators override the veto when they return to Montpelier for a special session beginning June 17. The bill passed both chambers earlier in the session with more than the two-thirds support necessary for an override.