By Taylor DeVille
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Dr. Luke Goembel is not a beekeeper by trade.
An award-winning former NASA spacecraft instrument designer, Goembel didn’t decide to try his hand at beekeeping until 2009, when he learned that producing honey himself would be cheaper than buying it.
He bought five pounds of bees and has not bought another package since — something that’s unusual for a Maryland beekeeper given that they lost an average of 61 percent of their hives last year alone.
Goembel, who has become active in the bee protection movement, says bees are dying because of the pesticides being used in the state. And while he applauds a new law recently approved by the General Assembly to cut back on pesticides that are hurting the state’s bee population, he hopes Maryland lawmakers keep pushing forward with protective measures in the future.
“I had a number of friends who were beekeepers and their bees were dying every year,” Goembel said.
“They got very little if any honey at all. I was getting plenty of honey and my bees have been living since I got them. So I wondered—what’s the difference?” Goembel said. “They’re out where farmers are spraying pesticides like crazy. I’m here in sort of an oasis away from farmland […] where there’s a variety of trees around that no one messes with and puts chemicals in that might kill bees.”
The chemist’s bees thrived for eight years. Then in May 2015, Goembel’s bees stopped returning from their foraging.
“I was trying to figure out what it was and I saw these guys [from Mosquito Joe’s] running around with these backpacks with sprayers,” Goembel said. “It’s terrifying. They’re just spraying this stuff everywhere and it’s dreadful.”
The spray contained pyrethroids, a chemical that’s been implicated in causing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ADHD and ALS.
Goembel investigated the chemical and posted his findings on the neighborhood forum. Driving down Regester Avenue in Towson, you’ll know you’re passing Goembel’s residence by the big sign that declares, “MOSQUITO SPRAYING KILLS BEES.”
Goembel believes mobilizing his neighbors against Mosquito Joe’s might have been the reason the sprayers did not return in 2016.
He then turned his attention to helping the Central Maryland Beekeeper’s Association (CMBA) successfully lobby for the Pollinator Protection Act, where his knowledge as a chemist gave credence to Maryland beekeepers’ assertion that neonicotinoids, a neurotoxin like pyrethroids, have been instrumental in the massive die-offs Maryland beekeepers have seen in their hives.
“One in every three bites of food we take has pollinators, specifically bees. If we destroy all the bees, it has a direct impact on food not only in the U.S. but around the world,” said state Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore County), author of the senate version of the bill. “So we need to start someplace.”
Along with Connecticut, Maryland became one of the first states to pass bipartisan pollinator protection legislation to eliminate consumer use of pesticides containing neonics, a common household neurotoxin that poisons pollinators like honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies. The bills will go into effect in 2018 without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature.
With the national average of hive die-offs being 41 percent, Maryland has been ranked among the states with the most pollinator deaths. To many beekeepers, the reason for the heavy losses was obvious.
“When a colony is healthy and thriving one day and dead with piles of bees all around, nothing but poison can be the cause,” said Dr. Steve McDaniel, the owner of McDaniel Honey Farm in Manchester, Md., and one of 120 master beekeepers in North America. “My bees were bringing in nectar and pollen on Christmas Eve at 70 degrees, and most died within a few days. Only a systemic insecticide could do that, as no one is spraying for pests in December.”
Some advocates of a ban on such pesticides, including Nathan-Pulliam, wanted to see stronger action. The new law will ban consumer use of neonicotinoids found in household pesticides like Green Light, Platinum and Advantage flea and tick medicine. Farmers, veterinarians and pesticide applicators will still be allowed to use them.
“Personally I would like to ban all neonics, but it’s a billion dollar interest,” said Nathan-Pulliam. “I’ll have more of a fight coming in from pesticide advocates.”
Opponents of the law say there is no evidence that neonics kill pollinators.
The USDA found in a national honeybee survey that no neonicotinoids were found in Maryland pollen samples from 2012 to 2014. In 2015, the USDA showed 9 percent of pollen samples contained detectable levels of neonicotinoids.
Not all experts agree on the deadliness of the neurotoxin.
A 2016 study by Dr. Allan Felsot, a professor of entomology and environmental toxicology at Washington State University, concluded that while neonicotinoids are dangerous, pollinators are not actually exposed to lethal levels of the poison.
“[The Pollinator Protection Act] is ineffective because there is no field-based evidence of neonicotinoids posing a risk to bees any greater than what they have experienced since the massive advent of synthetic insecticides after WWII,” Felsot said.
But others, like entomologist Dr. Jeff Pettis from the USDA Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, argue that while “no single silver bullet will solve the problems affecting honey bees and other pollinators,” a USDA report indicates that the sublethal effects of neonicotinoids are harmful to hives.
“These pesticides aren’t just being exposed to the bees one time,” said Nathan Reid, the chairman of the nucleus program for the CMBA. “It’s systemic. It’s in the plant itself. They take that pollen and feed it to the young larvae.”
“The anatomy of the bee and the structure of the colony, the hive, it’s all one giant orchestra playing together,” Reid continued. “And when things like neonics come in, they can prevent a younger worker bee from receiving a juvenile hormone. It delays the growth of the bee and when that happens, it upsets the whole orchestra.”
Although the notes on the bills expressed concern that small businesses that sell neonicotinoid pesticides might suffer, Derek Radebaugh, owner of Radebaugh Florist and Greenhouse, supports the legislation.
“I think there’s a lot of alternatives as far as being able to use other types of sprays, like organic sprays,” said Radebaugh, who uses organic sprays, not neonicotinoids, on his plants. “It’s good to educate the public, push them towards products that are more consumer-friendly and bee-friendly.”
“Most people don’t know those chemicals are present in what they’re buying,” said Bonnie Raindrop, the chairwoman of legislative committee for CMBA and one of the leading lobbyists for the Pollinator Protection Act. “A lot of us are creating pollinator gardens and not realizing these chemicals are killing the pollinators we’re trying to attract.”
Goembel said “pesticide-deniers” have used unscientific polling data influenced by companies like Syngenta, Bayer CropSciences and Monsanto to suggest that natural pests are more dangerous to pollinators than pesticides.
Goembel also said that a federal task force set up earlier this year to develop a national strategy to protect and promote the health of honeybees is “a sham.”
In an article Goembel submitted to American Bee Journal, he noted that beekeepers who attended the Managed Pollinator Protection Plan Stakeholder Summit last January that led to the federal task force were outnumbered by non-beekeepers 6 to 1.
Goembel said he became concerned when he noticed that the organization responsible for producing and processing the information from the summit was Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit organization funded in large part by donations from Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical and General Mills.
“Keystone, funded by and scrutinized by pesticide manufacturers and users, has a vested interest in seeing that their donors and Board of Directors are pleased.” Goembel wrote in his article. “Limits on pesticide use are unlikely to please manufacturers and users.”
Goembel went on to explain that the presentations given by researchers all came to the same conclusion: that pesticides do not harm bees.
Goembel is not the first to suggest an agenda is at play in the USDA.
The Washington Post reported last March that entomologist Jonathan Lundgren was suspended from his post at the USDA Agricultural Research Service lab in South Dakota when he attributed the decline in the national bee population in large part to overuse of pesticides.
According to the Post, Lundgren filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the USDA in 2015 alleging that he and nine other USDA scientists were “ordered to retract studies” and water down findings or they would face disciplinary action.
In a more local case, Pettis reported to the Washington Post that the USDA’s congressional liaison instructed him to focus on the varroa mite as a major cause of pollinator population decline rather than neonicotinoids in a testimony to the House Agricultural Committee in 2014.
“He didn’t go with the party line, and now he’s been ostracized,” Goembel said. “In my field, in space science, I have never run into this thing, where an industry is trying to push research and force scientists to say, ‘Oh well we really don’t know about pesticides.’ So when I started learning about how deep the influence is in legislation and the obfuscation of the facts, and trying to mislead the public and all this stuff, I was horrified because as a scientist, if we don’t have truth, we’ve got nothing.”
Follow Taylor DeVille on Twitter: @artvandelady