Gov. Mark Dayton issued broad new guidelines Friday designed to restrict the use of a controversial pesticide that has been implicated in the decline of honeybees and other pollinators.
Standing in the Agriculture-Horticulture building at the State Fair, next door to an exhibit hall filled with live bees and honey jars, the governor said his executive order would make Minnesota a leader in protecting pollinators.
“We can show the nation how better to both farm and enjoy nature and have great lawns and everything, but also be cognizant of the impact of neonicotinoids.”
Under Dayton’s order, farmers and nursery owners who want to use one of the compounds, known as neonicotinoids, will have to prove to the Department of Agriculture that they face “imminent danger of significant crop loss” without them.
Dayton ordered state agencies to develop “pollinator-friendly” practices for maintaining state-owned properties like office buildings, parks, prisons, landfills and the sprawling grounds of the State Capitol.
Beekeepers and researchers greeted the executive order enthusiastically.
Bob Sitko, a beekeeper from Stillwater who has seen entire hives wiped out, attended Dayton’s announcement and expressed his gratitude.
“On behalf of my 100,000 bees, I thank you,” Sitko called out to the governor after the news conference.
Marla Spivak, a University of Minnesota professor who is one of the world’s top pollinator researchers, also praised the announcement.
“Some may think these actions go too far, but honestly, I don’t know a farmer, a nursery operator, a grower, a pesticide applicator, that wants to kill a bee or a monarch [butterfly] while they’re controlling their crop pests,” she said. “These steps will help us all be better stewards of the lands that we’re trying to be.”
State Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said the new guidelines will, on balance, be good for Minnesota food production.
“All of us can appreciate how critical pollinators are,” Frederickson said. “They’re critical to agriculture, for plant reproduction and to produce the food we eat every day and need to survive.” Frederickson noted that honeybee pollination contributes an estimated $17 billion in value to U.S. agriculture each year. “Yet we know the pollinator population is in decline.”
Dayton’s announcement follows a monthslong review of neonicotinoids by the Department of Agriculture that was spurred by concern among beekeepers, legislators and conservationists that the compounds inflict long-term damage on pollinator health, contributing to the death of honeybee colonies.
The pesticide industry has long claimed that research shows neonicotinoids are not fatal to bees in quantities and applications typically used in American agriculture. Scholars and federal regulators blame recent declines in bee populations on several factors, including shrinking rural habitat and an invasive bloodsucking parasite.
But a handful of academic studies have linked neonicotinoids to declines in bee navigation and reproductive abilities that could contribute to the phenomenon known as “colony collapse.”
And in January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the first in a series of research findings on neonicotinoids, concluding that the compounds do harm honeybees when used on cotton and citrus crops, but not on other big crops like corn, berries and tobacco.
Dayton said the state hopes to work “cooperatively” with farmers, commercial gardeners and homeowners to put the new standards into effect.
Minnesota agencies already are taking steps to create bee-friendlier habitats on state properties. But some broader measures — like creating new regulations for seeds treated with pesticide coatings — will require the Legislature to sign off.
“They’re going to get pushback from Big Ag for this,” Spivak predicted.
“I always expect pushback from the Legislature,” the governor agreed. “We’re not trying to ban anybody’s practices or businesses. There’s a lot more we can do, all of us, more sensibly, with better awareness, to protect pollinators.”
Homeowners who want to eliminate neonicotinoids from their own lawns, gardens and flower beds have plenty of options already, Spivak said. “It will be easy,” she added, pointing to the organic gardening centers around the region and the big box stores that now stock bee-friendly plants and products. “We can do this.”
Friday’s announcement “puts Minnesota miles ahead of all the other states” in pollinator protection efforts, Spivak said. “Our honeybees, our hundreds of species of native bees, our monarch [butterflies], all of them need our help,” she said. “They need good, clean flowers to support their nutrition, and when they have good nutrition, they’re able to pollinate the fruits and vegetables which in turn support our nutrition. We need each other.”