Maryland consumers would be barred from using pesticides implicated in honeybee die-offs under legislation passed in Annapolis Thursday. If signed into law, the state would become the first in the country to take such a step.
By a vote of 98 – 39, the House of Delegates sent the Pollinator Protection Act to Gov. Larry Hogan. The Senate had voted 34 – 12 on Wednesday to approve it.
It’s unclear if Hogan will sign it — the Maryland Department of Agriculture opposes the measure. Nevertheless, the bill’s passage was hailed by environmentalists and Maryland beekeepers, who last year lost nearly 61 percent of their hives, about twice the national average.
“Anybody who cares about our local food supply should be cheering the passage of this bill along with me,” Bonnie Raindrop, legislative chair of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, said in a statement. “It’s high time we got these harmful products off store shelves and out of the hands of consumers.”
Under the bill, Marylanders may not use bug-killing products containing any of a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids starting Jan. 1, 2018, unless they are state-certified pesticide applicators or working under the supervision of one. Farmers, farm workers and veterinarians would be exempt from that restriction.
Retail sales of neonicotinoid products also would be largely limited to businesses licensed to sell restricted-use pesticides. The restriction would not apply to flea and tick repellants for pets; lice and bedbug treatments; and to indoor insecticides such as ant bait.
Neonicotinoids are among the most widely used pesticides in the world, and farmers consider them especially effective at protecting crops. Farm groups, nursery operators and state agriculture officials opposed the Maryland legislation, arguing it was unwarranted.
Bees and other pollinators have been in steep decline, with experts saying they’re under siege from a variety of factors, including mites, disease, lack of adequate nutrition and habitat loss. But a number of studies — though disputed by the chemicals’ manufacturers — have also implicated neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids disrupt the central nervous system of insects, and some studies have found evidence that even sub-lethal exposure to the chemicals can affect bees. The Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating risks posed by four of the more widely used neonics, and earlier this year reported it had found that one of those chemicals, imidacloprid, harmed honeybees when used on certain crops, but not others.
Concerns also have been expressed about the risks that widespread neonicotinoids use may pose to aquatic life, including blue crabs. The U.S. Geological Survey found 59 percent of all streams sampled nationwide, including in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, had detectable levels of the chemicals.
The bill Maryland lawmakers passed was not as strong as what advocates originally sought. As introduced, the measure would have required retailers to label any flowers or plants treated with the chemicals, so consumers could choose whether to buy them for home and garden use. Seeds are often treated with neonicotinoids, and the chemicals remain as the plant grows, showing up in pollen collected by insects. That labeling provision was dropped, however, in the face of opposition from nurseries and growers.
The measure also requires the state agriculture department to recommend changes to the law to make it consistent with EPA regulations once the agency completes its review of neonicotinoids.
Even so, Ruth Berlin, executive director of the Maryland Pesticide Education Network, called the bill “historic.”
“Maryland has proven itself a leader once again — taking a major step toward protecting our pollinators, food supply, blue crabs and public health,” she said.
Legislation to restrict the pesticides have been introduced this year in a dozen other states: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Virginia and Vermont. Advocates say they hope that measures in the states will spur the federal government to act.
“It signals to the EPA that the agency needs to step up and do more to restrict these pesticides to protect pollinators,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes of Friends of the Earth.
Hogan has not said whether he will sign the bill. Spokesman Douglass Mayer said it’s under review. The state agriculture department continues to oppose it, even with the exemption for farm use, arguing that it will be costly to enforce the retail sales ban and that pesticide regulation should be left to EPA.
The department also said that, beekeepers’ contentions to the contrary, there are no documented cases in Maryland of honeybees harmed by the pesticides. A national survey last year found the chemicals in less than 10 percent of pollen samples collected in the state, the MDA said, and only one of those pollen samples had a neonicotinoid level in the range that EPA has said is likely to affect hives.