Maine’s blueberry crop relies on imported bees, but a new rule to protect them might be something of a bumble.Maine farmers are eyeing the progress of a proposed rule from the US Environmental Protection Agency, cracking down on pesticide use where working bees are present on farms, part of an effort to address a nationwide die-off of honeybees. With some 90 percent of all honeybees now living not in the wild but in hives maintained by beekeepers, the rule is aimed at protecting a pollinator population that is itself a farming commodity.
Only California’s almond farms import more hives than Maine’s wild blueberry harvesters, explains John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Maine’s wild blueberries rely heavily on these traveling bees, says Rebar, and apples and other crops aren’t far behind, so it’s important to protect the pollinators. But since these fruits also tempt voracious insects, farmers must protect their crops, and that can mean applying pesticides that might harm bees. The proposed rule would prohibit farmers from leaf-spraying when a crop is in bloom and hired bees are actively working on it.
Some Maine farmers, however, say the new regulation seems ineffectual.
“I don’t know of one farmer in this entire world that would want to spray a bee,” says Jeff Timberlake, a state legislator and apple farmer with Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner. Farmers do need to apply insecticides at crucial times, he says, but he maintains that a farm will always notify a beekeeper so that the bees can be removed from the orchard.
The rule would apply to more than 1,000 pesticide products and to growers who rent bees to pollinate crops. It wouldn’t apply to neighboring farms, other nearby homeowners, or regional mosquito control projects. And therein lies a problem, says master beekeeper and Maine Beekeepers Association member Andrew Dewey.
“A lot of the blueberry fields work on a two-year cycle,” Dewey explains, “so you may have a field that’s not in production that’s getting treated, and the honeybees placed on a neighboring property are very likely to fly over and be exposed.”
With public comment on the proposal closed last month, the hive mind may determine the rule’s future.
— Jennifer Mitchell
This article is adapted from our content partner, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. Listen to Jennifer Mitchell’s full audio report on this topic.
hkratky | istock (bee); Stinson Mathews | reader photo (blueberries)