Dean Stiglitz wants to keep his bees and his honey chemical free, so he's happy that his hives are well north of the area in which federal workers are injecting trees with insecticides to ward off the invasive Asian Longhorn Beetle.
Stiglitz, who co-owns Golden Rule Honey in Leominster with his wife, Laurie Herboldsheimer, has been a vocal opponent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's use of imidacloprid in Central Massachusetts. He argues that the treatments are overkill and that government scientists don't yet have a full understanding of the impact the pesticide could have on honeybee populations, which have faced mysterious die-offs in recent years.
Nicotine-based imidacloprid is being injected into trees in the Worcester area to ward off the Asian Longhorn Beetle, which was first spotted in the city in 2008. The non-native bug can infest trees and kill them. Soon after the beetle was identified locally, federal agencies swooped in to the area to contain the infestation and began using imidacloprid.
And while people in the honeybee industry like Siglitz don't want to see trees destroyed by invasive bugs, they are also concerned about what a chemical like imidacloprid might do to their businesses.
Rhonda Santos, a USDA spokesperson, said that agency scientists have not ruled out imidacloprid as a potential cause for bee deaths, but said that the agency does not believe that the hardwood tree injections underway in the Worcester area will expose bees to a large enough dose of the chemical to have a significant effect on area hives.
The agency is conducting a study, with the help of several area beekeepers, to analyze any impacts the tree treatments have at the hive level, Santos said.
Stiglitz, who has argued that the USDA should be focusing on cutting down trees that are found to be infested rather than widespread application of an insecticide, is unhappy that Massachusetts bee colonies are being used as a test case for chemical treatments.
"It's worth noting that they're actually funding a study to find out if it harms bees," Stiglitz said. "Which tells you that they're not sure."
The USDA announced in 2009, after protests from Stiglitz and other area beekeepers, that it would not treat the soil with the imidacloprid, but rather inject it into the trees in areas where the invasive beetle has been discovered. The soil treatments would have more wide-ranging effects on the bee population, beekeepers argued.
"I will say it's much better that they're injecting the trees rather than drenching the ground," Stiglitz said.
Despite a high-level of concern from business owners like Stiglizt, the Bay State beekeeping industry is a tiny one, according to the Natural Agricultural Statistics Service, (NASS).
It is difficult to track exactly how much honey Massachusetts produces because the NASS lumps the state in with eight other small-production states in its data to avoid disclosing information on individual operations. Those nine states — which also include Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and South Carolina — produced a combined 1.4 million pounds of honey in 2009, which sold for approximately $3.1 million. That represented approximately 1 percent of the United States' total honey production that year.
The largest honey producer in 2009 was North Dakota, which produced 34.6 million pounds. Second place went to its neighbor, South Dakota, which produced 17.8 million pounds.
Santos said that the USDA is concerned about bees and said that is why the agency is conducting a study of impacts on area hives. But the USDA must also take into account the threat that invasive beetle poses to much larger industries.
Some think that imidacloprid could kill honeybees or make them more susceptible to certain diseases. Others believe it could play some role in causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the name given to a phenomenon that has wiped out entire hives — the causes of which remain somewhat of a mystery.
The USDA does not believe that CCD is caused by imidacloprid, but is conducting an ongoing study of the tree treatments to learn what impact the treatments could have on bee colonies, said Santos.
Santos added that the USDA believes that the insecticide treatments will have a negligible effect on bees because they will not be subjected to a large enough dose to be impacted.
"We're not anticipating impact at the hive level at all," she said.
Holden beekeeper Barbara MacPhee said that she suspects that the study will find some adverse impacts, but said she will have to wait for the results to find out, which could take several more years.
MacPhee, who works as a real estate agent, is one of several area beekeepers who agreed to let scientists use her property to study the impact on hives.
MacPhee said that about five years ago, an entire hive full of bees on her property flew away and she never saw them again. She had never seen that happen in 25 years as a hobbyist beekeeper.
"That was a big concern," she said.
MacPhee thinks that pesticides could have been the culprit. Her other bees refused to inhabit the abandoned hive. She also thinks that residential and commercial development is reducing the number of foraging flowers that bees use as a food source.
Since bees are vital to pollinating crops that humans eat, the stakes are high, she said.
"If we don't have bees, we're not going to have food," she said.
Beekeepers may be concerned about the fate of their bees, but they also don't want to see a widespread infestation that would kill off many trees.
"It's tough to figure out a good solution to this," MacPhee said. "I'm not going to say it isn't."
By keeping her bees in the treatment zone — many of her fellow beekeepers have moved their hives to other locations — MacPhee said she hopes she is playing a part in finding out the truth about imidacloprid. If it turns out to be harmful to bees, MacPhee hopes that future use of the insecticide could be diminished.
"I'm hoping that I can be a part of the solution," she said.