Beekeepers call on state to suspend corn seed pesticides said to kill bees

Dead bee
A bee drags a dead bee from one of the hives owned by Steve Ellis in a photo taken Wednesday, May 22, 2013, in Barrett, Minn. Ellis says thousands of his bees died soon after corn seed treated with neonicotinoid pesticide was planted in a nearby field.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A group of Minnesota beekeepers on Wednesday asked state agriculture officials to suspend the use of corn seeds treated with certain pesticides.

The petition signed by 40 beekeepers blames neonicotinoid pesticides for killing honeybees.

Currently, Minnesota farmers only have access to seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, but central Minnesota beekeeper Steve Ellis said that needs to change.

"Beekeepers in Minnesota last year and in years previous have been reporting mortality events at corn seeding time," said Ellis, who has about 2,500 hives in Barrett, Minn. "Apparently the dust is getting off of the corn seeding and going off site and causing poisoning of honey bees on flowers and around their hives."

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Ellis said the petition's signers represent just over 10 percent of the managed bees in the state.

In the last several years, more than a third of the nation's honeybee population has died each year, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Studies have shown the pesticides weaken bees' immune systems.

But the companies that manufacture the pesticides have disputed those findings and are challenging Europe's moratorium on neonicotinoids in court.

Meanwhile, Ellis and other U.S. beekeepers have sued the Environmental Protection Agency for not acting on neonicotinoids.

Beekeeper Steve Ellis
Beekeeper Steve Ellis stands in a bee yard where about 1,300 hives wait to be placed in fields for summer honey production in a photo taken in Barrett, Minn., on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Thousands of bees recently died, and Ellis blames neonicotinoid pesticides. Ellis expects his hives to be much less productive this year.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Ellis said Canada has started a program that makes corn seeds not treated with neonicotinoid pesticides commercially available, and he said he'd like to see something similar in the U.S.

"I realize that logistically it's going to be difficult at this time to make that happen for this year," he said. "We need a leader on this."

Ellis said he hopes Minnesota will take on that role, noting that states can have more stringent rules than the EPA.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is in the midst of a year-long review of neonicotinoids. A House environment committee will get an update from the agency on Thursday and take public testimony on threats to pollinators.