An Ebey Island beekeeper lost 240 of her 1,400 hives this past summer from pesticides. But who owned the pesticide? If you consider that each hive held 30,000 bees, a conservative estimate since there can be as many as 50,000 in a hive, that would be over 7 million bees.

Getchell Ranch is a 94-acre small organic farm on the island, located on the Snohomish River. It was founded in 1873. Last summer, mounds of yellow and black honeybee bodies lay motionless in mounds on the ground. Such a loss could devastate a small business. Equipment, bees, and hives will have to be replaced, and income from the pollination business (almonds in California and canola in the Midwest) will drop considerably.

Entomologists and state investigators suspect over-the-counter pesticides were the cause of death. Maybe the bees foraged pollen and nectar from flowering plants that had been sprayed with toxic chemicals or drank water from a contaminated source. But where did the pesticides come from?

This unrelated 1:52-minute video by Newsy shows a similar event in South Carolina around five years ago:



Cases like this are a reminder to all of us how devastating pesticides can be to honeybees.

The farm is owned by Maria Foster, who got in touch with Charlie Coslor, an entomologist with the Washington State University extension in Skagit County. Coslor is also the director of Skagit County’s pest control board. He said he hasn’t seen a scene like this before. He collected samples from the farm, froze them, and sent them to be tested by the state.

The state Department of Agriculture’s pesticide compliance program reviewed the incident. It could have been a nearby farm, or the county or state may have played a role. Maybe the city of Everett was doing something just across the river. Or a water source might have been contaminated.

One by one, the suspects were eliminated, so none of these were at the root of the matter. Bees forage up to a couple miles away, so pinpointing the source of the pesticides proved impossible.

Foster doesn’t think anyone on her side of the river had anything to do with it, doesn’t know anyone who uses pesticides on blooming plants. She doesn’t use any herself, and thinks chemicals are bad for the world. Her farm is totally organic.

She isn’t trying to bring anyone to justice, she said. She just wants to raise awareness around pesticides. She points out that on one hand, people say, let’s save the bees. On the other hand, people say, let’s spray the bugs. We need to all realize we can’t have it both ways.

After the state completed its testing, Coslor reviewed the chemical analysis and discovered the bees had high concentrations of pesticides. Carbaryl was off the charts, and at least one bee had over 15 times the lethal dosage. Anyone can buy carbaryl. Most misuse happens in residential applications.  

The pesticide has historically been sold as the brand Sevin, and the products have a warning that it can kill honeybees in substantial numbers if sprayed on blooming plants. Labels on pesticide products carry the weight of federal law. Straying from the instructions could cause you to be penalized.

According to Katie Buckley, the state’s pollinator health coordinator, bee kills only happen in Washington once or twice yearly, thanks to restrictions and education. But mistakes and malpractice both happen, unfortunately.

Farmers in the state are conscious of bees, and know they need these pollinators, so they don’t want to kill them. Buckley leads a new state task force assigned to protect pollinators, with a focus on education. The task force may contact people who buy pesticides, and professionals who use them commercially.

Bees are confronted with many challenges in addition to pesticides, like habitat loss, diseases, and invasive species, including the deadly Asian giant hornet.

Despite these obstacles, there is good news. More people are stepping up to help pollinators, and are considering how to grow pollinator-friendly gardens, how to best use pesticides or avoid them, and how to pass laws with bugs in mind. This is all good stuff for bees and other pollinators.