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Southern Illinois Beekeepers

Bees in hives belonging to Jesse Will are busy at work in Vergennes in April 2015.

Even after a lifetime around bees, Ray Nabors says he’s never seen anything like the trouble they’re facing now.

Curled, damaged or dead leaves on flowering plants, trees and other vegetation are triggering a widespread loss of honeybee forage, he says — symptoms that suggest exposure to dicamba, the controversial weedkiller that has sparked thousands of similar complaints across U.S. farmland and torn divisive rifts in the agriculture community. Although decades-old, the chemical has gained new prominence as agribusiness companies like Bayer turn to dicamba-tolerant seed varieties in the fight against Roundup-resistant “superweeds.”

“This dicamba is the absolute worst problems we’ve ever had,” Nabors said. “It’s going to kill everything that puts on a flower that bees can eat.”

Nabors, a resident of Portageville in southeast Missouri’s bootheel region, has been a beekeeper for 40 years and served for about 20 years as the state beekeeping, or apiculture, specialist through the University of Missouri’s extension system. Over that time, he’s dealt with plenty of crises, including pandemic diseases like colony collapse disorder. But the bootheel has been near the epicenter of dicamba damage complaints in recent years, and Nabors says the chemical notorious for vaporizing and moving off-target could pose an even bigger threat to his hives and others.

“Down here, it’s hurting our honeybee population, and I’m not the only beekeeper it’s hurting. There’s many of us,” said Nabors, adding that the bootheel accounts for about one-third of Missouri’s honey — more than any other part of the state.

Others to echo similar concerns include the largest commercial beekeepers in Missouri and just across the state line, in Arkansas. Some say years of recurring harm from dicamba threatens to put them out of business, or force them to move — a contingency they are bracing for after the Environmental Protection Agency extended registration for leading varieties of the chemical through 2020.

“We have determined that if we have a repeat in (2019), which it appears we’re going to have, we have no choice but to relocate our business,” said Richard Coy, who co-owns Coy’s Honey Farm — Arkansas’ biggest beekeeping company. “We have to leave Arkansas because we can’t be profitable.”

The company’s 12,000 hives are primarily in the northeast corner of the state, though Coy says they also have some in Mississippi and in the Bootheel, as well as in the area “where the murder took place” — a reference to when, in 2016, a dicamba dispute near the Arkansas-Missouri border led to a fatal shooting.

Describing the last few years, Coy paints a bleak picture of what happened to the plants, and profit margins, that his business depends on. Although it took him a couple years to attribute his problems to dicamba, Coy says they started experiencing issues from it in 2015 — the same year dicamba-tolerant seed varieties were introduced by Monsanto. Over time, he thinks cumulative effects of repeated dicamba exposure have taken a progressively bigger toll on wild vegetation and on nearby honey production.

Coy says damage to American buckwheat, or redvine, is especially critical. He guesses that about 70 percent of the plant in northeast Arkansas has died, and that “60 percent of the honey we produce in the state comes from that particular plant.”

He estimates that losses to his business have totaled $1.1 million and counting, encompassing both reduced honey production and the inability to send weakened bees to California, where they would typically help with almond pollination during the winter.

Coy says his experiences are shared by other beekeepers in the area, and points to scientific research that supports his suspicion about dicamba. A 2015 study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, for instance, found that drift-level doses of the chemical threatened pollinator habitat by causing “significant delays in flowering, as well as reduced flowering” in plants and resulted “in decreased visitation” by honeybees.

“What that research said in 2015 is what I actually observed,” said Coy.

Other commercial beekeepers in the region — from businesses both big and small — said they believed their operations have been affected by dicamba, or were aware of others that were, but warned that many may be reluctant to speak out for fear of ruffling feathers with farmer clients who see dicamba as a valued tool for weed control.

“I’m in the situation where if I don’t speak up, I’d be out of business in Arkansas, anyway,” said Coy.

Missouri’s largest commercial beekeeper, Neal Bergman, also said he’s been affected. Bergman owns Delta Bee Co., based in Kennett, and by Nabors’ estimation, “probably pollinates most of the crop of the entire bootheel.”

Bergman acknowledges that he thinks dicamba has been a problem for his bees, but says it’s tough to quantify or put a “finger on any one thing,” with other forces at play.

“Do I think it impacts me? Yes, I think it impacts me negatively. Can I put a dollar figure on it? No, I can’t,” he said.

Bergman says that his honey production is only about one third of what it was 15 years ago. He explains that the drop-off is partly due to colony health issues — his hives, for example, are just now recovering from a virus suffered for the last three years — and partly from a broader shift to genetically-modified crops that yield less nectar and support the use of chemicals, or from other farmer choices that can influence available bee forage.

“They’re tilling up more acreage,” Bergman said. “We used to have a lot more wildflowers around. Just (from) the changing of agriculture, we’ve lost a lot of that.”

When it extended registration for dicamba a month ago, the EPA accompanied its press release with a statement that said it expects “there will be no adverse impacts to bees or other pollinators,” if the product is used according to its label’s guidelines.

But over the last few years, there have been many instances of dicamba being used improperly, or at other times, many farmers have said problems with drift or off-target movement still occur even when applied correctly.

And some beekeepers, meanwhile, expressed confusion about why the EPA made its determination about pollinators while also saying in its lengthier report that “potential direct risk concerns could not be excluded for” certain mammals, birds and terrestrial plants.

Bayer, which inherited dicamba seed and herbicide technologies pioneered by Monsanto, said it was not aware of problems reported by beekeepers. The company said that “non-target organisms” are taken into account during the EPA’s product approval process.

“They look at non-target organisms and that includes honeybees and their habitat,” said Ty Witten, Bayer’s North American crop protection lead. “That’s the EPA’s requirement to get a pesticide approved.”

He said dicamba can “absolutely” coexist safely with bees and other plants, and that continued education about application techniques is key.

“That education piece is paramount to everything we do,” said Witten. He also mentioned a voluntary program called BeeCheck.

Although dicamba can enable high yields for farmers that adopt the technology, Nabors, at least, questions whether it is worth potentially jeopardizing the services that pollinators provide for not only beekeepers and native plants, but for farmers and the food supply at large.

“The cost to farmers is more than they realize,” he says, noting that bee pollination can add a extra few bushels per acre for soybean yields and also help cotton harvests — boosts that add up across heavily agricultural areas, like the Bootheel. “We’re losing commercial beekeepers like swatting flies, and we need the commercial guys because they’re the ones who do most of the pollination.”

With dicamba still on the market to be sprayed over the top of crops, he fears for the worst.

“As long as we keep spraying it, we’re going to have the same problem. We don’t need to wipe out bees in the southeast corner of the state,” Nabors said. “Do we really want to give that up over dicamba?”

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