Q&A with Rebecca Dickson, of the People and Pollinator Action Network
Rebecca Dickson, chair of the Sierra Club-Indian Peaks Group and executive board member of the People and Pollinators Action Network, recently gave a presentation and led a discussion at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge titled “Honeybees, Humans and Pesticides.” She discussed the history of pesticides and their effects, along with the costs of industrial agriculture.
We followed up with Dickson to talk more about her advocacy group and the plight of pollinators.
SUMMIT DAILY: What is the People and Pollinators Action Network, and what is its mission?
REBECCA DICKSON: We formulated this group with about 10 different activists down here in Boulder. We wanted to be a statewide and even regional group, and we’ve grown very quickly. What we’re interested in is focusing on people and pollinators, how people are affected by pesticides, how pollinators are affected by pesticides.
People and pollinators come together in really important ways; we depend on them for at least one-third of our food supply. Well, we know we depend on honeybees for one-third of our food supply, and we also depend on bumblebees and even mosquitoes and hummingbirds. They really matter, but they are quite invisible, and they’re in danger for a number of reasons. We’re concerned about pesticides and foraging undermining these keystone species.
SD: Why are you passionate about protecting our pollinators?
RD: I’m an organic gardener, and I’ve been an organic gardener for nearly 20 years now, and a couple of years ago, maybe seven or eight years ago, I noticed there are so few bees in my garden now. I didn’t have to start pollenating by hand but did notice that the honeybees were disappearing. I had fewer bumblebees, and I wasn’t seeing as many butterflies, but I really noticed the absence of the honeybees. I was already involved with the Sierra Club when I noticed this.
There’s this new class of pesticides that could be causing the problem, neonicotinoids. As use grew, so were the problems with pollinators. I began looking into it more carefully. This had personal consequences for me. After taking a class, I decided to become a beekeeper. I’ve lost three hives so far, and I only have two hives. I lost a hive last year; this year, I lost both hives — it’s hard to keep them alive. When I started looking into the issue, it’s about pesticides largely and foraging issues. I wanted to work on this exclusively because pollinators matter. We take full advantage of them, but we ignore them. When I found out what the problems were, I thought myself and others are well positioned and well experienced to do something about this, so I began working on the issue.
SD: Why are pesticides a big part of the problem with declining bee populations?
RD: Neonicotinoids are a big concern. They’re a class of pesticides, there’s six, maybe seven, neonicotinoids now. They are relatively new; in the late 1990s, they took the industrial agriculture world by storm. They’re now everywhere; they’re the most prevalent pesticides in the world.
What this neonicotinoid does is it’s a systemic pesticide, an even wider class of pesticide. They’re these chemical marvels. They penetrate the plant, and very small amounts are highly toxic. They get into a plant, into its roots, into its leaves, into its fruit, into its nectar, into its pollen. The bee, the hummingbird, the butterfly comes to the plant — it’s an insecticide — they suck on it and take that neonicotinoid into their bodies. It’s a real small amount; it doesn’t kill them outright, necessarily, but it can, and sometimes it’s a minute amount, and they take it back to the hive.
And then another bee and another bee takes it back to the hive because it’s everywhere. The hive becomes weakened by it. It affects the neurology of the little bee, the insect, so their little nervous system is affected by it. It makes them disoriented; the queen is less able to lay eggs. A number of research articles have established the effects of neonicotinoids. Dave Goulson, his latest article, I’m kind of talking through it with you. (See page 12 for more about Goulson’s book “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees.”)
He talks about how winter comes, and there’s a guy at Harvard who did this study: Winter is what kills your hives; it’s what happened to me in both cases. Bees can’t make it through the winter. It used to be that 98 percent, 95 percent would make it through the winter. Now the number in Colorado, I read that the number is 38 percent losses in Colorado from beehives over the course of the winter. Nationwide, the number is 42 percent. For me, I’m a new beekeeper; I was a 100 percent loss this winter. The neonicotinoids have a systemic effect, and there’s no part of the plant that is safe for insects. It’s great if you want to control aphids, but if you’re a peach grower, a cherry grower, you need those bees to pollinate.
SD: What makes honeybees so delicate, especially in our mountain ecosystems?
RD: One of the things about bees that we have to keep in mind is that bees evolved in Africa in much warmer temperatures. For a Colorado beekeeper, we have to keep that in mind: They are not native to North America. Bees are very useful creatures, so Europeans began cultivating them and they even have a European honeybee now. They aren’t used to really cold temperatures. You would have found them around Italy, Greece, where they have been cultivating them for years.
You bring this nonnative creature into the interior of the U.S., where we have winter in a way that Southern Europe doesn’t have winter. Winter is hard on them; they cluster together, they don’t hibernate. They’re very collaborative, clever creatures, but they don’t have millions of years of evolution to deal with it. They are highly evolved to handle all kinds of challenging situations, like predators and diseases, but winter, no. They aren’t real good at it yet. Yellow jackets are native to Colorado. Hornets, wasps, they are native, but the honeybee isn’t so good at handling the winter.
Up where you live, you see bumblebees on top of a 14er, but you won’t see honeybees up there. Winter is a challenge in the first place, and you mix with it a weakened hive, the queen isn’t as strong as she was before neonicotinoids and the bees are neurologically damaged by these toxins. You have to nurse them through in a way that you didn’t need to 30 years ago.
SD: What can we do here in Summit County to help protect our pollinators?
RD: The first thing you’re going to look at is that $16 billion economic driver. There are entire little lobbies in our country that are concerned about honeybees and have reason to be. We don’t have a wild bee industry for the bumblebee, the butterfly. We don’t really protect these other types of wild pollinators; we don’t have a hummingbird industry. There’s an economic industry protecting bees, to some degree, and they are working hard to relieve the difficulties the honeybees are facing.
What you have in the mountains of Colorado is a whole lot of wild bees and a whole lot of butterflies, and those creatures are also affected by neonicotinoid pesticides. Hummingbirds are taking out that pollen just like a bee does. They are taking in that poison. … Any pollinator is going to be affected by neonicotinoids being used in communities up near yours. If you buy bedding plants at Home Depot, they have been pre-treated. You won’t have aphids, white flies — all these cruddy things — great, but you’re also affecting the wild bees, the hummingbirds, the butterflies. It’s important not to use them anywhere.
SD: There are many different pollinators — wild bees, bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds — but honeybees seem to get all of the attention. Why do people seem to care so much more about honeybees?
RD: They care about it because, on some deep level, bees do something pretty key for us. On some level, we understand that. When you’re out in the world in the spring, you start seeing honeybees again, it’s this herald of spring, and what they are doing in spring when you see them is they’re pollinating your favorite fruit, your apple tree blossoms, your peach tree blossoms, your cherry tree blossoms. Parents will say, look, you’re going to have apples next year — look at the bees. It’s one of the first things kids learn about the natural world is that fruits and flowers need to be pollinated.
Once you get over the fear of bees — and I used to be afraid of them when I was younger — they are these cute little furry creatures, and they have no interest in human beings unless you have a Coca Cola in your hand and they’re interested in the sugar. They have no interest in us at all, but they are so interesting to us. They’re so collaborative. They’re doing stuff, out there in their little font porch of their beehive. They are much better at being social and helpful of one another than we are. They work together in ways that we can’t even begin to. They understand each other; they stand by each other. There’s something really beautiful to a beehive, and if you’re around bees, you pick up on that pretty quickly.
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