Keeping the Bee in Business

A state apiarist? Register your apiary locations with the state? Your chance to speak.

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In September, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) will make available a survey to all beekeepers in the state about possible changes to the bee program. The survey will ask if beekeepers would like to have a state apiarist and an apiary registration database. The purpose of this letter is to familiarize you with these proposals.

Executive Summary: a state apiarist might be a good idea, depending on how it is implemented and who has the job, but it could also create regulatory hurdles with no significant positive benefit. Apiary location registration in a central database is a bad idea for beekeepers for many reasons, and is a protection for pesticide applicators.

State Apiarist: Washington state, through WSDA, last had a state apiarist in the 1990s. Since then, informing beekeepers of the latest science and best management practices has happened on the local club level and with WSU Extension personnel, as well as with the growing number of resources on the internet. Currently, WSDA has one full-time employee tasked with coordinating activities of all pollinators, both native ones and managed honey bees, which are considered non-native. Pro: a state apiarist would be another source of information for beekeepers. Con: a state apiarist would have some enforcement ability and (depending on the person in the position) could be an unwanted intrusion into your beekeeping. Local clubs, supported by WSU Extension, internet resources, and WASBA, do the majority of teaching of beekeeping in Washington, and do it better than ever. WSDA’s Apiary Advisory Committee still exists to advise the WSDA director on honey bee issues.

WASBA encourages you to think about the implications of a state apiarist. Some may want an additional perspective on beekeeping issues; others may wish to avoid regulatory overreach and state interference in their beekeeping.

Location Registration: The apiary registration database is the idea of the pesticide industry. This is not the registering of beekeepers, as we currently do when we register annually as beekeepers with WSDA. Nor is it location registration for the purpose of preventing apiary overcrowding, as in Montana and the Dakotas. This is to create a database of apiary locations so pesticide applicators can consult the list before spraying pesticides.

The majority of beekeepers have good relations with the landowners where they place their bees. The majority of growers respect the need to protect bees. There are a few growers, however, who don’t. They don’t keep the contact info for the beekeeper they have allowed on their land, or don’t know who the beekeeper is who put hives on their land. When they notice economically damaging levels of pests in their fields, they want the infestation controlled immediately, whether or not bees are present. This minority of growers will call the pesticide applicator to apply immediately, knowing hives are present on their land or nearby on land of their neighbor. They push the liability for damaging bees to the pesticide applicator. This puts the applicator in a bad position, having loaded their plane and flown to the site, only to find beehives present. Do they waste the fuel and time and return home, or do they spray immediately as the grower requests and risk liability for killing bees?

The minority of beekeepers who place hives without permission are also making this problem worse. Good relations between beekeepers and landowners/growers will prevent issues like this. An apiary registration system would protect pesticide applicators from liability while relieving growers from having to pay attention to beehive locations.

Beekeepers affected by this proposal have objections. Such a database is supposed to be accessible only to landowners, growers, and pesticide applicators. That’s a large audience to see personal contact info for all the beekeepers using the system; identity theft is likely. Beekeepers guard the locations of their best forage from other beekeepers; a central database of such locations would be ripe for stealing locations or for placing others’ hives very close to existing locations to take advantage of the forage of the original apiary. Beehive theft would be facilitated as such a database would become a list of hives to steal or vandalize.

If such a system were in place, a beekeeper who chose not or was unable to register their locations would lose the right to recover in the event of honey bee poisoning. The defendant would point to the beekeeper not using the registration system and blame the victim for the bee poisoning. If the system were mandatory, it would be an even stronger defense if the beekeeper didn’t keep current the location information in the database. Updating the locations of every bee hive during pollination season is impractical, requiring hiring an employee whose sole job was to do this. Hives are moved every night during those seasons, whether tree fruit, berry, or seed crop pollination. Beekeepers already have agreements with those who ask for pollination, or have given permission to place hives on their land.

Backyard beekeepers would also be affected. In an urban setting, professional pesticide applicators already do everything possible to limit pesticide drift. There is no database of locations of neighboring gardens, or yards where children play. In no circumstances should urban pesticide applications ever allow drift beyond the target. Yet, advocates for this system say it would help protect urban beehives. If you keep bees in an urban setting and prefer your neighbors not know you have an apiary, this database would be a record of where your hives are.

Apiary registration as proposed would put a great burden on beekeepers with the effect of protecting pesticide applicators from liability. This idea is advocated by the pesticide lobby and would be a great victory for them, absolving their clients of liability for killing bees. Such systems in other states have evolved into a “notify and spray” system where applicators are protected after notification. The pesticide applicators send automated messages and spray pesticides a certain number of hours later, whether or not the beekeeper is available to do anything about it.

A seemingly simple idea, “protect honey bees from pesticides,” has implications that actually make life harder for beekeepers. Please consider these things when you participate in the survey.

Tim Hiatt