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March 26, 2015

A report on bee health from Dr. May Berenbaum

It's not news that pollinators of all kinds--whether honey bees or native species--have experienced severe population declines in the 21st Century. The condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) became well known in 2006, when western honeybee colonies experienced serious losses. Over the poast few years, CCD appears to be subsiding. But the question of why it happened in the first place has yet to be answered satisfactorily.

That doesn't mean that pollinators are out of the woods. They are still dying off in unprecedented numbers, and a number of researchers point to pesticides as a primary culprit, especially a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids, which have become the world's most used pesticides. In the wake of those bee losses, the European Union voted in 2013 to ban the use of three neonicotinoids--clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam--for two years.

Could that happen in the United States? Just this year, 125 conservation, beekeeping, food safety, religious, ethnic and farming advocacy groups urged President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the use of what are often called "neonics" in this country. Just about every day, I receive an email from an environmental group asking me to write or call my elected officials to get them to ban neonics.

But are pesticides--specifically neonicotinoids--the smoking gun regarding bee loss?

As far as I can determine, it's not that simple. I have talked to a number of entomologists in the past nine years, and they all pretty much agree that bees face a wide range of threats--parasites, fungal diseases, nutrition issues, habitat loss, fungicides and, yes, the ubiquitous pesticide use. And now, a new USDA study seems to show that neonicotinoids play less of a role in bee loss than has been the accusation against them.

University of Illinois entomologist Dr. May Berenbaum is one of those scientists who are looking at the "all of the above" answer to the question of bee decline.. I ran into her on the last day of the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, and interrupted her day off for a quick interview about the state of the bees in early 2015. For starters, she says that bee populations have increased slightly as we move into the 2015 growing season.

She's dubious about whether a ban on neonicotinoids in this country would do any good, noting that growers would either go back to earlier, more toxic chemicals, or move on to newer pesticides, such as sulfoxaflor, which was recently approved by the EPA. And, unfortunately, there are more in the pipeline. However, that isn't stopping the Candadian province of Ontario from moving forward with a proposal to limit the use of neonicotinoids by 80%.

This controversy is far from resolved. Stay tuned.

Environmental law update from Springfield

Let's face it--the State of Illinois is a financial mess. Faced with a $1.3 billion hole in the current (yes, I said current) budget, the General Assembly and Governor Bruce Rauner came to a bipartisan agreement this week that basically moves funding from a lot of different places in the budget to fill the gap.

However, if you think road repair is important, you won't be thrilled with the $250 million that came out of that fund. And if you're me (not something I would wish on anybody), you're not particularly happy that $98 million was diverted from the Illinois Power Agency Renewable Energy Resources Fund, which is intended to promote clean energy.

Here are some other environmentally related funds that took a hit in this negotiation

$6 million from Natural Areas Acquisition Fund
$6 million from Partners for Conservation
$15 million Park and Conservation Fund
$3 million from Renewable Energy Resources Trust Fund
$6 million from EE trust fund
$15 from Solid Waste Management Fund

And that's before we get to the $6.6 billion gap in the coming year's budget. Strap in, folks, it ain't gonna be pretty.

Meawnhile, people like Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, spend a lot of time in Springfield trying to get planet-friendly legislation passed. She recently sent out a laundry list of proposals that she'd like to see get passed. They read something like this list from the IEC newsletter:

  • In House Environment, a proposal to allow temporary and permanent drop offs for composting advanced.   HB437.  In Senate Environment, a proposal to ban sharps from recycling advanced. SB793 .
  • On the House floor, HB1362 to increase compost usage, HB2495 to encourage consistent labeling for recyclable and compostable containers, and HB198 which would ticket non-electric vehicles in EV spots, all moved to the Senate.
  • Monarch License Plate - HB3465 would create a Monarch Butterfly license plate in Illinois to fund efforts to plant more milkweed.  This bill moved out of committee this week.  Read more in the Pantagraph .
  • House Agriculture Committee - HB2487, which would protect seed libraries and HB3240, which would increase fines for building on a waterway without a permit, both advanced out of committee.  We expect HB352, a bill to authorize bobcat hunting to be heard in committee next week.  Look for more info from us next week and take action here .

An issue that has been on my radar is the Illinois Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act, which, since January 1, 2012 prohibits landfills from knowingly accepting any CEDs (covered electronic devices) for disposal. This includes televisions, computers, printers, computer monitors (both residential and non-residential) and more.

Unfortunately, the rising cost of recycling and the low annual recycling goals set by state law for electronics manufacturers has caused counties like Will and Lake to scramble to pay for recycling electronics. The problem is that once manufacturers meet certain weight goals, they no longer have to pay recycling contractors to process items. Thus, HB1455 is being championed by counties and municipalities in Illinois and would adjust the goals and penalties of Illinois' electronic recycling law to provide more opportunities for electronic recycling.

Regardless of the diversion of fund to the Renewable Energy Resources Fund in the current budget, a good clean energy bill continues to a major goal of environmental groups in Illinois. The Illinois Clean Jobs Bill - HB2607 and SB1485 - is a step in the right direction. However, Exelon has introduced legislation (HB3293), m, which seems mostly a way to protect its nuclear power plants.

We're just getting to April, so the wheeling and dealing in Springfield has just begun.

Rick DiMaio and our cool, cool spring

I know that many of my listeners miss my weekly chats with meteorologist Rick DiMaio, so I try to bring him onto my podcasts as often as possible. In our conversation this week (recorded as about four inches of March snow was falling in Chicago), we chat about what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is calling the warmest winter on record worldwide. Ladies and gentlemen, that is NOT a contradiction.

As usual, a number of different subjects come up as well. Rick DiMaio fans...enjoy!



 Past Shows


Bee stressors

Dr. May Berenbaum