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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Beekeeper offers bee-friendly perspective on weeds

    Drew Burnett with phlox blossoms in a Canterbury meadow.

    Much like Alice is considered a weed and forced to leave the garden in the 1951 animated Walt Disney feature of Alice in Wonderland based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland,” many blossoms are scorned as wildflowers - something to get rid of before “it goes to seed.”

    “Weeds are entirely our understanding,” said Drew Burnett of Drew’s Honeybees in Norwich during a July telephone interview. “There's no biological definition of a weed. A weed is a plant that we view as a pest. And if we just change how we approach it, how we think about it, it becomes something else. So I don’t think there's a good ecological case for going after dandelions or violets,” or other weeds.

    Unlike Monet paintings, which feature meadows with naturally-growing wildflowers, many of today’s lawns and public greens are exempt of such “weeds.”

    Norwich Public Works’ effort to rid public spaces of weeds by hiring Tru-Green has Burnett worried. Even though small signs warning people to stay off the grass were displayed at the end of the green, he said he saw 2 children rolling around in the grass on the Norwichtown Green, while a parent looked on last year.

    He surmised the “minute” warning signs were “either ignored or unseen.”

    After Burnett requested to know what products were used, Norwich Public Works Director Patrick McLaughlin sent him TruGreen’s description on an invoice, which references “Grub Preventative with Fertilizer", "Merit (FTT) (Nitrogen, Potash, Imidacloprid)" and "Grub Control" with the description "Grub Preventative."

    “It would be helpful to have a better understanding of the context here,” stated Diane Jorsey, pesticide program supervisor for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, after viewing the description. “There are a number of important factors related to pesticide applications including which formulation (liquid or granular) is used, whether the pesticide was diluted or a ready-to-use product, was the whole property treated, or was it a spot treatment, etc.,” she said in an email.

    “While cleared fast by mammals,” Imidacloprid is a pesticide and nervous-system depressant and its “primary grub, the oriental beetle, has demonstrated evolved resistance,” said Burnett, who is headquartered in Norwich and has 8 additional apiaries throughout Eastern Connecticut.

    “Imidacloprid is one of those products that beekeepers and the public in general is concerned about because of the potential impact to pollinators,” Jorsey said in an email.

    “A very, very low concentration of .45 percent” of Imidacloprid is a component in a ready-to-use grub preventative/fertilizer product, which is applied “a couple times a year” in granular form on both the Norwichtown Green and Chelsea Parade, so “it’s not heavily treated with this pesticide,” McLaughlin said in an August email.

    During a telephone interview, he said grubs like sunny spaces and "we're trying to keep the grass intact and grubs out of it” and want “it to look nice for everyone.”

    “Imidacloprid is ineffective against two of the four common white grubs found in turf. It has never killed more than about 50% of Asiatic garden beetle populations, and starting about 2013, there have been many failures in control of oriental beetle (OB) grubs,” said Rich Cowles, Ph.D., a scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in Windsor, in an email. “There is no way to document whether the loss in activity against OB is due to the development of insecticide resistance, as that would require either baseline toxicity data or an unselected population from which we would be able to see a shift in the dose-response to this insecticide. There should still be good activity against Japanese beetles and European chafers, but they are less commonly damaging to turf than OB.”

    Alternative to Imidacloprid

    Jorsey said “a low-toxicity product” called chlorantraniliprole (Acelepryn) is an alternative to using Imidacloprid to treat grubs.

    Cowles said, "This active ingredient (Acelepryn) has the nearly magical properties of (1) being nontoxic to vertebrates, (2) being practically nontoxic to honey bees, and (3) being extraordinarily effective against white grubs. One ounce of active ingredient per acre can control all four of our major white grub species (Japanese beetle, oriental beetle, Asiatic garden beetle, and European chafer). The school pesticide ban is not built on a good scientific foundation. Many exempt (25(b)) products would be more toxic to students than many of the products being banned. White grub control is very expensive to schools, and even more expensive when failed management requires renovation and reseeding of destroyed turf."

    McLaughlin said only the 2 greens are treated and that all other public spaces in Norwich are left in their natural state.

    “There are other biologically-based options for managing white grubs in turf, including application of insect pathogenic nematodes and Bacillus thuringiensis var. galleriae products. These are more difficult to get to work than Acelepryn, and are also more expensive,” Cowles said.

    “Imidacloprid is widely used in Connecticut and throughout the area," said McLaughlin, who added that they would look into "alternatives that are less toxic to the bees.”

    “My initial look into Acelaprin is that it will be significantly more expensive.”

    Prior to treating grubs in the spring, McLaughlin said he will “do a little more research to see if it (Acelaprin) truly is more effective” and “if the extra cost would be worth it or not.”

    Imidacloprid is one of “four of the most devastating chemicals to bees, butterflies and other insects,” which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “is poised to allow” the continued use of “despite moves by the European Union to ban the use of toxins that have been blamed for widespread insect declines,” according to theguardian.com.

    “The EPA is widely expected to confirm a proposed plan outlined last year that will extend the use of imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin and dinotefuran on US farmland for the next 15 years, even though the agency has noted “ecological risks of concern, particularly to pollinators and aquatic invertebrates”.

    Burnett emphasized, “Our native pollinators," including bumblebees, wasps, hornets, flies and bats, which "serve a critical ecological function,” are endangered. “Without them, our fruits, veggies, nuts and beans just cease to have the procreative act that allows the fruiting."

    "It's happening at such a clip” with bees, he said, “we're having trouble identifying exactly what's happening.”

    Additionally, the number of bats in the northeast has vastly diminished, because of White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease, he said.

    Burnett believes the reasons for these changes include "altering climate, habitat destruction, pesticides (and) herbicides. New science says fungicides are as big a problem to some pollinators as pesticides. We're still kind of learning what it does to the neurology of pollinators,” and “maybe the immunology and endocrinology that are the functions of life that pollinators use to regulate their survival.”

    Burnett said his goal is for the Norwich Department of Public Works to disclose to the public all chemicals, including fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides used on Norwich's public spaces, so “citizens of this town” can “deliberate and argue respectfully” if they want to continue with this management program.

    After attending some city hall meetings, the former Kelly Middle School and NFA Sachem Campus educator said officials’ desire to cut costs became apparent. Treating Norwich greens with chemicals “is really low hanging fruit,” Burnett said. “I think we're spending money on something that is not ecologically beneficial, nor is it beneficial to the people who use the spaces or live near the spaces.”

    For more information about synthetic pesticides/fertilizers and organic products, go to portal.ct.gov/DEEP/P2/Government/Organic-Land-Care#Other. Drew Burnett can be contacted by telephone at 860-383-2764. His website is drewshoneybees.com.

    Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.

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