MONTPELIER — The most widely-used class of pesticides in the country may be banned for home use in Vermont, if a bill aimed at protecting the state's pollinators becomes law.
The bill, H.688, under consideration by the House Agriculture Committee earlier this week, would ban most household uses of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides chemically related to nicotine that has come under scrutiny for its potential toxicity to bees and other pollinating insects.
Middlebury beekeeper Ross Conrad, testifying in favor of the ban, told the committee Tuesday that Vermont beekeepers witnessed a die-off of 48 percent of their honeybee colonies in 2016. Conrad added that the last time he appeared before lawmakers, also in support of increasing the regulation of pesticides, was 2013, a year Vermont beekeepers experienced a 30 percent die-off of their honeybee colonies.
Studies have connected the increased worldwide use of neonicotinoids with honeybee colony collapse disorder and the global decline in bee populations. Use of certain neonicotinoids has been restricted in the European Union since 2013.
The Vermont bill focuses on banning most household uses of neonicotinoids, in part because residential users tend to apply 10 to 100 times the recommended amount, said Jane Sorensen, a farmer and an adjunct professor at the University of Vermont.
But farming — in particular the use of seeds pretreated with pesticide — is primarily responsible for the level of exposure of Vermont bees to neonicotinoid pesticides, said Leif Richardson, a postdoctoral researcher at UVM.
"You have to think about agriculture," Richardson told members of the House Committee on Agriculture, which reviewed the bill Tuesday afternoon. "That's just the reality."
Vermont lawmakers considering regulating the use of neonicotinoids at last year's session were told the same thing.
Vermont farmers plant 75,000 acres of crops each year, and as many as 35,000 seeds per acre, Richardson said, and those quantities mean there's "an awful lot" of neonicotinoid pesticide being distributed around the state. One result of using pretreated seeds — instead of waiting to see whether there is a need — is that it leads to the overapplication of pesticides generally, he said.
The Canadian province of Ontario has banned prophylactic use of pesticides, Richardson said. Farmers in the province may apply neonicotinoids to their crops, but only after showing the pesticides are needed to combat a crop pest.
The problem with untreated seeds, Richardson testified, is they are not widely available, and more costly.
While H.688 would not prohibit the purchase or use of neonicotinoid-treated corn seeds, it would require seed sellers to offer untreated versions of every variety of seed sold in Vermont.
Judy Bellairs, a volunteer with the Sierra Club, said it was an important first step. Neonicotinoid pesticides sold for home use have no warning labels, or any other indication that the product has been associated with the global decline in bee populations.
The pesticides pose a "major risk" to pollinating insects even at low doses, Bellairs said, adding that a teaspoon of one of the more popular neonicotinoid pesticides can kill 1.25 billion bees — or 275 tons of bees, she said.
At sublethal doses, Richardson said, neonicotinoids act upon the nervous system, and have been shown to disorient bees, and slow them down, impairing the abilities of individual bees and inflicting broader damage to entire colonies of bees.
Last year's Legislature approved the creation of the Pollinator Protection Committee, to come up with recommendations for new Agency of Agriculture rules to protect the state's pollinators.
Those rules "have not been forthcoming," said the bill's author, Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury.
"The bill is intended to advance pollinator protection in a climate that is reluctant to do anything," Sheldon said.
The state Agency of Agriculture has said that "colony collapse" has not occurred in Vermont. In Conrad's view "there's a conflict" within the agency — its dual role of both promoting farming in Vermont and regulating farms — that gets in the way of enacting and enforcing regulations.
A separate bill before the Legislature this year will address the possible transfer of enforcement authority from the Agency of Agriculture to the Agency of Natural Resources.
The pesticide bill remains before the House agriculture committee. No further testimony on the bill is scheduled this week.