pesticides pollinator threats

Pesticides on the prairie

Yesterday I went to Glacial Heritage Preserve to photograph bees. The prairie was in full bloom, a watercolor of camas, golden paintbrush, chocolate lily, and balsam root. The scent of flowers floated on a breeze caught between hot and cold—jacket on, jacket off.

Camera in hand, I began to walk the flower-lined trails, looking for bees. When I found nothing, I wandered through the research plots where the flowers were even thicker. Color competed for attention: yellow, orange, purple, crimson, and white but still no bees. I didn’t see an insect, a bird, a snake. For forty minutes I roamed, finally spotting a lone bumble, the very common Bombus vosnesenskii.

I spent two hours on the trails and ended up seeing four B. vosnesenskii, two B. mixtus, one Halictus rubicundus, and one Apis mellifera. Add to that four flies and one butterfly. I thought back to the days when a walk in a prairie was deafening: insects buzzing, clicking, whining, and singing. As I kid, I covered my ears and complained, “It’s too loud!” But now it is silent.

Across a dirt track from the research plots is a tree farm. There, acres and acres of groomed soil in straight rows glistens brown in the sunlight. Not a green thing exists—neither a weed nor blade of grass mars the perfect lines. I don’t know what they do to the soil, but something. I can only assume that seeds are planted under there, Douglas-fir probably, which will emerge in perfect monoculture.

On the far side of the preserve another monoculture is being mowed—animal feed of some sort. Houses skirt much of the remainder, ephemeral structures built on top of the historic Mima Mounds.

Could pesticide drift from the adjacent lands be killing the bees? I don’t know, but something created this bee desert. The irony—one of several—is that the research plots are being used to raise flowers and host plants favored by four species of rare butterfly, all in hopes of restoring their populations to the Glacial Heritage Preserve.

I also don’t know if chemicals are used on the preserve itself, but certainly two miles away at the Mima Mounds Natural Area, herbicides are used in abundance. I go there frequently, looking for bees, and often I see signs warning of herbicide use. We are taught herbicides are safe for insects because that is what they want us to believe.

Only two or three percent of the western Washington prairies still exist and great effort is expended on these remaining patches. They are called natural areas, but in fact, history tells us that Native American tribes kept these tracks of land cleared so the camas would proliferate. The bulbs were an important food, and only by keeping the trees at bay, would the camas survive. The tribes did this by burning the land while the camas bulbs, protected by the soil, survived and multiplied.

Since the prairies were man made, once the tribes stopped harvesting and burning—or were forced to—the forest returned. Douglas-fir, oak, and sword fern once again took up their rightful place, and introduced species, notably scots broom, moved in as well.

Now we have decided to preserve the remaining prairie so we can see and enjoy the ecosystem they supported, along with the birds and butterflies that thrived there. But how do we do it? We use chemicals, of course. Poison and more poison will solve all our problems. Just keep dumping it on and the prairie will return.

This may have worked at first, but I believe background levels of toxic chemicals have increased to the point where some species can no longer survive. We assume that these poisons disappear with time, but maybe not. Maybe a little bit persists and that small amount is added to next year’s dose and so on through the seasons until the background level itself is too much for some.

Add those background levels to the chemicals that waft on the breeze, or flow with the ground water, or travel back to nests on the wing, and you have a recipe for death. These incremental doses of toxin, I believe, are killing the honey bees.

If you think that within a “natural area” living things are safe from pesticides, think again. In the name of life itself, what is wrong with us? Surely we are destroying the very things that make us human.



Flowers at Glacial Heritage Preserve and not a bee in sight. What is going on?


Herbicide application at Mima Mounds Natural Area. How natural is that?


  • I am a hobby beekeeper and have a 30 acre lakeplain prairie on Harsens Island in Michigan. I have been restoring the prairie for about 6 to 7 years now using a variety of methods including, cutting, pulling, digging, burning, and using herbicides with a cut stump treatment and direct spraying when necessary.

    First I would like to make sure that people understand the terms pesticide vs. herbicide. Pesticides are chemicals which are used to control animals and plants. Herbicides are the subset of pesticides which are used to control just plants.

    Invasive plants are the cause of major changes to our ecosystems, including prairies, which can reduce the numbers and diversity of plants available to insects, including our beloved honey bee. I personally do as much invasive control as possible without the use of herbicides, however, there are certain plants and conditions under which herbicides is the only way to control the invasives spread and proliferation. One plant in particular is non-native phragmites. The intensity of the monolithic stand can be reduced by repeated cutting, but that does nothing to encourage or increase the much needed native plant population because we are cutting the native plants while cutting the invasive phragmites.

    Through the careful use of herbicides, which I believe are not adversely affecting the animal populations, I have been able to return 10s of acres to diverse native plant populations which otherwise would have remained a monoculture of phragmites of very little use to any insect, bird or mammal.

    The reason we sometimes have to resort to the use of herbicides is that when humans brought the many invasives with them from Europe and Asia they did not bring the animals which feed on them to keep them in check. It would be a wonderful if nobody ever brought any plants and animals here from other parts of the world so we wouldn’t have to use pesticides to stop them from changing our ecosystems, but if that were true, we wouldn’t have honey bees here in the states. It is a very complicated subject and there is no simple solutions. We are stuck with the current conditions based on actions taken by others in the past and we have to move forward and try to make the best of what we have.

    I believe that the thoughtful limited use of herbicides can serve our honey bee population while helping maintain our native ecosystems.

    Bob Williams

  • “We are taught herbicides are safe for insects because that is what they want us to believe.” Very well said. Humans are in serious trouble because fewer and fewer individuals think for themselves. Too many people believe without questioning what the media says, what the doctor says, what such and such scientist says, and so on. Also, people are less caring and compassionate than they were 25 or more years ago. There are a number of scientific studies that point to the damaging effect of television and other forms of technology on the human brain. People are becoming less human as a result. No wonder they do not care that bees are disappearing …

  • Rusty, if they are spraying neonicotinoids, Dr. Christy Morrissey of the University of Saskatchewan has documented that neonics persist and concentrate in ground and standing water ie. ponds and puddles, lakes etc. This persistence kills all insects, including bees, that drink the contaminated water, and is being implicated in song bird population losses. Neonicotinoids, popular thanks to their low toxicity to mammals like us, kills well beyond its application targets…a persistent and wandering Grim Reaper. That may explain some of your insect vanishments.

    • I agree, and it seems people have no idea of the persistence of many of these chemicals, especially the neonicotinoids. “The small amount I use won’t make any difference . . .” Yes, it will.

  • Rusty, this is heartbreaking. Advice we are giving to people to help the bees is to plant more forage and minimize pesticide use. It is clear that no matter how many flowers there are, there will be no pollinators if we kill them off with pesticides. The insecticides kill the insects and the herbicides often kill their food. Fungicides were thought to be safe for bees until a recent study found they tripled the amount of Nosema deaths in honeybee colonies. Innocent until proven guilty may work with people, but I think for pesticides, food additives and food tinkering, the thinking should be “dangerous until proven safe” (and not proven by insect and human guinea pigs). My two cents…

    • JoAnne,

      Like fungicides, herbicides have been found to increase the toxicity of some insecticides and worsen some diseases. All types of poisons weaken insects and when the effects are synergistic, they kill many more than we thought possible. I agree it is heartbreaking, but it is also scary.

  • Hi, Rusty.

    With your permission, I would like to print this article for my U.S. congressman, Dan Kildee. His office contacted me and wanted to set up a meeting to talk about helping honey bees and beekeepers. I’m not sure of the extent of his inquiries with other beekeepers, or what legislation he hopes to introduce from these meetings, but I’m happy to offer my two cents. First of all to point out to him that honey bees are just the ‘canary in the coal mine’ and their problems are mirrored by many other species. I’m meeting with him this Friday at one of the orchards where my bees live and have every intention of inspecting a hive or two with him.

    Aside from the obvious pests, pathogens, and pesticides issues, a very big issue in my mind is loss of habitat. Your article points out that even in areas set up to be beneficial to pollinators, without some additional protections it may not be enough. I think this is a critical point in the conversation that will take place. It also brings to mind the recent money that was allotted (3 million dollars) to mid-west farmers to plant some pollinator friendly areas on their farms. Sadly, I saw this as a publicity stunt without not much real benefit. Your article helps confirm, for me, that a few acres of pollinator friendly habitat surrounded by thousands of acres of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides is futile. There is a lot more to this battle than a few token plots of pollinator friendly habitat. It’s a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

    However, there are some fights that need fighting. It seems to me that the most difficult battle we fight is that of apathy. Most people think they have little or no part in the path we are on. They expect science will come up with a solution and that ‘government’ will implement those solutions. What they fail to understand, in my opinion, is that it is incumbent on all of us to become educated regarding the stewardship of our planet. Each of us taking small steps will go vastly further than any ‘government’ solution.

    Thanks for the good work that you do, Rusty, to enlighten us. I sure hope you don’t mind that I borrow this article to enlighten the congressman.


    • Jim,

      I agree with you totally and of course you may use the post. I was actually shocked by what I saw out there; I’ve never seen such a seemingly lush field completely devoid of animal life that wasn’t part of a working farm. And everyone seems oblivious . . .

  • Rusty you are so dead on with this. Many people don’t realize how much land the Native Americans farmed. To farm you must have open fields. We continue to kill ourselves, as if in ignorance every day.

  • On a very happy note, I saw 1/4-inch grey native bees collecting nectar from the buttercups that are in huge abundance in our backyard orchard. My honey bees ignore buttercups, so I would have never noticed them if it was not for your comments about different sized holes that mason type bees can use. Apparently the small size users are out and about now. It is nice to know that we are helping these guys a little.

    • Aram,

      I am so happy to hear this! Every time I get one person to notice the little native bees, it feels like a victory. Thanks for letting me know.

  • Rusty,

    My comment from noon yesterday is still waiting your moderation even though you posted six or seven comments after mine. It looks like you overlooked it. Please check your system.

    Robert Williams

    • Robert,

      My system is fine. I don’t have a first-come, first-serve policy. I answer the easy ones first—those that I can complete with a sentence or two—whereas yours requires a dissertation. I’m still debating whether to answer in the comments or in a separate post.

  • I don’t live out west so take that into consideration. I do know that some invasive exotics in the south like cogon grass can only be controlled by herbicides. Fire, the preferred control tool, does nothing but promote the species. I think the same can be said about many western invasive exotics. I don’t know why you didn’t see insect species you were looking for but to just take an anecdotal observation of lack of insects, snakes etc. without actually taking the time to do detailed surveys doesn’t really help anything. Your just promoting the notion the “pesticides are bad” which is rather simplistic view of a complex problem. Managing habitat no longer just involves letting things go wild. It required management and herbicides are a valuable tool in that management – usually the last resort. I get it though – this is a silent spring piece. Just be open to some management/scientific discussion to balance it…

    • Max,

      Would it surprise you that after graduating with a degree in agriculture, I went on to take graduate courses in herbicide science and weed control? No joke. I wanted to make herbicides my life’s work, but what I learned there changed my mind.

      Simplistic or not, I believe “pesticides are bad” as you state it. Pesticides are designed to kill living things, and we are all living things that depend on other living things that depend on a clean environment. We use pesticides because we have them and they are a cheap. Instead of finding an alternative, we relax and take the “easy” way out.

      As an aside, it is interesting to note that most modern pesticides are derivatives of chemicals that were first used in search of the “final solution” in Nazi Germany. The history itself is fascinating and morbid.

      Also, I disagree that herbicides are usually the last resort. They are usually the first resort. A homeowner spots a dandelion in his yard and he is off to buy weed and feed without every bending over to pull the thing out. It’s unconscionable.

      I know being against pesticides is an unpopular position, but I am more than willing to take that position, especially after learning about biochemical reactions that occur inside the bodies of animals and plants that are exposed to poisons. It is not pretty.

  • Rusty, I appreciate your concern and dedicated hard work, but in this case respectfully disagree. I take your concern about Glacial Heritage quite personally — personally because I remember how much it has changed since first restoration of that prairie started almost 20 years ago. In fall 1995 The Nature Conservancy first began to clear Scot’s Broom from the property. I regret not having any photos, but I can tell you what it felt like from the tractor as I disappeared into a mass of Scot’s Broom so tall and thick that I could not see out except when periodically I stopped to stand on the tractor and look over the tops. At the end of a week of “mowing” with 5′ wide brush hog mower decks driven behind a tractor – a week being all the time we had to cut that year, a bit of gravy in the budget after a season of controlling broom on the Ft Lewis prairies – we had reduced 37 acres of broom to chips and had barely made a dent. Pulling out old notes I see that our first cut into the broom we stopped after cutting a continuous swath through the broom that we measured as 2/3’s of a mile long.

    This year, 19 years later, on this entire prairie the broom is reduced to a few sparse knee high patches. Herbicide has never been a primary tool for control of the broom here. It has been a tool, used in spot treatments after the broom is reduced to seedlings. An incredible amount of study and concern and discussion goes into application decisions. Thurston County at the time I worked for TNC had one of the most progressive IPM programs for a county in the entire county, and imposed (imposes) significant limitations on application of poisons for control of pests; application records are available for every year. First TNC and now the successor organization Center for Natural Lands Management have conducted surveys of the biota at every turn, including of butterflies, bees, and beetles and I am more than happy to help you track the records and surveyors down.

    The poison industry has much to answer for, especially when it comes to how they manufacture product and market to consumers. But rather than castigate how herbicide has been applied, in this setting I would rather applaud it as a model of IPM restraint and good science. I don’t know why you saw so few bees at Glacial Heritage, and as tempting as it is to speculate, I will not, except to say that the reason is much more involved than spot treatment of a few patches of an incredibly destructive invasive species that is more than eager to re-invade.


    • Glen,

      In my post I say specifically, “I also don’t know if chemicals are used on the preserve itself,” and I wasn’t implying that they were. My question was (and again I quote my post), “Could pesticide drift from the adjacent lands be killing the bees?”

      I was simply wondering if drift from the vast tree farm, the adjacent fields, and the residential housing was affecting insect life on the prairie.

      I believe you are rushing to defend the preserve management when I didn’t accuse them of anything.

      In all fairness, though, I do question trying to maintain as “natural areas” prairies that were created by mankind. Yes, I would hate to see them in broom, but allowing them to return to northwest forest would not, in my opinion, be irresponsible.

      • Rusty –

        While Native Americans somewhat maintained the Puget prairies with fire, the prairies most definitely are not “created by mankind” aside from a bit of revegetation in damaged areas during the past 20 years. The Puget prairie ecosystem exists on a unique soil strata of gravel outwash and silty loam left from the last glacial period some 10 to 15,000 years ago, and much more owes its existence to this specific soil makeup — not human intervention. Yes, starting a few thousand years ago, Douglas fir became a stronger competitor in the gravel outwash soils, and Native peoples inserted themselves more into maintaining existing prairie oak lands with some fire setting. They also may have altered the prairie by expanding the range of camas. But historic records such as pollen profiles make it clear that this unique landscape has been around as prairie, not forest, for a long time. I for one think that preserving this shrinking ecosystem is worth the work.


        • Glen,

          Perhaps “created by mankind” was a poor choice of words, but the Puget prairies have certainly been maintained by mankind long before white settlement. According to Kruckeberg (1991) “Old aerial photos of the region show a prairie-forest border so sharp that one wants to invoke human intervention as the maker of the contact. That sense of human influence is supported by the history of the prairies. . . . Early reports tell of intentional burning of the prairies by Indians, which would prevent the encroachment of fir onto the prairie.” So Native Americans were doing the same thing we are doing by preventing ecological succession in those areas. I only question whether that is the best thing to do. We are preventing a natural phenomenon just as the native Americans before us. They used fire, we use chemicals. Perhaps I would be less offended by the practice if we used only fire, because then we would be continuing a long-standing practice, not instituting a different one.

          • Rusty –
            What of introduced invasives such as Scots broom and sod grasses? When is something worth saving and when should it be abandoned?
            Where do humans fit into an ecosystem?

            You certainly have touched a nerve. And possibly you have discerned a new posting or two. I know I have. This one I’ll let rest. Thanks, Glen

            • Glen,

              It’s always a pleasure arguing with you, especially since I’ve seen how passionately you care about the planet. Disagreement is (almost) always good because it stretches the mind and clarifies our thinking. Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts.

  • Thank you for editing your comment to Robert Williams in such a nice way. I would have been blunter, but like you I probably wouldn’t have posted my first response.

    I appreciate your attention to all comments, and learn a LOT from both your blog and (most of) the comments.

  • Thank you for your response. If you will, I would like to respond back to a few points:

    “Pesticides are designed to kill living things, and we are all living things that depend on other living things that depend on a clean environment.”

    Are you saying that you are against killing all living things. That’s a very noble goal, but I highly doubt that you never have intentionally kill another living thing. Fly swatters are designed to kill living things. What about varroa or small hive beetle. Have you ever killed mosquitoes or army worms?

    “We use pesticides because we have them and they are a cheap. Instead of finding an alternative, we relax and take the “easy” way out.”

    Pesticides aren’t cheap. I guess they are than mechanical control of invasive exotics, but that has been shown over and over to not be effective for many species. What alternatives do you propose for invasive exotics that haven’t already been tried. Biological control has its own set of issues and unintended consequences. These options are all considered in habitat management especially on public lands.

    “As an aside, it is interesting to note that most modern pesticides are derivatives of chemicals that were first used in search of the “final solution” in Nazi Germany.”

    I think you are talking about organophosphates which are acetylcholine esterase inhibitors – i.e.,OP insecticides. These are not at all related to herbicides. Pesticides cover a very wide range of organic (yes organic! as in organic chemistry) compounds some of them are biologically derived. Actually some of our most toxic compounds are natural (e.g., botulism toxin and tetrodotoxin from the puffer fish).

    “Also, I disagree that herbicides are usually the last resort. They are usually the first resort. A homeowner spots a dandelion in his yard and he is off to buy weed and feed without every bending over to pull the thing out. It’s unconscionable.”

    I agree that there is an overuse of herbicides especially in Ag field margins and rights of ways. The same can be said for mowing. More efforts should be made to promote more forage for bees and butterflies.

    “I know being against pesticides is an unpopular position, but I am more than willing to take that position, especially after learning about biochemical reactions that occur inside the bodies of animals and plants that are exposed to poisons. It is not pretty.”

    Being against pesticides is a very popular position! However, everything can be considered a poison – the dose makes the poison! Biochemical reactions occur for all kinds exposures whether they are manmade or natural. There are many natural toxins in the environment. The sun causes a biochemical reaction that can have negative effects (and positive vitamin D) on the body. Many plants have natural carcinogens and phytoestrogens. You cant get away from the bombardment of chemical, yes chemicals!, that are both manmade and natural. That’s not to say manmade chemicals don’t cause problems – they can and have! My main concern is that I thought you were unfairly targeting herbicides – particularly herbicides used in habitat/invasive species management.


    • Max,

      1. My point is not that we shouldn’t kill anything, but that we shouldn’t put stuff in our environment that could possibly kill us or the things we depend on. For example, many pesticides contain known carcinogens.

      2. Pesticides are certainly cheap compared to say, hiring people to pull weeds. Research dollars need to be spent on finding better ways to control weeds rather than just designing more pesticides.

      3. I said derivatives. The Nazis used cyanide as their weapon of choice but the research at that time was extraordinary. Some of it led to the development of agents orange, white, and blue—all herbicides. Soldiers and civilians exposed to those toxics suffered genetic damage and cancers, and their children had birth defects. But herbicides are harmless, right?

      4. Yes, the dose makes the poison. In high enough doses or in combination with other pesticides, herbicides and their metabolites are just as lethal as any other pesticide.

  • Rusty,
    Very interesting and disturbing observations. But it also got me wondering how valid are our memories and observations. I’ve been trying to notice bee activity around town in the Spring just to ask my self if it is normal, less than normal…? What I’ve noticed more than any systematic trend over the years is that there is a giant seasonal effect – which of coarse we know — but do we appreciate it? My guess is that you go to the prairie again in two weeks and it will be filled with insects.

    Take a look at this little study which I just found…
    They look at beetles in the same places where you made your observations. Note particularaly the seasonal graphs they show.

    I, too, and very concerned about pesticides, and there are very few studies of what is happening with insects generally. But I have also come to question my own ability to make unbiased observations. This kind of thing would be the perfect learning tool for school kids. We need somebody – hoards of somebodies – to count critters and keep track from year-to-year what is really happening to our insect fauna.

    • Gary,

      I go to the prairie about once a week all year long. Occasionally I find something, but never a lot. I agree that sometimes our memories are incorrect, but as I child I was very impressed with always having to load up the car with soap and water and rags so we could stop every half hour and clean the windshield of bugs so we could see through it. At night, we cleaned the headlights so the light could go through. As a kid, I thought it was the grossest thing in the world. When was the last time I scraped bugs off my truck so I could see??? I can’t even remember.

  • Another study implicates neonicotinoids in colony collapse disorder. This one is from Harvard School of Public Health and has some great quotes.

    The nay saying supported by pesticide manufacturers is reminiscent of the debate over climate change and is uncannily similar to what we saw with the tobacco industry’s research that tobacco wasn’t linked to illness.

    My eyes were opened reading the chemical regimen used for potatoes detailed in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Who would have guessed the MASSIVE quantities of chemicals?

    I think we need, not only to make the problem known, but also need to talk widely and teach about alternative solutions to agri-chemicals so people will know they have other options. I am hopeful to see some cities switching to integrated pest management (IPM) and publishing their management plans online (Lawrence Kansas, Eugene Oregon).

    A title for consideration- The Gardeners Guide to Common-Sense Pest Control- William Okowlski.

    Sustainable agriculture remains a huge challenge, but one we must commit to if we as humans wish to survive. Bees are not optional; neither are birds, frogs, soil microorganisms, or stream invertebrates.

  • Hi Rusty!!

    I wasn’t sure where to post my questions. If this is the wrong spot, I apologize!

    I own and operate a resort in Islamorada, Florida Keys. I live next door to the property and have 2 hives. In the past, chemicals have been used to control the weeds at the beach, the landscape around the pool area and around all of the units/rooms. I took over running the resort 2 years ago and have stopped all chemical use on the property (I also have chickens, a dog and a cat….and of course the area is full of lizards, birds and insects!). Around my home I simply manage my weeds by getting in there and pulling them! However, it has become an unrealistic task for me to do this on my own at the resort. While the weeds don’t bother me, unfortunately, it’s a resort that people come to and expect the landscaping to be well manicured. When I hire people to come and do landscaping, they continuously want to spray the area. Is there anything that is considered safe? It seems like such a silly question to me….because I honestly don’t trust anything (regardless of how enticing the organic label is). Based on reading a lot of your posts, I’m assuming your answer will be, “get down there and pull the weeds out if they need to go!” But I thought I’d post about it.

    Thank you for all of the information you provide. This is my first year beekeeping. One of my hive’s failed and the workers were laying. I read through so many of your posts, and after months of trial and error, I successfully split my thriving hive! I have two functioning hives again with two beautiful queens!


    • Jamie,

      I don’t have a good answer for you. I find the labels are misleading, and sometimes they say “safe” but they still kill everything in sight, so how can that be safe? I think you should pose this question to your local extension service office. Florida has a good one, due to all the agriculture there, and they may be able to give you a realistic recommendation. Monroe County Extension

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