It’s happening very slowly, one midsize to large city at a time, but the Pacific Northwest is inching its way toward becoming a haven for honeybees. Earlier this week, Spokane, Wash., joined Eugene, Ore., and Seattle in passing citywide bans on neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide that’s widely believed to be harming the pollinators that play such an important role in our agriculture system—a full 33 percent of the crops grown worldwide depend on honeybees.
The 5–2 city council vote (the dissenting votes came from two councilmembers who said the research wasn’t convincing enough) came just after Pollinator Week, amid a rush of bee-related news. There was President Obama’s announcement of a Pollinator Health Task Force, a preview of a report that says neonics are worse for bees than DDT, and another study that showed that the supposedly bee-friendly plants you can purchase at major retail chains contain high levels of the pesticide. Eight years after the first instances of colony collapse disorder occurred, sparking increased interest in pollinator health among both scientists and environmentalists, it appears that new momentum is building behind efforts to protect bees.
In Spokane, the new ordinance won’t cover all city-owned land, as the parks department manages a chunk of public property, but it has assured City Council President Ben Stuckart that neonics aren’t being used in Spokane’s parks. The ordinance mandates that “no department may knowingly purchase or use products or products in packaging containing neonicotinoids,” but it does not apply to personal use of the pesticide on private property.
“This ordinance simply says Spokane prioritizes the protection of our food supply over the ornamental use of pesticides,” Stuckart said in a statement.
Spokane may not have a vested economic interest in protecting honeybees, but Washington state certainly benefits from the estimated $15 billion in increased crop value the bees bring with their highly efficient pollination. The state is the country’s leading apple producer, and the 175,000-some acres of orchards that grow there depend on a healthy population of honeybees and other insects to yield a good crop.
What remains unclear is whether limiting the use of neonics will help stem the nearly one-third of managed beehives that die off every year, on average. Dave Goulson, a professor at the University of Sussex in England, who worked on the latest neonic study, told the BBC he wasn’t in favor of an outright ban. “I think we should use them much more judiciously,” he said. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a bee researcher at the University of Maryland, told me something similar, saying, “I think it’s a little bit naive to think that if we ban neonics, all of our problems will go away.”
The federal Pollinator Health Task Force doesn’t promise any sweeping ban, but perhaps the local actions of cities like Spokane can help propel more measured reforms—ones that could bring limits on neonics and other chemicals that are harmful to bees—out of the city and onto farms.