What's worse — grasshoppers, dead bees or chemical pollution?

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published September 1, 1989  | September 1989 issue

When the decision was made earlier this summer to spray 42 western Minnesota counties with grasshopper-killing chemicals, it ignited the expected furor between the agriculture industry and environmentalists.

But it also touched off another battle along economic lines—between agriculture and the beekeeping industry. The State Agriculture Department was faced with a historically common problem: Should all efforts be made to save the state's crops, despite potential harm to the environment and other sectors of the economy?

The problem with the spraying, beekeepers say, is that most of it is done by air, during the day, and in the vicinity of beehives. Bees are active only during warm daylight hours and likewise are busy working the fields when they are sprayed from above.

The impact on those affected beekeepers was devastating, according to Jack Thomas, active member of the Minnesota Beekeepers Association and owner of Mann Lake Supply of Hackensack, Minn., a beekeeping supply house.

"Any beekeeper within those counties was affected," Thomas said. "They took tremendous losses."

Thomas said industry-wide data will not be available until later in fall, and he refused to speculate on total losses, but he said some beekeepers lost over 50 percent of their bees and "a number will be financially ruined." Of the 200 to 250 commercial beekeepers in the state, almost all live within the spray area, he said.

One beekeeper, Gary Honl of Winthrop, who together with his brother and father owns about 4,300 hives, said his family expects to suffer $70,000 in combined losses. Of his own 24 locations, with 28 hives at each spot, only two locations were not sprayed.

"It hurts. What really hurts us is they have stuff that won't affect bees," Honl said, referring to various chemicals.

And there are also other methods to avoid bees, he said, like early-morning or late-evening spraying. He said his brother-in-law, a pilot and an aerial applicator, sprayed fields near some of Honl's hives at 8 p.m., and Honl didn't lose a bee.

Honl's story, and others like him, is unfortunate, according to Dharma Sreenivasam, entomologist and supervisor of the plant pest survey and detection program for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. But that's not the first time beekeepers have been upset with aerial spraying, and it won't be the last, he said.

"Every time something happens the beekeepers want to start at square one again," he said. "It really doesn't work that way."

The state paid $20,000 in damages to beekeepers following spraying for equine encephalitis in 1983, and the beekeepers will likely gain compensation for this year's spraying, but Thomas said beekeepers want more than just money. They want to be considered when decisions are made for aerial application of chemicals.

Thomas said insecticide spraying should be banned between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. (as it is in California, he said); but if spraying must be done during the day, the beekeepers oppose use of certain chemicals.

"Duraspan and Furadan will absolutely kill everything that's alive," Thomas said. Fields are posted against entering after such chemicals are sprayed, some for up to two weeks. Unconfirmed accounts of wildlife deaths from grasshopper spraying were reported at July's annual meeting of the Minnesota Honey Producers Association.

The beekeepers' concerns should be foremost in the ag industry's mind, Thomas said, because they depend on each other. Thirty percent of national farm produce is pollinated by bees, he said, amounting to $9.7 billion. And bees are important to wildlife because they pollinate plants that feed various animals.

While the beekeepers' concerns are fine in theory, Sreenivasam said, the supply of aerial applicators is stretched thin when massive spraying on the scale of this summer's effort are ordered. Beekeepers should take the applicators' needs into consideration, too, he said, adding that perhaps the state needs more applicators. Also, he said that because beekeepers move their hives to keep them near beneficial fields, applicators don't always know the location of the hives.

As far as harsh chemicals are concerned, Sreenivasam said the state has no control over chemicals used—as long as the chemicals are on the federally approved list, as are Furadan and Duraspan.

"If we had other options we wouldn't spray," the ag official said. "But when you walk into an untreated field and see all the grasshoppers, you can't say chemicals should be avoided."

Without spraying this year there would have been a 100 percent crop loss in those areas, Sreenivasam said, and that would have been a disaster—economically devastating. The benefits of the spraying won't be known until the fall crop reports are in, he said, and he wouldn't speculate on the positive impact. Also, spraying, which began in early June, continued into late August and Sreenivasam said precise figures on acreage and cost were unavailable then. Some reports said the spray zone was about 1.5 million acres.

But aside from the potential devastation to farmers and the actual devastation to beekeepers, others—including organic farmers—contend that the spraying also causes harm to the environment as a whole.

"Environmental problems are not being considered," said Nelson French, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy in Minneapolis, "and it's frightening."

French said it's difficult to put an economic value on wildlife and plant species—including endangered ones. He said important medical breakthroughs have occurred because of compounds developed by seemingly obscure plants, and that every time a plant is threatened or lost, the potential for discovery is also lost.

Minnesota once had 18 million acres of untilled prairie, he said, and now under 1 percent—about 150,000 acres—are left. The prairies and croplands sprayed are part of an important ecosystem that includes water quality and other factors that have a direct bearing on humans' quality of life, he said.

French, however, said he was very pleased when the Agriculture Department decided earlier this summer to ban spraying on lands known to contain endangered, threatened or species of special concern.

"For whatever reason, grasshoppers are a natural problem," French said referring to the tendency of grasshopper populations to explode following a drought. Grasshoppers eggs, which are laid within one inch of topsoil, do not hatch if the soil is wet. Also, French said, when plants are stressed, as they are during a drought, they give off a protein that is vital to grasshoppers' survival.

And it's that natural tendency of grasshoppers to thrive during dry seasons that had the Agriculture Department considering spraying last year, according to Sreenivasam. But that idea was quickly disregarded since there were no crops to save during the drought.

This year, even though moisture levels are generally higher, many regions in Minnesota and surrounding states are still desperately dry. Does that portend more spraying next year?

"If we get a lot of rain in the fall and a lot more in the spring, we can expect no problems from grasshoppers," Sreenivasam said.

But, he admits, the odds of that happening aren't good.