What killed millions of honey bees on this Everett farm?

EVERETT – The honeybee carcasses could have run into the millions.

At Getchell Ranch, a small organic farm on Ebey Island, on the Snohomish River, there was a pile of black and yellow stripes on the ground last summer. All those legs and wings and mandibles and spines that usually hummed with activity lay motionless.

State investigators and entomologists suspect over-the-counter pesticides as the cause of death. Most likely, they suspected, the bees were collecting nectar and pollen from flowering plants laden with the toxic chemicals or drinking from a contaminated water source. But they couldn’t find out where the pesticides were coming from.

They could not confirm the exact number of deaths either. By the time investigators got to the farm, the beekeeper had cleaned some of the beehives and moved many others to nearby property for fear that more would be poisoned.

Bee deaths like this have become rare in Washington in recent years, but the June event serves as a cautionary note: Pesticide abuse can harm honeybees, an important part of the state’s agriculture and the livelihoods of those who keep them. Experts urge people not to use pesticides on plants during flowering or near water sources that could attract thirsty bees, especially on hot days. And they suggest using less toxic products.

The beekeeper in this case loses a lot of money, from replacing contaminated equipment to losing income during the pollination season. He brings his beehives to California to pollinate almond trees and the Midwest to grow canola.

According to a report from state investigators, he arrived at Getchell Ranch on June 16 and found his bees dead and dying. He reported he lost 240 beehives – each with tens of thousands of bees – out of about 1,400. In the decades he tended for hives on the farm, he had seldom seen so many die at the same time.

The bees were only alive a few days ago, the guard said, according to the documents. A Herald reporter couldn’t reach him for an interview.

The farm’s owner, Maria Foster, contacted Charlie Coslor, an entomologist with the Washington State University extension in Skagit County.

Coslor, also director of Skagit County’s Pest Control Committee, has worked with beetles for over a decade. He said he had never seen a scene like this. He went to the farm, collected samples, frozen them, and sent them to the state for testing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pesticide compliance program reviewed the incident. Investigators began with a number of suspects: it could have been a nearby farm, or the county or state might have played a role. Maybe Everett City was doing something in Rotary Park, just across the river. Or a water source could be contaminated.

One by one, the suspects offered their alibis.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Snohomish County’s Agriculture Coordinator reported that they did not spray in the area.

An Everett Public Works maintenance manager said they used to treat some nearby sumps but haven’t done so since 2019. They also didn’t use pesticides in Rotary Park, he reported.

Investigators examined nearby water sources, but found no significant amounts of pollutants.

Foster said she didn’t think anyone on her side of the river had anything to do with it. She called her neighbors and knocked on their doors to make sure. She didn’t know anyone who would use pesticides on flowering plants.

She doesn’t use any herself, she said. Your farm is completely organic.

“I think chemicals are bad for the world,” said Foster. “I don’t like to eat them and I don’t like them in my water and I don’t like to breathe them, so I won’t use them.”

She’s not trying to bring anyone to justice, she said. She just wants to raise awareness about pesticides.

“I don’t think people realize that on the one hand they say, ‘Save the bees, find out why they’re disappearing,’” she said, “and on the other hand, they say, ‘Oh, we have bugs, let’s get them spray.'”

Foster inherited the 94 acre farm a few years ago from her adoptive father, Alex Alexander. Founded in 1873, Getchell Ranch is one of the oldest homesteads in the region. Foster currently uses it for sheep and goats and a small orchard, she said. And ranchers will rent out pasture land so their cattle can graze.

That summer, Foster worked with the Washington Farmland Trust to secure a maintenance easement, a legal arrangement that permanently restricts use of the property and effectively maintains it as a farm for the future.

With bees foraging up to a few miles away, determining the source of the pesticides proved an impossible task, said Tim Schultz, compliance manager for the state’s pesticide management division. There are other lots around the Getchell Ranch that are used for pasture, hay and grain. Across the river, along the I-5 corridor, there are a variety of homes and businesses.

If a source could be found, the state would have several options, Schultz said. There could be a rectification notice giving the offender an opportunity to correct the course or a fine could be imposed. In addition, the beekeeper would have the opportunity to make amends for his losses.

“In this case, unfortunately, we could not find the source due to the nature of the location alone, so we had to close it,” said Schultz.

The crime thriller must never have a suspect.

Coslor scratches his head.

“We know the murder weapon, I assume,” said Coslor, “but not who did what in which room on the Clue board.”

After the state finished its tests, Coslor checked the bees’ chemical analysis and discovered high levels of pesticides.

“I saw the numbers and thought, ‘Wow, Carbaryl was off the charts,'” he said.

At least one bee received 15 times the lethal dose.

Anyone can buy Carbaryl in the store. It’s less toxic than previously used pesticides, but it can still be potent, especially to bees.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, people who have been exposed to carbaryl for long periods of time can experience headaches, memory loss, muscle weakness, and cramps. It was banned from store shelves in California last year because abuse would sometimes make you sick. A California Department of Pesticide Regulation press release finds that most of the abuse has occurred in residential areas where people are not trained in using pesticides. Commercial users, on the other hand, have to be licensed like in Washington.

In the past, the pesticide was sold under the brand name Sevin, although GardenTech has moved away from using carbaryl in recent years. Sevin products carry a warning that it could kill honey bees in significant numbers if sprayed on flowering plants.

Labels on pesticide products carry the weight of federal law. If you deviate from the instructions, you can be punished.

“In this case, it looks like the label was not followed at all,” said Coslor.

Coslor estimated that it takes 24 grams of carbaryl to cause bee deaths of the magnitude seen at Getchell Ranch. This is roughly what a 1 pound container of Sevin “ready-to-use 5% dust” contains. (Although bees pick up the pesticide while foraging, it is unlikely that a single container was responsible for all of these deaths.)

Thanks to the restrictions and education, Washington only dies once or twice a year, said Katie Buckley, the state’s pollinator health coordinator.

“But unfortunately either mistakes or misconduct happen,” she said.

Overall, farmers in the state have done well with bees, Buckley said. Many people think of pollinators when they use pesticides.

“The breeders out here need the bees too,” she said. “You don’t want to kill the bees … they are very closely interwoven.”

Buckley said the June bee deaths were a reminder that more work could be done. She leads a new state pollinator protection task force with a focus on education. In the near future, she said, the task force will begin reaching out to people who might buy pesticides from local nurseries, as well as professionals who use pesticides commercially.

But pesticides are just one of many challenges bees face, Buckley said. You will also have to deal with habitat loss, disease and invasive species such as the now infamous “murder hornets”.

Despite these obstacles, not all is bad news for pollinators, Buckley said. She said that more and more people are getting involved to help them. They think about how to grow pollination-friendly gardens, how best to use or avoid pesticides, and how to legislate regarding living things.

“I think there is a lot of reason to hope,” she said.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; [email protected] Twitter: @zachariahtb.


A beekeeper lost 240 beehives after exposure to pesticides in June 2021.  (Charles Coslor)

A beekeeper lost 240 beehives after exposure to pesticides in June 2021. (Charles Coslor)

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