Since Xtend crops have been planted in the Mid-South, the focus of off-target damage from dicamba has largely been on soybeans. But what about some of the damage to more peripheral, but no less vital, players in the agricultural chain?
Before getting to that, it’s important to know that Richard Coy isn’t a man afraid to take a stand for his farming partners. Coy, Vice President of Coy’s Honey Farm, manages some 13,000 bee hives scattered throughout Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and California. The family honey business is the largest in Arkansas.
“I know what it means to operate a ‘family business’ and I know the pressures of operating a large-scale farm,” Coy recently testified before the Arkansas Dicamba Task Force. “During my 26 years as a commercial beekeeper, I have developed and maintained good relationships with many of the agriculture industry leaders in Arkansas and throughout the nation. Within the past two years, I have written letters on behalf of cotton, and grain sorghum producers requesting Section 18’s for Transform. I recently met with EPA officials in Memphis, Tenn., and voiced my support for neonics as a seed treatment. Also, I have worked closely with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research and Extension along with various aspects of the USDA.”
Dicamba and bees
Coy says he first began noticing issues with increased dicamba use and its relationship with his hives in 2016.
“I was finally able to pinpoint it this year. But I began noticing the problem last year when my production was off in the area around (northeast Arkansas’) Monette and Leachville. That’s where the major controversy and shooting over dicamba took place in 2016.”
He didn’t know what the problem was and assumed it was weather-related or maybe involved an insecticide.
In 2017, “just like the past 10 years, we placed bees on our locations in Mississippi and Crittenden Counties. Production in these counties this year has been dramatically reduced.
“We began noticing lower than normal bee population the last week of June. The hives stopped building population and we could not understand what the problem might be. We looked at all of our management practices and found nothing out of the ordinary.”
In retrospect, Coy says what happened was pollen had stopped coming into the beehives. “Pollen is the protein source for the hive. Without it, the queen will not lay eggs because there’s no protein to feed the larvae. That has a tipping effect that negatively impacts honey production.”
It takes 21 days for eggs to mature into adult bees. Therefore, “you don’t really notice what’s going on for a few weeks. There’s a lag time and so it was deep into July before we knew there was a major problem. Another reason it took so long to get a grip on this is we have about 13,000 hives and we run them about every three weeks.”
So, from middle to late July the Coys knew there was “a major problem. The hive-check rotation takes about three weeks since the hives are scattered all over the Delta. My younger brother, David, and I began going to different areas and really looking closely at the hives. We determined in areas without dicamba drift our honey production had not decreased. We dug deep into the hives and found we had a lot of pollen available in non-dicamba use areas and very little, to no, pollen stored where there were dicamba-tolerant crops.”
Even without dicamba-tolerant crops, how would Coy describe this year for making honey?
“This year, the weather has been conducive for an average crop. We had too much rain in August to have an above-average crop.
“However, there are hives set up where apparently little dicamba was used because there are pigweeds in the fields and the vines also show no damage. The hives in those areas have average to above average production.
“When you’re trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle together it can take a while.”
Around the last week of July, Richard and his brother “went to check our bee locations around Webb and Tutwiler, Miss. We run about 1,600 (hives) in that area. Chris said ‘We have some locations that have filled every box full. But, I have found an area where they haven’t made any honey since the first of July.’ He checked into it, and sure enough, where the honey production had stopped was also where the farmers had planted (dicamba-tolerant) soybeans.”
That spurred Richard to do some more research to “see if I was reading too much into the situation. Well, I found a study from Penn State University that shows where there is widespread dicamba use in an area there would be enough visible drift and volatility to damage all the vegetation. The study found it would decrease pollinator habitat by 50 percent and pollinator visits by 50 percent.”
At that point, in late July, Coy called the Arkansas Plant Board and explained what he’d found and had been seeing. “They sent out some inspectors a couple of weeks later and they took some pictures of the vegetation. They verified what I was seeing.”
What was Coy observing?
“In fencerows and ditches, vegetation like wild grape, red vine and even ragweed were damaged. All that unwanted vegetation for farming is something that bees use to make honey. Those plants had curled leaves and had stopped growing prior to the blooming process.
“I went south of I-40 to an area I know there hadn’t been a lot of dicamba sprayed. There was a bunch of the (aforementioned) plants that were growing and blooming and the bees had produced a tremendous honey crop.”
What are other beekeepers saying?
“I’ve spoken with others in this region and they’d been seeing the same symptoms in their hives where there are dicamba-tolerant crops and drift complaints are the highest. Healthy hives had stopped collecting nectar and pollen and the population hadn’t grown enough to produce a good honey crop.”
What about the April 15 dicamba-spraying cutoff date urged by the task force?
“I think it’s a good idea. If you look at all the data put out by university weed scientists it looks like there isn’t an issue with dicamba and volatility until temperatures get hotter. Most of the vegetation our bees rely on isn’t really up and going by mid-April. For example, red vine doesn’t start putting on leaves until sometime in May.
“I think beekeepers would be happy to live with an April 15 cut-off.”