There have been plenty of news reports in recent years linking the health of bees to the use of pesticides. In most cases, the articles have focused on the potential impact of neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides) on populations of honey bees. While the headlines sometimes seem designed to sensationalize or over-simplify the issue, a more in-depth reading on the topic reveals that there are actually many possible causes of declining bee populations.

“Pesticides are often seen as the problem for bees, but parasites and diseases, habitat loss, poor forage diversity and commercial beekeeping practices (like long-distance transport) are all stressors that can negatively impact hive health,” says Frank Wong, Ph.D., senior regulatory affairs consultant at Bayer CropScience.

Beehives at the Bayer Bee Care Apiary in Monheim, Germany, are managed by a beekeeper who is a member of the Bee Care Team.

Bee health is really a complicated issue. Beekeepers often use insecticides themselves in their hives to control pests that can endanger the bees, and the potential impact of these treatments needs to be evaluated, says Caydee Savinelli, Ph.D., pollinator and IPM stewardship lead for Syngenta. Then there are increasingly common threats such as the Varroa mite, which is having a big impact on bee health. “It can kill the bee by sucking out its blood … and the mite also transmits viruses,” explains Savinelli. “Then there are a lot of nutrition issues that are really not well understood when it comes to bees.”

Savinelli says because bees are getting a lot of attention at the moment, there’s an increasing amount of money being directed toward research on the topic of bee health. But the results of this research may be years away. In the meantime, the public is left with the simplified message that declining bee populations are a result of pesticides. While many people are concerned about the bees, most aren’t interested in truly understanding the role that bees play and the various factors that impact their health, observes Savinelli. It is, however, important for superintendents to do just that, says Walt Osborne, key account manager for Syngenta’s national golf accounts.

When superintendents take the time to get educated about bee health and fully understand the information contained on product labels relating to bee health, then they can help to effectively educate others, explains Osborne: “They can share that education with their crews, which makes their network larger, because all of those people will come in contact with family members, with the public, with golfers.” He encourages superintendents to prepare “their elevator speech,” knowing that there’s a good chance someone will ask them about topic.

Hanging a Varroa mite control strip between the combs in a beehive.

“You never know when that time and that opportunity is going to present itself,” Osborne says. “You need to have just a few bullet points that show you understand their concern and then you can share that you are using products safely and, because of that, the honey bees and the native pollinators in the area are safe.”

The point is that golf course superintendents need to understand this issue in order to communicate with others (golfers, members, greens committees, concerned local residents and groups, etc.). “It’s a hot public topic, so why not be prepared?” Bayer’s Wong says.

In addition to understanding product-specific information, it’s also important to understand just how important honey bees and other pollinators are in the big picture. For many of us, a jar of honey on the kitchen table is about the only interaction we have with honey bees. And while honey is an important crop, the value of honey bees to the environment and to agriculture is far greater. “Insect pollination is critical to agriculture, with 90 or more U.S. crops dependent on insect pollination. Economically, honey bees contribute more than an estimated $15 billion to the agricultural economy,” according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, a national organization representing farm and ranch families. “That is a significant reason why, in recent years, honey bee health has gotten increasing attention.” Bees are essential to the pollination of countless different flowering plants in the natural environment, as well.

Syngenta’s Walt Osborne evaluates an Operation Pollinator site.

Steps that superintendents can take for pollinator health

In addition to helping educate themselves and the public, perhaps the most important role that superintendents can play is to help promote bee health on their own courses. “The three most critical things you can do are to: follow the label instructions, follow the label instructions and follow the label instructions. If I had a fourth thing to add, I’d say: follow the label instructions,” emphasizes Wong. “There are a number of protections already built into the label and the risk of harm is low when products are used properly.”

The information contained on product labels is crucial, agrees Syngenta’s Savinelli. And it’s not just regulatory mumbo-jumbo. “There’s a lot of information on the labels that’s been developed based on the testing that we’ve done, and there’s also key guidance language. Typically, you’ll find the bee language under the ‘environmental hazards’ section of the label.”

In addition to the product-specific label information and precautions, certain neonicotinoid products, such as Bayer’s Merit and Syngenta’s Flagship, also feature a separate box outlining information on the “Protection of Pollinators,” complete with a bee hazard icon. This information was developed by the EPA to ensure that applicators are aware that “APPLICATION RESTRICTIONS EXIST FOR THIS PRODUCT BECAUSE OF RISK TO BEES AND OTHER INSECT POLLINATORS.” Two key steps included in the “Protection of Pollinators” box are to:

  • minimize exposure of this product to bees and other insect pollinators when they are foraging on pollinator attractive plants around the application site; and to
  • minimize drift of this product onto beehives or to off-site pollinator attractive habitat. Drift of this product onto beehives or off-site to pollinator attractive habitat can result in bee kills.

Two things happen when the product label is read, understood and followed, says Syngenta’s Osborne. “No. 1, the bees are in a much safer environment. And No. 2, you’re going to get much better efficacy because the product was used correctly.”

These insecticide labels warn against application when bees are actively foraging or in the area. Fortunately, bees typically are not attracted to turfgrass, says Savinelli. But there are still precautions that need to be followed. In addition to avoiding drift into out-of-play areas that may contain flowers, she says there’s another practical step that superintendents can take: “If you happen to have weeds out there in your turf … mow the flowering weeds down before you make an application – you really don’t want to have flowering weeds out there when you’re making insecticide applications because you don’t want to attract bees.”

Varroa mite attached to adult bee showing symptoms of deformed wing virus (DWV).

Programs in place

In August 2016, Bayer, Syngenta, Valent and TruGreen jointly sponsored a national meeting for the development BMPs to help pollinator health across the turfgrass industry. “The event was attended by a wide group of academics and key industry organizations – like GCSAA, NALP (National Association of Landscape Professionals) and STMA (Sports Turf Managers Association) – who helped to come up with the most effective way to get this done,” Wong says. He urges superintendents to support the development of these industry-wide BMPs: “The national BMP program being developed by GCSAA will give superintendents a road map for sustainable course management including pollinator protection.”

Wong recommends superintendents work with their university and extension experts to develop and put in place a pollinator protection plan as part of their course operations. One part of this plan could be to include more bee habitat and forage on the golf course.

A honey bee collecting nectar and pollen from canola flowers.

“Often, golf courses can provide a high density of blooming plants to be used for food by honey bees and other insects in urban spaces,” says Wong. “Fortunately, there are a number of industry programs that support the planting of more forage and wildflowers.” One example includes Bayer’s Feed a Bee program, which works with partners like golf courses to support wildflower and forage plantings. (See our website for a profile on one golf course taking part in “Feed a Bee.”]

Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator is another example of a program designed to, among other things, promote bee populations by establishing bee-friendly habitats on out-of-play areas on golf courses. “When you have your plot of wildflowers established and growing, it really becomes a vibrant ecosystem – you can see the results of the work, and it’s a visual reminder to those playing the golf course that it’s possible to coexist with these pollinators and have quality turf,” says Osborne.

“Operation Pollinator” (which was covered in Superintendent in April 2014) was introduced into the U.S. a few years back and has grown to include more than 200 sites. Depending on the golf course, these sites range from about 10,000 square feet up to 30 or more acres. “We’re continuing to learn about the best places on the golf course for these sites; the placement is critical – you want something that is out of play, but still visible,” explains Osborne. He adds that much has been learned about how to maintain these wildflower areas. Establishing wildflower areas isn’t necessarily easy, but there’s a quick payoff: “You see the bloom, you see the pollinators show up. Well, weeds eventually show up, too. Or drought conditions. So we’ve been working on coming up with recommendations on how to reinvigorate those stands after a couple of years.”