By Diane Dietz, The Register-Guard (June 1, 2014)

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy and a trio of city councilors stood around with waggling bee antennae on their heads Saturday and celebrated Eugene as “America’s most bee-friendly city.”

That’s because the council in February banned the use of neonicotinoids — a pesticide implicated in massive bee die-offs — from use on city property.

Dozens of celebrants, including scores of bee-loving and behaving children, filled Washington Park for the so-called Bee-Fest organized by the Eugene-based Beyond Toxics group.

The ban was a modest win for the environment, but environmental scientist Sarah France, who sat on the lawn with her two children, said that she’d take it.

“There aren’t that many that turn around so quickly and give you a happy feeling,” she said. “It keeps you from getting too depressed about all of the other issues.”

Her 5-year-old daughter, Ava Beck, was tickled, too.

“I like bees,” she said, “because they collect nectar from flowers. They also make honey, and that’s another reason I like them.”

Farmers, activists and others have worried about bees because the number of healthy commercial colonies the government counts each year has fallen off at a troubling rate.

A May report found colonies fell by 23 percent through last winter. It’s a bit better than the previous winter, when 31 percent of colonies collapsed.

Honeybees are needed to pollinate plants that grow one-quarter of food consumed in the United States. That includes apples, plums, peaches and almonds.

“We wouldn’t be eating things like blueberries and apples and beans and squash, and the list goes on and on,” Beyond Toxics Executive Director Lisa Arkin told the assembled celebrants on Saturday, including grown women and children in bee girl costumes.

“We’re here today to celebrate bees of all kinds — bumblebees, honeybees, wood bees, burrowing bees,” Arkin said.

Celebrate they did: They drank hibiscus tea, ate gluten-free pickles and got blissed out on coconut ice cream.

They tasted honey from the Healthy Bees — Healthy Gardens program, which places hives on city blocks where homeowners swear off the use of pesticides.

Volunteer beekeeper Jen Hornaday has placed 15 hives so far, including on Washington, Madison, Adams and Grant streets near the city core.

The festivalgoers glued cutout flowers, tied sort-of-like bee balloons and painted their faces. A tiny painted bumblebee looped around the left eye of 3-year-old bee girl Olivia Harris.

Perhaps it was the antennae on their heads, but the politicians were uncharacteristically brief and poetic.

“Oh, we’re just all abuzz about this,” said Piercy, after accepting an award on behalf of the city from Beyond Toxics.

City Counselor Mike Clark made a mental tour of his garden.

“I have asparagus, dill, grapes, artichokes, oregano, basil, tomatoes, lima beans, broccoli, cucumbers, peas, raspberries and green beans and carrots,” he said.

Councilor George Brown stood up for an unheralded species.

“The ban on neonics is for all pollinators, not just bees,” he said, “although bees are super-important. It’s also: butterflies won’t be killed. They’re pollinators, too.”

Brown promised to nudge the city toward creating more city parks that are entirely pesticide free. So far, there are nine, and most of those are small.

The enthusiasm was less expansive, but Beyond Toxics also celebrated the Legislature’s passage, also in February, of the Save Oregon’s Pollinators Act.

The bill as it was originally introduced would have allowed the use of neonicotinoids — often called neonics — only by licensed commercial applicators. Consumer products such as Bayer Advanced All-in-One Rose & Flower Care and Ortho Bug B Gon for Lawns would have been taken off the shelves of hardware and home improvement stores.

“Most homeowners do not know (the importance of) reading the label, do not understand the label — and they don’t have the tools to measure how much they’re using,” Arkin said.

“Hey, it’s on the shelf; it must be safe. I can pay $5.99. It’s on sale. I can get two for one. They assume the government has regulated its use,” she said.

Lawmakers, however, passed a weaker version that required commercial operators to take a course on pollinator health. It also required creation of a governor-appointed task force to study the pesticides and report back to the Legislature in October.

Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed the 10-member task force last week. It’s scheduled to begin meeting in June. “So much of Oregon’s natural landscapes and agricultural lands rely on bees and other pollinators,” Kitzhaber said in a prepared statement.

The state was spurred to action by a pair of June 2013 incidents in Wilsonville and Hillsboro in which tens of thousands of dead bees littered parking lots — in the wake of neonic treatments to nearby trees.

Chemical companies say it’s most likely mites that are killing the bees nationally; environmentalists say its the chemicals. Research is suggesting it’s a combination. The neonics weaken the bees’ immune systems so they can’t survive mite bites.

Neonics persist in the soils for as long as seven years, Arkin said. Plants take up the chemical and bees consume it with the flowers’ nectar.

“It’s taken by the bees to the hive and little by little over time that season it poisons the brood and then kills the hive,” Arkin said. “(Neonics) are so persistent and so systemic, there is no safe use of a neonic ever. Anywhere.”

Farm states are starting to take action. The Minnesota Legislature in recent weeks created a rapid response team of scientists to pin down the cause of bee die offs. Farmers who misapply pesticides will face stifffines; farmers who lose bees will be compensated.

Eugene’s steps are tiny.

The city won’t spray parks; but homeowners are free to dowse properties all around the parks. Eugene is apparently alone in the nation in adopting a ban.

“It’s a win,” Arkin said. “There’s so few times that we can say we have a definitive win — even though it’s small and even though it’s just one city. We can celebrate it.”