A Top 100 Grower and Home Depot supplier, Bell Nursery CEO Gary Mangum was determined to find out what was happening to bees in his area, and why there was such a significant die-off. In 2014, the operation stopped using neonicotinoids, and invested in keeping beehives. Here’s what Mangum says his operation learned about bees, working with beekeepers and legislators, and his message for other growers.
Greenhouse Grower (GG): Tell us about your activities with bees: why did you decide to keep beehives, where do you keep them, and do you have a special staff for this activity?
Gary Mangum, Bell Nursery: We had been watching the rollout of information related to pollinators in Europe and took special interest in the research authored at Harvard. Looking into the details, we were suspicious of the intentions and outcomes, believing the lead researcher must have a predetermined agenda based on the way the research was conducted. Many scientific journals and universities referred to the findings as questionable. We eventually expect answers from substantial research being done for and through the EPA.
Though the science was weak, a PR machine engaged for coalition building with well-placed articles based on the “research,” most notably an early Time magazine cover story. As more publications picked up the flawed Harvard messaging, more individuals were pulled into the defense of pollinators and became hobbyist beekeepers mobilized to discuss their own experiences. After witnessing their effect, we wanted to learn more, as most seemed to be losing a significant percentage of bees each year.
We invested in 10 hives to manage at our oldest, but most accessible Maryland facility. This location has limited pressures that could harm bees within a 3- to 4-mile radius — no farms, golf courses, or heavy urban development. Instead the environment was considered a luxury home for bees, located in the heart of the Patuxent River watershed. Simultaneously, we discontinued the use of neonicotinoids at each of our facilities out of an abundance of caution, and most importantly, to be able to speak with beekeepers from a “safe, non-combative place.”
We first hired university students who were associated with beekeeping for others. A new professional commercial beekeeper has recently been hired to repopulate our bees and manage their care on a weekly basis. This gentleman is very innovative and has perhaps the best reputation in Maryland, with hundreds of successful hives and very little loss. We expect substantial improvement this year and have increased our hives to 26 at two locations.
GG: What is the purpose of keeping the bees? What kind of research have you been conducting on the beehives? What have you found out to date?
Mangum: The purpose is simple — we wanted to learn more about what a traditional hobbyist beekeeper experiences. In Maryland, recent statistics showed 44% of hives not making it through the winter. At Bell, we lost 100% of our bees over the past two years. Evidence suggests that Varroa mites quickly moved into the hives and our treatments were not properly timed and not effective.
Over a two-year period, we had the hives tested for a wide array of chemicals. No neonicotinoids were found in any samples. Traces of two chemicals, not found at our facility, were found at such low levels at parts per billion there could be no impact.
To date we have learned that we are mediocre beekeepers and that Varroa mites weakened and eventually destroyed our bees each year. One of the most important things we learned is that a large number of hobby or small-scale beekeepers have stopped using specific bee-friendly miticides due to misinformed concern. Discontinuing treatment will lead to stronger mite infestations and more bee decline, feeding and energizing the coalition fundraising agenda.
GG: What are you doing with the research results? How do you think keeping your own bees is helpful to you, as a grower? How does it help with your knowledge on the subject of pollinators? How does it help you relate information with other researchers and with lawmakers?
Mangum: We are cautiously sharing our own anecdotal evidence with other beekeepers willing to listen, and with any legislators that choose to introduce legislation that restricts classes of pesticides based on little-to-no actual research. Keeping bees offers interested employees an opportunity to learn more about pollinators. The project has also helped us better understand the plight of the hobby or small-scale beekeeper from a unique, more informed perspective.
GG: What other pollinator-related activities are you involved with?
Mangum: We have been very involved with pollinator educational efforts. We grew and distributed thousands of milkweed plants to help educate communities about the loss of feeding grounds for the Monarch butterfly last year. We provided nearly half of the plants to organizations and schools at no charge to begin to gauge interest. We have also initiated beekeeping projects in select Baltimore City Schools and incorporated pollinator plants in Baltimore City community gardens.
GG: How has your company changed over the past few years since you first started experimenting with production of plants without neonicotinoids? What have you found out since you first conducted that experiment in 2014?
Mangum: When we dropped neonics out of the rotation, there weren’t a lot of viable replacement options, so that first year was pretty challenging. On top of that, our growing team didn’t have much time to trial the replacements, so we were flying a little blind. In the end, our growers did a terrific job researching and implementing alternatives, and we didn’t really skip a beat. Our efforts with integrated pest management have also been amplified and early detection of pest pressure is more important than ever.
GG: How will your experimentation with neonicotinoids, your work with pollinators, and your dealings with researchers and lawmakers affect your business going forward?
Mangum: No matter the fate of neonics, dropping them from our rotation will likely be a good thing for us long term because it forced us to innovate, learn, adapt, and become more resilient. If there is a new flavor-of-the-month chemical that falls in the crosshairs without good reason (we hope not), we will be well positioned to deal with those external forces on our business. Regarding researchers and lawmakers, we have gained credibility in those communities. They have come out to our facilities and hear about an honest effort to understand the issues that face honeybees and hobby beekeepers. Our guests can see we know plants, and we are trying to learn bees — keeping them alive is hard work and the issues we face are many, not just one class of pesticide.
GG: What do you think other growers should do to stay involved with the discussion on protecting pollinators, as well as protecting growers’ options and tools, and educating NGOs (non-governing organizations) and lawmakers?
Mangum: We believe the takeaway is to look at your own business and understand the risks you’re faced with that others control. If it’s a situation with a potential chemical ban like ours, what is your solution to grow the same level of quality if it’s banned? Labor? Customer base? Whatever the issue is, think about a plan B so you aren’t left high and dry at the end of the day if Washington wants to make a decision for you. To stay involved on this issue, I’d suggest growers participate in (and contribute to) AmericanHort. The only way our industry can have a strong voice on this issue and any other is to be united. (Senior Vice President of Industry Advocacy and Research) Craig Regelbrugge is working hard to represent our industry’s interest on Capitol Hill, and Bell Nursery will continue to support AmericanHort as our industry voice and hope other growers will do the same.