Initiated in 2017, the Oregon Bee Project rallies around a science-based strategy to protect bees and educate Oregonians about them. The organization recently launched its second strategic plan. Andony Melathopoulos is an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University. Matthew Bucy is a pesticide product registration specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. We check in with them to see how the project has fared and what lies ahead for bee protection in the state.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Five years ago the Oregon Bee Project was created to protect these vital pollinators and to educate Oregonians about them. The project put out a strategic plan to guide its work. It recently put out a second version of that plan, which is a good time to ask some big questions, like what has the Oregon Bee Project accomplished, and what is it going to be doing going forward? Joining us to answer those questions and more, are Andony Melathopoulos, an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University, and Matthew Bucy, a pesticide product registration specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Welcome to you both.
Guests: Hey Dave! Thank you.
Miller: I’m thrilled to have both of you, Tony first. Can you remind us why you and others created the Oregon Bee Project in the first place?
Andony Melathopoulos: It was a really terrible situation. In 2013 there was a pesticide poisoning. A national pollinator week just outside of Portland, and the Legislature struck a pollinator health task force, and out of that came a piece of legislation that charged OSU extension to develop a plan, a training plan for Oregonians on how to manage bees and get their work done at the same time, but do it in consultation with state lead agencies like Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Miller: What were the main components of the first strategic plan?
Melathopoulos: They’re kind of the same as the components of the second plan. The key part, and this is what sort of triggered the whole task force and the Legislature’s concern, was ensuring that pesticide applicators were trained on how to protect bees during crop pollination. But in addition to that, there was the goal of maintaining or enhancing bee habitat in the state. We have a bunch of pests of bees, both managed honeybees, but also our native bees, making sure that [with] those pests, we knew what was going on with them, and finally getting a hold of what are the native and wild bees of Oregon. We didn’t even know all the bees that lived here.
Miller: Well, this is the Bee Atlas, right? Can you describe what this is and how you and others have gone about creating this atlas?
Melathopoulos: The atlas is a delightful voyage of discovery. [Laughing] Volunteers across the state – dedicated smart, meticulous volunteers – who are part of a program, that we only have here in Oregon, the Master Melittologist Program. [A] melittologist is somebody who studies bees, and right now they’re all across the state looking at the nooks and crannies of the state trying to find bees that we don’t know about. And this has happened over the last couple of years. In the first strategic plan, these volunteers, like Judy Maxwell down in Grant’s Pass, discovered a bee that was only known from four specimens, and never seen in Oregon. She found it on some stone crop at high elevation, documented it, and we’ve been able to find where this bee is, right across its range. Right to this really tiny bee that two brothers, grass seed growers who are master melittologists – Dan and Michael Laughlin – discovered in a lawn in Burns. It’s a tiny little cuckoo of the bee that is the tiniest bee in Oregon. It’s just amazing what these volunteers are doing.
Miller: A cuckoo, what does that mean?
Melathopoulos: So, you have cuckoo birds, birds that just slip into the nest. They lay their eggs and then they pop out again. There are about 20% of our bees, that’s all they do. They just slip in the nest, put an egg in and pop out again.
Miller: And then what happens to the bees that hatch?
Melathopoulos: Oh, so that little bee then goes and impales the bee that was on the ball of pollen that the females collected and then it completes its life cycle. It’s a very successful strategy and many of our bees in the state, there’s tons of them that are, that’s their life cycle. It’s not what anybody conceives of. The atlas has sort of blown our conception for lots of Oregonians on what a bee is.
Miller: There is so much to hear about the Bee Atlas and Oregon bees. But as I noted, Matthew Bucy is with us as well, from the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Matthew, how is the Department of Agriculture involved in this project?
Matthew Bucy: So we’re involved in a few different ways. As you mentioned earlier, I’m one of our pesticide product registration specialists. That means that ODA is reviewing the labels of all of the pesticides sold and distributed in Oregon. And so we are ensuring that all of those labels have the necessary pollinator protection information. We are keeping OSU and our other stakeholders in the loop for any new ingredients, new products, novel pollinator protection statements, anything in the frontiers of the pesticide world. We’re keeping all of the Oregon Bee Project partners in the loop. Additionally our agency awards pesticide recertification credits for courses on protecting bees from pesticides and encouraging pollinator habitat. So if you have a pesticide license in Oregon, you have to take a certain number of classes and accumulate a certain number of credits in order to maintain that license. And so by awarding credits to classes with the pollinator focus, we are encouraging our applicators to pursue those educational opportunities. And then there is also the insect pest and prevention management component of ODA that’s involved particularly in goal number three, with slowing the introduction, spread and impact of exotic bees diseases and pests.
Miller: What type of education might a pesticide applicator, a farmer somewhere, say, what might they receive from the Department of Agriculture?
Bucy: So one of our main educational pushes [is] a pesticide label. The label is the law. You have to apply a pesticide in accordance with what’s on the label. And so a big push for us is teaching courses on how to interpret the pollinating insect hazard statement that you would find on the label. So you can understand what the toxicity of the product is to bees. For instance, whether or not this is a product that can be applied during bloom. This is important, so that we can make sure that our applicators are following that label, applying the pesticide in accordance with the law. And then also just so that they can be informed when selecting a product to use. So we have like over 200 crops grown in Oregon. Considering if you need to make a pesticide application and maybe there’s a crop in bloom, there are blooming weeds nearby. By teaching applicators how to understand the label, we can lead to informed product selection, and a good choice of application method, to minimize that risk of exposing bees to pesticides.
Miller: Given that so much of agriculture in Oregon and around the world relies on pollinators, do you find that the farmers you’re talking to in general are receptive?
Melathopoulos: One thing I would say is that yes, Oregonian farmers are really tuned in and have a sense of the bees that are . . . think about blueberries, you’ve got watermelons, right Madras right now, they’re pollinating. There’s the carrot seed supply for the entire nation that is being grown, the clover seed. If you drive up and down the I-5, you’ll see these little white plots right now. And all of those growers are renting bees for crop pollination, and have been doing so for decades, and they are really tuned in working with bees and understand sort of the basics of working with bees. So they were really curious. And when Matthew’s talking about the pesticide education, they really were grateful, is what I encountered. When somebody would come consistently to those trainings, and tell them exactly how to understand these labels that are written, quite frankly, in legalese. And we saw, when applicators would come in and we would test them on their knowledge of the label before, they didn’t understand the label. They would leave those trainings with very high levels of comprehension. I think this is the intent of the legislature with the Oregon Bee Project to start with, was just to make sure that people knew what they were doing. Everybody wants to not harm bees, but in many cases it’s kind of opaque what they gotta do.
Miller: Could part of that be fixed by writing better labels? I’m just thinking if these are smart women and men who are farming, and they’re looking at the labels of these pesticides, and they don’t know what’s expected of them. Is that partly because they’re not written in clear ways?
Melathopoulos: You know I’m gonna pass that question on to Matthew. Matthew probably nationally knows pesticide labels and the pollinator language better than anybody.
Bucy: I think that’s a great point. I think there’s certainly room for improvement in the way that a lot of these labels are written. EPA is aware of work done out of Oregon, to show that there needs to be some improvement in how this pollinator protection information is stated. We are engaged with EPA, and we are also collaborating with registrars to try and emphasize the importance of clear and comprehensible label language. I think there are definitely opportunities for improvement in how those labels are written. And I think the fact that we are teaching these courses and seeing firsthand what applicators are finding easy to comprehend, and what they’re struggling to comprehend, that’s really important data that passed back to EPA and our other regulators to show that this this part of the label, people seem to get, and this part of the label needs some work.
Miller: It seems like, Matthew, what you’re saying is, to a great extent, the education is both what’s the safe way to use this particular pesticide, what’s in the label – for example, when to use it or where to use it. I’m curious if you or other people in the regulatory world in Oregon are saying yes or no to pesticides themselves based on the effects they would have on pollinators.
Bucy: If I’m interpreting your question, are you asking if products may or may not be registered based on …
Miller: Exactly. I mean if the state is saying, ‘You know what, this would be simply too dangerous to use in Oregon because it’s too likely to harm these critical bees.’
Bucy: For some context, most pesticides in the United States are first registered by EPA and then by the state that they’re going to be sold and distributed in. Any pesticide that’s registered in Oregon has completed a comprehensive risk assessment on the part of EPA, who has determined that, when used in accordance with label directions, that pesticide will not pose unreasonable adverse effects to humans or the environments. We are making sure that all of those labels have the pollinator protection statements and restrictions that EPA has determined necessary. If a label is deficient in that regard, then we would require that label to be edited before that product could be sold and distributed in Oregon. So we’re making sure that those labels have the appropriate restrictions that EPA has deemed necessary. That kind of environmental risk assessment, in terms of quantifying the acute contact LD50 to bees, for example, that’s handled at EPA before those products get to us.
Miller: We asked our listeners what they’re doing to help bees. We got a number of responses on Facebook: Hunter Currey wrote, ‘We are working towards Backyard Habitat certification.’ Kathy Tokmakian Knower planted a birds, bees, and butterflies garden. Cathi Newlin turned part of the lawn into a meadow, created a wildflower bed, built a bug house, and allowed half the herb plants to flower. And then Bett Kearl wrote, ‘I am using plant pot trays with water, and rocks to allow bees to get out of the water.’ Andony, can you help us understand the importance of rocks in the water here that Bett Kearl was talking about?
Melathopoulos: Yeah. It warms my heart to hear those Facebook posts. That’s really wonderful. [Regarding] the rocks, we have one of our bees… We have about 700 species of bees, just to put this in the context. Honey bees are…
Miller: Wait, 700 in Oregon alone?
Melathopoulos: Species, about, because we don’t really know – who knows where that list is going to end. Yeah. One of those species is the honey bee that everybody’s familiar with, and honey bees are remarkable. When it gets hot this time of year, they can thermoregulate. They have their own built-in radiator. What they do is they collect water and they make little bubbles in their mouth. It evaporates off at the entrance, and they cool the colony down. They have to get water, so if there’s water with rocks in it then that allows the honey bees to kind of like walk on the rocks, suck up that water and then go home without plopping in the pool, so to speak. That’s great. That’s awesome.
Miller: What else can individual Oregonians be thinking about to help pollinators and perhaps to help ones that are more obscure than honey bees?
Melathopoulos: Well, I wanna shout out to – at OSU we have a Garden Ecology Lab. Gail Langellotto, my colleague, is actually the master gardener coordinator for the state. She’s been testing all sorts of plants in garden settings, giving people really precise prescriptions of what to plant. I think that’s one thing that’s clearly out there: go to the Extension Service, go to your master gardeners. They’re gonna help you with plant selection and figure out how to make your garden look spick-and-span and nice and beautiful and smell good with the right plants in place.
Miller: I want to go back to this Bee Atlas, which you said that Oregon really is a pioneer in this. What is the dream going forward for how this atlas could be used?
Melathopoulos: I have a dream. This is what it would look like. I’m inspired: In Oregon we have this thing from the 90s called the Oregon Flora Project, and they’ve mapped out every plant. They’ve got these volumes. You can see where each of these plants are grown [and] know something about them. [I’d] love to have a publicly accessible map where somebody can go in, draw a circle around their property and see what bees should be there. But in addition, each of our bees comes with a plant record. So every time a volunteer collects a bee, they’ve got the associated plant record. We’re working with vineyards right now in the Willamette Valley on a pilot where we can document the plants that they have on the property and say, ‘Well, if you wanted to bring in some of the more unusual bees, here are the three plants. We know from that region, from that viticultural area of plants and bees that are there, if you just put in some Grindelia, some gumweed, your species list is going to go up.’ We’re the only state that can do that because we’ve got these fine-grain detailed records that our volunteers have collected on bees and plants. That is my dream, that somebody can say, [for example] ‘I’m in Enterprise and I want to really bring in some of these cool bees. What did the volunteers say about the kind of plants I should be planting in Enterprise?’ Because the bees in Enterprise are not the same bees as in Klamath or the bees that you have in Eugene.
Miller: Before we go. I understand you’ve also been working on a bee license plate. What’s it going to look like?
Melathopoulos: Oh it’s still in development. Hopefully by September it will be ready. It really portrays what’s going on in the state. I think the Oregon Bee Project is an excellent example of various people, broad groups, who work with bees and around bees coming together. So the license plate features our clover seed industry. We do crimson clover, white clover, red clover, and it has a bumble bee. If you go into red clover fields this time of year, you’ll see five [or] six species of bumble bees. No agricultural crop in the U.S. has that diversity of bees. So we’ve got a bumble bee, and then we also have a honey bee there – just showing the commitment in the state to both native and wild bees and their interaction with agriculture. It’s going to look good.
Miller: And if people get that, the premium will go towards some kind of bee project?
Melathopoulos: Yeah. Two things we’re really trying to support. We have a specialist in the state who can identify the bees; we need to retain that position. Some of that funding is going to go to making sure that position is retained, and also for honey bee research at OSU. We’re gonna be able to support the ongoing diagnostics work that is happening there.
Miller: How were bees affected by the heat dome that was deadly for humans last year?
Melathopoulos: It’s interesting. The one thing that happened of course is that we just ran out of moisture. As soon as the moisture is gone, plants bloom quickly, they’re gone in a minute. One of the things that we are really starting to think about here in the state – and this comes up in the strategic plan – is trying to anticipate that we’re going to have drier years coming up, and we’re going to need plants that don’t require much water and that can bloom in that critical time for our state’s honey bees of July and August.
Miller: Andony Melathopoulos and Matthew Bucy, thanks very much.
Melathopoulos: Thank you so much.
Bucy: Thanks for having us.
Miller: Andony Melathopoulos is an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture at OSU. Matthew Bucy is at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. He is a pesticide product registration specialist.
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