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Bee-friendly land management— Antioch College bans ‘neonics’

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The lawn in front of Antioch Hall, known as the horseshoe, is covered with clover this time of year. In years past, that meant bees — hundreds of them — buzzing underfoot. But now the clover field is silent, according to Beth Bridgeman, an instructor of cooperative education and a sustainability advocate on campus. And that’s just one local sign of dramatic declines in populations of bees and other pollinators observed worldwide.

Antioch College is taking steps to counter that trend, at least in its own backyard. In late April, the college announced a campus-wide ban on neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides implicated in pollinator population declines. Antioch is the third college in the nation to ban the chemicals, according to a recent announcement from the nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides. That group and the national Center for Food Safety are leading a pro-pollinator effort called the BEE Protective campaign, which recently commended Antioch for its policy.

“These kinds of institutional commitments are huge for the future of bees and other essential pollinators,” according to Larissa Walker of the Center for Food Safety, quoted in a recent college press release. “Antioch College is clearly a visionary, taking tremendous strides to protect pollinators and to be a positive force in the sustainable food movement.”

Antioch is one of just a handful of colleges that have joined the BEE Protective campaign, Bridgeman noted this week. The college is seeking to protect pollinators in a variety of ways, according to the press release, including by sustainable farming and land care practices, a campus Bee Club and the creation of a pollinator pathway at the edge of the Antioch Farm.

But the decision to ban neonicotinoids is perhaps the most significant step. Introduced as agricultural insecticides in the 1990s, neonicotinoids (abbreviated as “neonics”) are widespread in agriculture and in nursery and greenhouse production. For example, upwards of 80 percent of corn seed and more than a third of soybean seed in the U.S. are treated with neonics, according to a 2015 Center for Food Safety fact sheet. Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, which means the chemicals introduced to the seed move throughout the plant, and remain there, as it grows.

“Whether you spray it, inject it or coat the seeds, once it’s in the plant — it’s in it,” Bridgeman explained.

Although pollinators are not the target of neonicotinoids, they absorb the chemicals through the nectar and pollen they collect from flowers. Neonicotinoids have become controversial in recent years, and are currently under review by the U.S. EPA, which had offered them “conditional registration” when they were first introduced. Many scientific studies have subsequently shown that neonics, which act as neuro-toxins, interfere with the normal functioning of pollinators, as well as other insect species, aquatic invertebrates and birds, according to the Center for Food Safety fact sheet. The harm to pollinators, which include honeybees, a range of native bees, some flies, butterflies and moths, is of particular concern.

The importance of these species can’t be overstated, according to Bridgeman. Insect pollination is responsible for most of the fruits and vegetables that fill our grocery shelves, she said. And so protecting these species is directly relevant to the college’s leadership in sustainable agriculture and local food.

The neonicotinoid ban went into effect in April as part of a broader college pesticide policy that’s been in place for about a year, said Bridgeman, who led both efforts. The campus sustainability committee, which includes students, staff and faculty, was unanimous in supporting the neonic ban, she added. The broader pesticide policy, a couple of years in the making, takes an approach called integrated pest management, or IPM, which emphasizes options that cause the least harm yet still eliminate or limit pests.

“Lots of people use IPM, but we’re very ethical about it,” she said.

The Antioch Farm, though not certified organic, doesn’t use any pesticides, relying instead on organic methods to protect its crops, according to Bridgeman.

Because neonicotinoids are so widely used as seed coatings, one challenge for the college is sourcing plant material that hasn’t been grown from neonic-treated seeds. Most plants sold at big-box stores and many nurseries have been treated, said Bridgeman, and so the college has to put “a lot more time and effort” into finding shrubs and trees that are neonicotinoid-free. For example, in preparation for a recent Earth Day planting, students spent “hours and hours” locating sources of neonic-free trees.

“It takes more time, but it’s the right thing to do,” Bridgeman said.

Lowe’s and other stores have recently begun labeling neonicotinoid-treated plants, albeit with “euphemistic” wording that emphasizes the benefits of that treatment for pest resistance, she added. And neonicotinoid-free plants are gradually becoming more available at these stores.

Meanwhile, Antioch is exploring another option: growing its own plant material. “The idea is still in the ‘seedling’ stage,” Bridgeman joked. But the college already has an environmental science faculty member who teaches seed saving — and Bridgeman herself has taken students to seed-saving conferences and helped organize seed-saving events at Antioch — so there is interest and expertise on campus.

Of course, Ohio is farm country, and Antioch and Yellow Springs are surrounded by conventionally farmed corn and soybean fields. And that means neonics are everywhere.

“Any farming that’s not organic is using neonicotinoids,” Bridgeman said.

On the flip side, though, organic farms in the area, and local gardeners dedicated to organic practices, are creating pollinator-friendly havens. String enough of these together, and you get “pollinator pathways,” said Bridgeman, which may play a significant role in protecting, and reviving, pollinator species.

The Village of Yellow Springs is currently exploring an organic land care policy that dovetails with Antioch’s neonic ban and broader pesticide policy. Though the efforts of the college and Village aren’t formally integrated, the aims are congruent and many of the individuals involved overlap, according to Bridgeman. (An article on the Village’s organic land care initiatives will appear in an upcoming issue of the News.)

That clover field on the horseshoe? As part of its pollinator-friendly approach, Antioch is leaving the grass unmowed during clover season to provide fodder for bees, said Bridgeman. In future summers, the horseshoe lawn may be abuzz again.

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