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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Give Bees a Chance…

You have my second“I’ve got bees over here!!” I scream at the driver of the yellow truck sporting the green DOT logo on its side. The truck is crawling along the right-of-way opposite our driveway. A thin trickle of some substance plays back and forth on the weeds in the ditch. Seeing my frantic, angry gesticulations, the driver stops and thus begins a fifteen minute confrontation between beekeeper and weed killing crew. For my safety’s sake the driver motions me around to the passenger side of the truck, a considerate move on his part. The passenger door is open for the sprayer to access the roadside vegetation. I confront the sprayer but tone it down a bit: “I’ve got bees back there!””How am I suppose to know that?” is his response. “Because I’m telling you now,” I exclaim. “I’m just doing my job,” is his comeback.  Now if a state worker wants to “Do his job,” I, as a taxpayer, am generally in favor of  his earning his pay (being reminded, however, of one of the subcontractors DOT commissioned to install the SR. 203 turn lane at Tualco and N. High Rock road. He had been employed by the DOT at one point but had taken his present job with the present contractor. I asked him how long he had worked for the WSDOT. “Oh, I was there twenty years” he chuckled, “but only worked three.”)

While the pilot car idled 100 yards behind, the sprayer and I had a fifteen minute conversation (heated at times…on my part, I admit) and I share some of the highlights here. First off, I ask him just what toxin he’s applying right across the road from my hardworking honeybee colonies. It’s an herbicide, he tells me. Now there’s news. “Ok...but what’s it called? Do you have any literature about the stuff?” He shuffles through a mound of papers on the dashboard, starts handing me labels of trade names, then a passes several sheets of instructions my way. I discover the spray is not one chemical-- Round-Up, say--but a cocktail of at least five agents designed to make the weeds be gone. “I suppose I can’t keep these?” I ask. He shakes his head. I hand them back. “I’ll check WSDOT’s web site for more information, then.” The worker replies, “If I see a lot of bees, I don’t spray,” he says as he gestures toward a clump of snowberry (which is past bloom). I gesture back, point up the road to a whiter than snow patch of blackberries in full bloom. “Just a hundred feet up the road,” I caution, “you’ll find those blackberries full of them.” It’s the Himalayan blackberry DOT is targeting, one of the five noxious plants on their “kill” list, including Japanese knotweed, two species of  thistle, and ragweed tansey. The first four are nectar-producing plants for foraging honeybees.Blackberry & knotweed Blackberry is the Valley’s summer honey surplus; knotweed the later summer crop. A strong flow of blackberry nectar yields a light, golden honey that has a distinct fruity flavor. Knotweed, on the other hand, is as black as tar, with, in spite of its darkness, a surprisingly mild taste . Today Himalayan blackberry is getting a drenching…if the drizzling trickle out of the hose could be called  a “drench.” And the blackberry was full of foraging bees. After our conversation the spray truck continued rolling along dribbling herbicide into the roadside brush.

Washington State has a Noxious Weed Control Board. I wondered if there was any cross-referencing between its agency and WSDOT. That was the question I put to Snohomish Country Noxious Weed coordinator S0nny Gohrman. Himalayan blackberry is a Class C weed, a classification which means a county can target the plant for eradication if it considers the weed a threat to county agriculture. In his email response Gohrman made it clear that H. blackberry is “NOT”on its target list; the thorny bramble is considered a “nuisance weed” here in Snohomish County, a designation with which I’m sure you’ll agree—especially if you turn your back on that thorny customer for any length of time. According to Gohrman, DOT’s jurisdiction—State highways—trumps individual counties’ weed management programs. A link Gohrman shared took me to WSDOT’s vegetation management site (WSDOT) where the State explains its weed management program. Driver safety (visibility), safeguarding local agriculture, and aesthetics (Keep Washington beautiful) they cite as their primary objectives. (Yellow and dying roadside vegetation? Where’s the beauty in dead weeds? And why wait to spray until the noxious are in full bloom? Herbicides are most effective when the target weed is in young, vigorous growth, not when it’s setting fruit.)

On the other hand, both DOT and Snohomish County have an aggressive spray campaign mounted against knotweed, another Class C designate. Gohrman claims the plant is a threat to salmon habitat. In just what manner, I have yet to learn. It seems to me riparian knotweed thickets would mitigate erosion along watercourses, their root systems strengthen the banks and help prevent harmful silting.Valley knotweed

I must admit considering the issue of chemicals and the safety and well-being of bees, herbicides don’t do the harm wrought by pesticides; with the latter, the current use of neonicotinoids on insects has a deadly impact on foraging honeybees. My concerns with the release of chemicals into the environment are twofold: how much study has been done to determine the immediate effects of herbicide cocktails on the environment; what is the residual, cumulative effect on the soil, water, air…and the inner workings of a healthy colony of honeybees.

In general, there seems be less and less commonsense these days. One often wonders where government agencies are concerned, if it isn’t entirely extinct. This roadside spraying for instance. During the construction phase of the aforementioned SR 203 turn lane, an unsightly orange silt fence was installed across the road to keep construction debris from finding its way into Riley Slough, a designated “wetlands” area. Installing the turn lane required widening the road at the intersection of the State Highway, Tualco and North High Rock Road. Instead of splitting the difference between the east and west side of the highway, the extra footage came from the west side only. When I contacted the project manager for an explanation, she told me it would be far too costly for a wetlands mitigation. And yet the DOT routinely applies herbicide to the bank above the slough.

I give Snohomish County’s weed guy some credit, though. Sonny Gohrman pointed out that while they’re at work, both the State and County spray crews are high profile to the public, especially if traffic has to slow through their work zones (and in particular when they’re spraying across the road from one’s bees). And  it’s true, as Gohrman, said honeybees have a working range of three to five miles. True also that any retail outlet which carries garden supplies will have a long section of shelves stocked with a wide variety of chemicals the gardener can apply to his lawn and garden. In other words, who knows what one’s neighbors might be doing in their own backyards to contribute to the proliferation of pesticide/herbicide in the neighborhood?

Perhaps my fuss over the dribble of a bit of herbicide into the roadside weeds is a tempest in a teapot; it seems to have had little effect, if any, on the thick tangle of roadside blackberries. Besides, at this juncture, my concern’s a moot point anyway. That thicket of blossoming blackberries? It’s not DOT’s fault the blooming covert has been reduced to blackened canes and ash. All it took was a white pickup truck traveling too fast to make the corner, careening into a high voltage power pole which snapped upon impact, tumbling the power lines into that clump of bee pasturage and setting it afire. All that remains is scorched earth.  p.m. excitement









hose rainbow


scorched earth

Now what was I just saying about commonsense…?

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