It's been four years since scientists first started accusing a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, of killing bees. These pesticides are used as seed coatings on most corn and soybean seeds.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking a new look at neonics, but it hasn't imposed any new restrictions on the pesticides.
Now Minnesota is stepping ahead on its own. Last Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton ordered a variety of steps to help pollinators, including bees. Several of those steps involve restrictions on neonics.
If Minnesotans want to spray neonics on plants, for instance, they now need to go through an additional step, verifying that the pesticides are needed. The state's Department of Agriculture also will increase inspections and enforcement efforts to make sure that any pesticides that are highly toxic to bees — including neonics — are being used according to regulations.
Those measures, however, don't affect seed coatings, which are the most common way that neonics are used. But on the same day that Dayton announced his executive order, the Department of Agriculture proposed a new "Treated Seed Program" to fill that gap.
Setting up such a program will require approval from the state legislature. If it clears that hurdle, the program would have the authority to regulate whether seeds can be treated, and how such treated seeds can be used. Minnesota, for instance, could create regulations on neonics that mirror those currently going into effect in Ontario, Canada.
That Ontario law, which will be phased in over the next two years, has infuriated grain farmers there. It is intended to cut the use of neonicotinoid seed coatings by 80 percent. The first of its provisions went into effect this year.
The Ontario law requires farmers to prove that they really need the seed coatings in order to protect the crop. They can do this by hiring pest experts to monitor their fields, placing bait in the soil to show that insect pests, such as wireworms and grubs, are in fact present.
According to some scientists, however, such tests often aren't very reliable unless you dig holes and place traps all over the field. "Nobody has really been able to come up with a cost-effective way to determine populations of wireworms in a field," says Robert Vernon, a research scientist at the Agassiz Research and Development Centre, which is funded by the Canadian government.
According to Stephen Denys, a farmer and seed company executive in Chatham, Ontario, most Ontario farmers have been unwilling to go without insecticidal seed treatments. So far, he says, farmers have either continued to use neonics or they have switched to an alternative insecticide, cyantraniliprole, which is not covered by the new law.