Blanca Srock, 11, and her mother, Melissa Srock, show off their trio of beehives, kept in the woods at the back of their Bloomfield Township lot.

Blanca Srock, 11, and her mother, Melissa Srock, show off their trio of beehives, kept in the woods at the back of their Bloomfield Township lot.

Photo by Brandy Baker

Pesticides in park create buzz about pollinator protections

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published May 24, 2019


BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD — Melissa Srock, of Bloomfield Township, recently made a few changes to the back of her 2.2-acre property. She added some pine trees to the edge of the woods on her land, to hide her hives.

After a meeting with the township’s Zoning Board of Appeals, she learned that she would be allowed a variance for the second year in a row to keep bees on her property as a kind of pet project for her children, teaching them how to nurture honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators, which have been dying off at dramatic rates over the past several years due to the rise of pesticides and pathogens used in industrial agriculture, as well as habitat loss from climate change.

The current township ordinance counts beekeeping as a farming activity and requires residents who want to participate in it to have 40 acres or more, so the ZBA said Srock needed to plant a barrier of trees around the hives, in addition to the existing screens, to keep them out of sight from the neighbors.

“Honestly, I’m not even sure how this is going to work, because bees need a lot of sunshine,” Srock said.

The back and forth with the township to get permission for beehives on her property has been tough, but she said she gets it: Some people love bees and appreciate them as the major pollinators of our land, and others see them as a nuisance — a nuisance that can sting.

But that’s a misunderstanding, she said. After her son took a beekeeping elective course at Birmingham Covington School, he became passionate about doing his part to protect the endangered insects. The whole family enrolled in a training course with a local beekeeper and learned how to keep their own hives.

“Bees basically want to be left alone,” Srock said. “They work to collect pollen and do their thing. The nuisance is that people confuse bees with wasps. They’re the ones who sit on your sugary drink and bother you at picnics.”

That’s pretty much how Lauren Northrop feels too. Her home sits in Bloomfield Village, across from Seaholm High School and Lincoln Well Park. She was surprised to see contractors out at the course spraying pesticides.

“When I called Birmingham to ask what was going on, they were very nice. I don’t think they were trying to do anything wrong; they were just responding to complaints from parents about bees in the area. But I don’t think they really thought it through,” Northrop said. “By now, those bees would already be gone and we wouldn’t have chemicals on the grass.”

Northrop, an attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, believes the ground-dwelling bees at the park were mason bees, which can sting, but tend to stay away from people unless they feel threatened, she said.

“They’re extremely nonaggressive,” she said. “Believe me, I walked through them many times over the years. I’ve always taught my children you adjust yourself to nature — you don’t adjust nature to yourself.”

That’s all true, according to Michael Hansen, the resident apiarist with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Well, rather those traits of mason bees are true. But it’s hard to say whether that’s the exact species that was spotted at Lincoln Well Park.

“Mason bees are solitary bees that are active for a shorter period, in which they gather food for the next generation and then lay their eggs. Their habitat would be in the stems of reeds or hollow sticks,” Hansen explained.

But he said there’s a possibility that what Northrop spotted were carpenter bees. And that’s a whole different story.

“There are two types of carpenter bees in Michigan. Both are wood-destroying insects and should be controlled if they are damaging property. In their native habitat they help to break down dead trees, but in structures like homes and fences they can do a lot of damage. Carpenter bees are defensive and will protect their nest. Mason bees are much less aggressive.”

Birmingham Public Services Department staff was able to confirm the parent complaints in the area and the subsequent pesticide treatment at that park and another.

“The ground bees recur at Crestview in the grass area, and this year for the very first time ground bees were a significant nuisance at Lincoln Well Park,” said DPS Director Lauren Wood, adding that the contractor used bifenthrin for the treatment, a broad-based insecticide.

The half-life for that chemical — that’s how long it can stay in soil before it degrades to half of its original concentration — is approximately seven days. Northrop said that, just in case, her kids won’t be playing at the park for some time.

It’s hard to know the exact half-life of the chemical sprayed at the park, as bifenthrin is the active ingredient in close to 600 pesticides, according to Brian Verhougstraete, with the pesticide registration and certification arm of the MDARD. But he said he’s confident that the chemical was used appropriately and safely since, as the contractor is likely aware, using a pesticide in a manner not outlined by the product’s label is against federal law.

“If the product was applied according to the label, then it is safe in regards to human health and the environment. This is true for all pesticides registered by the EPA,” Verhougstraete said in an email. “By law, the EPA can only register a pesticide if, through in-depth risk assessments, they have determined there are no unreasonable adverse effects to human health or the environment.”

But Northrop said she’s not only concerned about her kids coming into contact with pesticides, but protecting the pests themselves.

“We have a lot of pretty places in this area, but not a lot of natural places,” she said. “So much of our wildlife I think people take for granted. We all have our perfect lawn and perfect garden, but to take away the native population of pollinators that support so much of this spring we’re seeing around us, I think it was really thoughtless.”

Whether the bees were mason or carpenter or some other variety, Hansen said they were likely still valuable to the environment.

Joan Mandell, a beekeeper and a partner in Green Toe Gardens, agrees. She’s kept close to 100 hives around metro Detroit and teaches others to do the same.

“Tidy lawns and gardens may impress your neighbors, but not your bees. Many fast-growing weeds provide rich food sources for bees, so let the dandelions grow,” Mandell said in an email. “Let’s be honest: We can’t control everything. But we can eliminate toxic chemicals and plant biodiverse habitats. The bees will reward us with more food, more flowers and a healthier environment.”

For Wood, though, her job is to respond to the concerns of residents. And when several of them call to complain of bees in areas where families walk or play, she said she has to act.

“The city feels it’s important to our community that residents and visitors going to our park system and public spaces feel safe and comfortable,” she said.

Northrop said she understands, but she wishes residents might have a little more say before public spaces are treated with pesticides.

“We are seeing a kind of catastrophic drop in the numbers of pollinators, so we really need to think before we act,” she said. “I don’t think we really know what we’ve lost in that park, but it’s there.”

Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik contributed to this report.