The most important bee-related story of the year: That ethanol plant in Nebraska

I think the most important bee-related story of the year so far has been the ethanol plant in Nebraska that was processing pesticide-coated seeds – and then releasing wastewater filled with neonicotinoids and other chemicals into the environment without oversight or regulation. The impacts (that we currently know of) have included the death of numerous honey bee colonies and wildlife, poisoned pets, eye irritation and bloody noses in people, and a “horrible odor” wafting through the town of Mead. It’s a situation that I was made aware of recently by the Xerces Society, but it’s one that Dr. Judy Wu-Smart of the University of Nebraska Bee Lab has been pursuing for several years, and was first covered by The Guardian. Fortunately, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy just issued an emergency order to stop wastewater discharge from the plant, and state legislators are proposing bills to prohibit the use of treated seed in ethanol production and to shift responsibility to seed companies for appropriate disposal. But these are only first steps.

If you’re interesting in getting up to speed on the situation and following it into the future, here are some good starting points. And be sure to follow Dr. Wu-Smart on Twitter @JudyWuSmart1.

How an ethanol plant is dangerously polluting a U.S. village – with insecticides

(The Guardian) For the residents of Mead, Nebraska, the first sign of something amiss was the stench, the smell of something rotting. People reported eye and throat irritation and nosebleeds. Then colonies of bees started dying, birds and butterflies appeared disoriented and pet dogs grew ill, staggering about with dilated pupils.

State halts production at Nebraska ethanol plant, addressing severe pesticide contamination

(Xerces Society) In a major victory for local residents and wildlife, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) issued an emergency order to stop wastewater discharge by an ethanol plant that is processing pesticide-treated seed.

‘Chemicals don’t just disappear’: Persistence by researchers, residents uncovers pesticide contamination at ethanol plant

(Lincoln Journal Star) Judy Wu-Smart has witnessed bee colonies collapse, but never one after another after another in the same location. As she would discover over time, the dying bees were a signal of a larger, slow-moving environmental calamity unfolding in Saunders County, Nebraska, that she and others would trace back to AltEn Ethanol, which began operating in 2015.

Editorial: State must draw key lessons in wake of Mead ethanol plant's environmental concerns

(Omaha World-Herald) "Environmental regulation is one of the state’s most important obligations. In the wake of this troubling situation, it’s imperative that Nebraska regulators and lawmakers adopt sound improvements for the future."

Just a reminder that the Bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante begins showing today as part of the virtual Colorado Environmental Film Festival. The film will be part of the Wildlife #2 collection along with several other bee films. You can get a pass for the entire festival or just for a single collection of films. The festival runs through Feb. 21, so there’s plenty of time to check out as many films as you like!


Almond board provides seed grants to support pollinator health and biodiversity

(PR Newswire, Almond Board of California) Honey bees and native pollinators will find more forage in California’s almond orchards this spring as a result of the almond community’s five-point Pollinator Protection Plan. Announced one year ago by the Almond Board of California, this plan expands the industry’s long-standing commitment to researching, protecting and improving bee health.


Conservationists and California Fish and Game Commission pursue appeal to ensure legal protections for imperiled bumble bees

(Xerces Society) The Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, are appealing a November 2020 decision by the Sacramento County Superior Court that determined that the California Fish and Game Commission lacks authority to list four threatened bumble bee species as candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act. The California Fish and Game Commission has also filed notice of intent to appeal, challenging the court’s ruling.

New Mexico bill aims to restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides

(KRQE) A New Mexico state senator is trying to protect bees and other pollinators from a widely used insecticide. Senate Bill 103 zeroes in on the use of neonicotinoids. The proposal was met with pushback by farmers and the agriculture industry. Environmentalists told lawmakers a quarter of bumblebees are at risk of extinction in New Mexico because of habitat loss, climate change, and insecticides.

Beyond bees, neonics damage ecosystems – and a push for policy change is coming

(Civil Eats) Scientists and advocates say regulation can’t happen soon enough, given the recent body of research that points to harms that extend far beyond pollinators to widespread soil and water contamination affecting aquatic animals, birds, mammals, and entire ecosystems.

Bat boxes, ‘greened’ streets and bug hotels: Barcelona embraces its wild side

(The Guardian) The city council spent the previous two years working on plans to “naturalize” or rewild the city – and was about to announce this change of policy when the pandemic struck. By the time the lockdown ended, it was a lot easier to sell rewilding to a public craving fresh air and open spaces. The city is now in the process of creating 783,300 sq meters of green open space. The plans include around 200 nesting towers for birds and bats, 40 bee hives, around 80 plantings designed specifically as insect “hotels”, and a biodiversity atlas listing all the city’s flora and fauna.


‘Energy efficiency’ explains floral preference among bees and the need for diverse floral resources

(EurekAlert, University of Sussex) “While they forage on the same flowers, frequently we find that bumble bees will outnumber honey bees on a particular flower species, while the reverse will be true on a different species growing nearby. What was remarkable was that differences in foraging energy efficiency explained almost fully why bumble bees predominated on some flower species and honey bees on others.”

Researchers record first-ever Canadian sighting of bee species in local park

(CBC) A master’s student from the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences was stumped when she couldn’t identify six of the bees she collected from Ojibway Park in Windsor, Ontario. Little did she know, it was because these bees had never before been spotted in Canada.

Ecological interactions as a driver of evolution

(ScienceDaily, Technische Universität Dresden) In a recent study, a team of researchers has shown that the evolutionary success of herbivorous insects may be linked to recurrent changes in host plants. They focused on butterflies belonging to the family Papilionidae and found that more species emerged as a result of host plant change than when the host plant was retained.


Xerces will offer its first all Spanish webinar

(Xerces Society) Over the last couple of years, Xerces Society staff have had the pleasure of supporting Héctor Ávila Villegas with his efforts to promote pollinator habitat and outreach in his home state of Aguascalientes, Mexico. Here are more details about the event. Read the part 1 and part 2 blog posts describing Héctor’s work and his plans for the future, en Español and English.

Bee theft is almost a perfect crime—but there’s a new sheriff in town

(Popular Science) Meet the man on the front lines of the ultimate bee sting.

New York muralist on a mission to hand-paint 50,000 bees

(Reuters) “I am not painting bees. I am painting us.”

One More Thing…

“Bee people, you know who you are... Check out this set of irish stamps...” From Brian Ó Muirí / 브라이언 @blagbeag via Twitter.