Certifying bees organic poses challenges | capitalpress.com

Fences don’t stop bees, so a farmer can’t manage them organically the same as they would livestock.

That’s something the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board must take into account as it develops organic standards for bees. The need for certification has become more important as the commercial organic honey industry has grown despite the lack of standards. Since bees are animals, the task has fallen to the board’s Livestock Committee.

Sam Jones-Ellard, public affairs specialist at the Agricultural Marketing Service, said certifiers have been using existing livestock standards as their baseline. No timeline has been established for the proposed rule, he said, but once it is published, stakeholders will have the opportunity to comment.

Among the recommendations of the board’s Livestock Committee:

* The practice standard will regulate the production of bee products, but not require the use of organic bees for organic crop production.

* An organic system plan will include a map showing hives; a forage zone, including crops grown, bloom periods, topography and climatic conditions; a surveillance zone, describing sources of potential contamination within 2.2 miles of the forage zone; and water sources.

* Because bees may forage on non-organic land in the surveillance zone, the plan must demonstrate that sufficient organic forage is available within the forage zone throughout the year. The plan must also demonstrate that crops in the surveillance zone offer minimal risk to organic integrity.

Few pesticides are approved for organic agriculture, but neighbors of organic farms aren’t necessarily concerned about restrictions.

Jacqueline Freeman, co-owner of Friendly Haven Rise Farms near Vancouver, Wash., said, “The ag industry and home consumers have chemicals available that are known to harm bees. Their approval hinges on disclaimers like ‘don’t use on windy days’ or ‘not when bees are present.'”

That disclaimer means little when bees often travel two miles from the hive to gather pollen.

“If they bring home pesticides, it can kill the entire hive,” she said.

Reducing the overall use of pesticides helps protect pollinators, but even some substances approved for organic management are toxic to them, according to the Xerces Society, which studies invertebrates and their habitats. Among those substances are diatomaceous earth, insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, pyrethrins and copper sulfate.

Xerces also said tillage disrupts native bees, which pollinate many crops and contribute $3 billion to the U.S. agricultural economy. About 70 percent of native bees live underground. But many organic growers, who cannot use conventional herbicides, rely on tillage as a primary weed-control strategy.

Freeman said she nurtures native bees and is aware of their vulnerability to tillage. The practice may be a common control method for blackberries in the Pacific Northwest, but goats are her “blackberry department,” she said.

When it came time to repurpose one compacted area to bee habitat, aerating broke up the thatch and gave the seed good contact with the soil. Seed drills are another options, she said.