With all of the flowering plants at Rockey Farms in the San Luis Valley, it would seem an ideal environment for putting out hives and collecting honey.
Owner Brendon Rockey looked into it. But a local beekeeper who did some preliminary testing concluded there were too many residues from neonicotinoid insecticides in the surrounding environment to make it a good option.
Neonics, as they are often called, are usually applied as a seed treatment and are used on many crops. But beekeepers are concerned they imperil bees and native pollinators.
Neonics are widely used in corn and canola and, to a lesser degree, in cotton, sorghum, sugar beets, soybeans and cereal grains. They are also used in the production of high-value fruits and vegetables and horticultural plants. Some consumer products contain them, including treated wood and flea-and-tick pet collars.
Last year, European Union countries voted to ban outdoor use of virtually all neonics over concerns about pollinator health.
Grant Mattive farms in the San Luis Valley and grows predominately potatoes and barley. He also serves on the board of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
There are enough cultural and political differences between Europe and the U.S. that it seems unlikely the same regulatory approach would ever be adopted here, he said.
Still, if neonics were banned tomorrow, it would have an impact on him, even though he uses biological pest control methods such as pollinator strips.
He estimated neonics are used on around a third of all potatoes and barley grown in the valley.
"They are one of the tools in our toolbox," he said.
Some experts believe systemic pest control products actually offer environmental benefits. The theory is that having chemicals taken up into the plant tissues at low levels is better than applying them directly, where they can be spread in the natural environment.
They also are far from the only threat to pollinators. According to the National Potato Council, a number of stress factors impact pollinator health, and the role of pesticides has likely been overstated. The potato group suggests bigger culprits are declines in high-quality forage and the growing presence of the varroa mite in U.S. hives.
The U.S. Canola Association, a member of the Honey Bee Health Coalition, notes that bees are essential for hybrid canola seed production and for achieving higher yields. It publishes a list of pollinator-friendly best-management practices, which acknowledges pesticide exposure as a stress factor and encourages farmers to use integrated pest management and keep communication lines open with beekeepers.
One thing that would help is if farmers were rewarded for adopting favorable environmental practices, Mattive said.
Reducing chemical use doesn't add any value to the standard russet potatoes he grows, but he has to sell them into a market that is extremely price sensitive. That's true for many other crops, including corn and barley.
"It would really help if we could market the environmental benefits of what we're doing somehow," he said.
Beth Conrey, owner of Bee Squared Apiaries in Fort Collins and a long-time leader in the Colorado Beekeepers Association, believes consumers and farmers should drive what products are available, not input supply companies.
She has been to Rockey Farms and observed the shift toward biologically enhanced farming practices.
"The pollinator strips do help buffer the negative effects," she said.
Still, she concedes it's a complicated issue, especially since farmers sometimes can't get untreated seed even if they want it.
Currently, neonics and other pesticides are so widely used, in urban as well as rural environments, that it's virtually impossible to produce true organic honey in the U.S., she said.
J.P. Michaud, a research entomologist at Kansas State University's Ag Research Center at Hays and an advocate for integrated pest management, believes the current use of neonics exceeds the benefit.
Michaud was featured earlier this summer on Agriculture Today, a radio program distributed by K-State Research and Extension.
During the interview, Michaud explained that neonics — a family of compounds analogous to nicotine, which were originally derived from the tobacco plant but are now synthetically produced — are relatively safe for vertebrates and even birds, but they are also long-lived and eventually accumulate in the environment in doses lethal enough to harm insects and aquatic life.
"Instead of being used as a niche, the problem now is that seed companies want to treat all of the seed instead of using it in a preventative manner," Michaud said during the program. "And farmers are paying for an extra input cost they don't really need. These products won't increase yields in 95 percent of applications."
While seed treatments don't come into play in every situation, many farmers consider them a cheap form of insurance that helps protect their investment in today's high-powered, high cost genetics.
But Michaud claims seed is too often treated simply because seed dealers don't want to store untreated seed separately.
Even if the industry were to move away from using these products, it would take 10 or 15 years just to work through the residues already in the environment, Michaud said. He added that in some ways these products make it harder to grow healthy crops.
"If you kill everything that feeds on your plant in the early stages of growth, you're going to have a sterile environment, and you won't have any natural enemies (to combat the pests)," he said.