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A Fatal Sting

A swarming debate over pesticides and their role in bee deaths

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Mac McNeil is a tall man with large hands, but he handles his bees gently.

He slipped into a white Boise State Broncos pullover his wife gave him for Christmas--a light protection from his bees. Like him, his bees are gentle, and he rarely wears a full bee suit. Whenever a hive turns aggressive, he replaces the queen.

"Nice bees makes for good neighbors," McNeil said. "A residential beekeeper's responsibility is to keep nice bees."

McNeil keeps two beehives near ParkCenter Boulevard in Boise, as well as a handful more at his home off Hill Road. He likes keeping bees for his own homemade mead, harvesting some 200 pounds of honey every year. He likes knowing where his honey comes from and what's in it. But he started his own colonies for another, more selfless reason--to help a struggling creature.

"You want to help the bees because they're experiencing trouble," he said.

He traded his extensive saltwater fish tank for a few hives two years ago, taking on a hobby that lets him practice his skills as a woodworker. He made each box, built every frame and crafted miniature shingled roofs for them all.

On a clear spring day at the end of April, McNeil went to check on his hives near ParkCenter.

When he reached his bee boxes, McNeil found more than two-thirds of his bees--nearly 10,000--dead.

"Just to see them on the ground..." McNeil said, his eyes cast downward.

He didn't finish the sentence.

McNeil blamed pesticides for such a significant kill. He said spring is the time of year when landscapers and homeowners spray ornamental plants and trees. Since both hives were hit at the same time, he said they didn't die from something that had been brewing in the boxes. It was an external cause.

He can't say for sure what kind of pesticide it was that killed his bees, but he worries about a class of pesticides that have been drawing widespread attention over the past few years. They're called neonicotinoids--neonics, for short--and they're a synthetic chemical similar to nicotine. Ada County was one of the places in the United States where neonic products were first used back in 1994.

"You can't blame everything on neonics. Bees are hit by a whole host of things," McNeil said. "But I believe neonics are overused. If people knew more, I think they would use a whole lot less of them."