Trains, bees, and the search for logic

Two news stories today are requiring a fine microscope to find logic.

First, in the wake of the tragic train crash in Philadelphia that killed seven people — deaths that wouldn’t have happened if existing technology had been installed on one of the busiest train corridors in the world, a U.S. House panel yesterday voted to cut funding for Amtrak in its continuing effort to kill it.

Perhaps there’s good reason to starve rail transit (Amtrak is unlikely to ever be a reasonable transportation option outside of the Northeast Corridor), but the tone deafness and timing of the action is stunning.

Predictably, the Republicans on the committee invoked an old political tactic — playing the victim.

“It was beneath you,” Representative Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho, said after Democrats pointed out the relationship between a crumbling infrastructure and people dying.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota you may have heard of yesterday’s report that 40 percent of the nation’s honeybees died, with some keepers reporting 50-percent losses.

It’s believed that mites and parasites are responsible, but pesticides are believed a culprit too.

Neonicotinoid manufacturers hailed the report, noting that winter bee deaths stabilized, the New York Times reports.

The European Commission has banned the use of three variants of the pesticide on flowering plants, citing risks to bees, and questioned whether they should be used at all.

Minnesota enacted legislation last year declaring that nurseries could not market plants as bee- and butterfly-friendly if they were grown with neonicotinoids.

But in the wake of this week’s bee-death report — or more accurately: in spite of it — the lawmakers are preparing to deliver a gift to the nursery industry, according to the Star Tribune.

The House approved a measure yesterday that would allow nurseries to advertise a plant at bee friendly “as long as it’s not toxic enough to kill them after one sip of nectar or single load of pollen,” the paper said.

“There is a level of pesticide that is safe for pollinators,” said Tim Power, head of government affairs for the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association. “Last year’s law was passed based on an emotional response rather than scientific facts.”

Advocates who supported last year’s rules change say the new language is misleading to gardeners, who assume that a label with a bee or butterfly on it means that it’s safe for insects.

“It’s not friendly,” said Kristy Allen, a Minneapolis beekeeper who testified in favor of the original law last year. “It’s like saying, well, it’s OK to eat this food that has a little bit of poison because it won’t affect you right away.”

This debate assumes science knows the why of the potential economic disaster. But it doesn’t; not yet. It knows it’s complicated.

The action essentially guts the law because anyone who wants plants grown without neonicotinoids now has little way of determining whether a plant is actually safe.

The legislation now goes to the Senate.