A multigenerational Vermont steelband plays for pollinator protection

In the middle of Montpelier’s State Street on Halloween, goblins, witches and giraffes paused their pursuit of sugar-filled treats to eye a buzzing yellow float. 

Under the wooden structure, a swarm of eight musicians dressed as bees played steelpans, accompanied by a ukulele and a cowbell.

Alongside the float, dancers — also dressed as bees — held signs about the effects of pesticides on pollinators as local instructors Hassimiou Chimie Bangoura and Sylvestre Telfort led them in Haitian and West African dances.

Hardwick resident Emily Lanxner, the creator of Honeybee Steelband, said she shifted the band’s focus in 2015 from purely performance to activism in response to what she characterized as alarming pesticide use in Vermont and its effects on pollinator populations.

“I just thought, you know what, this is an issue that I could focus on and really make a difference,” said Lanxner, 60. “Because what I do with music could be a really good fit for bringing people together on this issue.”

Activists and dancers dance alongside the float, led by Hassimiou Chimie Bangoura and Sylvestre Telfort in Montpelier on Monday, Oct. 31. Photo by Juliet Schulman-Hall/VTDigger

With the help of band member Aro Veno, who plays ukulele and helps write music about pollinator protection, the steelband played at its first event in 2016 at Hardwick’s spring festival parade, subsequently organizing forums in Hardwick and Plainfield to educate the public on pesticide use and pollinator protection.

Lanxner, a music teacher, has played the steelpan for more than 40 years. She learned how to play the instrument in earnest when she studied abroad as a college student in Trinidad and Tobago — the home of the steelpan. The bowl-like instrument has indentations that produce a range of notes and sounds when struck with mallets. 

Lanxner taught other members of Honeybee Steelband to play the instrument because she could not find any other steelpan players in Vermont.

Beyond creating community when they play, steelbands also have a “multigenerational feeling,” Lanxner said. The group’s membership varies but generally includes seven or eight musicians, including five steelpan players, ranging in age from 13 to their late 70s.

Johanna Polsenberg, a member of the band and mother of 13-year-old steelpan player Rory Nott, said that pesticide use in Vermont is of major concern. 

Polsenberg, who has a background in ecology, said that she comes to the issue with an international lens. Her husband is from Australia and their family lived abroad for several years. 

The European Union “does have a much stronger process of making sure something is safe before (it’s) released,” Polsenberg said. In the U.S., she said, the process is “releasing it and then finding out that it’s unsafe.”

Johanna Polsenberg looks out from the back of the float in Montpelier. Photo by Juliet Schulman-Hall/VTDigger

Lanxner said that the use of pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, which are commonly found in agricultural areas, is “completely lethal for pollinators,” according to studies she’s reviewed.

Brooke Decker, the pollinator health specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, however, said she has not received calls about pesticides killing hives of honey bees during her three years in the position. She said that other threats to pollinators can pose greater risks. 

“I wouldn't say that pesticides are equal in there at all with the pests and disease and nutrition and resources, you know, that they need to live on,” she said.

The department has collected fresh pollen samples from the honeybees across Vermont and sent them to a laboratory in California to test for more than 500 different pesticides, including those introduced by the beekeeper, to monitor what pesticides might be contaminating beehives, she said.

One of Honeybee Steelband’s signs in front of the Capitol in Montpelier. Photo by Juliet Schulman-Hall/VTDigger

Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation that requires the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets, with consultation with the Agricultural Innovation Board, to adopt rules for best management practices for neonicotinoid-treated or -coated seeds in Vermont.

The secretary must address the effects of neonicotinoid-treated or -coated seeds on human health and the environment, among other issues.

The proposed rules must be submitted by July of 2024.

Honeybee Steelband plays music as the swarm dancers follow behind in Montpelier on Monday, Oct. 31. Photo by Juliet Schulman-Hall/VTDigger

Separately, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture is “in the final stages of the formal rulemaking process” for amending the Vermont Regulation for the Control of Pesticides, according to David Huber, the deputy director of the agency’s Public Health & Agricultural Resource Management Division.

But Polsenberg and other members of the steelband say the legislation is not enough.

Polsenberg’s family are homesteaders, with about half of their meals coming from their own animals and organic produce. To her, keeping pesticides away from the food that her family eats was a “no brainer.” 

Aro Veno getting into the float while Johanna Polseberg looks over. Photo by Juliet Schulman-Hall/VTDigger

She has looked at nutrient and pesticide runoff into coastal systems and said she understands the “ubiquity of these chemicals — that they are used everywhere and too much.”

With each performance of Honeybee Steelband, Lanxner often attracts a new swarm member to help with the band setup or with advocacy work. Among them is Sage Barber, who joined the group in April when she saw the steelband perform at an Earth Day rally. 

“I left feeling like … this heavy weight I have never known,” Barber said. “I was just crying about my children and their future and what that would mean, and I was pretty down for a couple of days.”

Honeybee Steelband and Swarm together outside the Capitol in Montpelier. Photo by Juliet Schulman-Hall/VTDigger

Afterward, Barber began helping the band recruit members and share information about pesticide use.

Although she takes the advocacy work seriously, Barber said that she also finds it fun because she is at least attempting to create change, especially for her children’s future.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Johanna Polsenberg's name.

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Juliet Schulman-Hall

About Juliet

Juliet Schulman-Hall recently graduated from Smith College, majoring in English, minoring in sociology and concentrating in poetry. Most recently, she has worked for MassLive covering abortion and the environment, among other topics. Prior to that, she worked for Ms. Magazine and has done freelance work for PBS's Next Avenue and Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.

Email: jschulman-hall@vtdigger.org

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