Why the Bees Are Dying, Part 2: EPA Ignored Its Own Scientists’ Warnings

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In my last post, I looked into in the case of the mysterious bee disappearances: colony collapse disorder. I found that the latest research frames a popular class of pesticides–neonicotinoids–as prime suspects  And we know that these bee die-offs threaten our food security, as well, since we depend on bees to pollinate so many of our crops.

The next question is, how did neonics make it onto the market, and why are they still being sold? Pesticides in general are very common and very rarely a good thing, but not all have the distinction of threatening such a crucial natural service as pollination. Why didn’t the folks at EPA see this coming?

Well, actually, they did.

 The Story

Let’s focus on Bayer’s clothianidin, one of the most common neonics. When Bayer first applied for registration of the chemical in 2003, EPA refused, citing concerns about (guess what?) clothianidin’s impact on bees.

But just two months later, EPA granted clothianidin “conditional registration,” trusting Bayer to conduct its own “chronic life cycle study.” Even as they approved the pesticide for sale, EPA scientists noted clothianidin’s “persistent” and “toxic” effects on bees.

The culprit: clothianidin

Bayer, of course, started rolling out clothianidin that spring. And the life cycle study didn’t show up until 2007. By that time, billions of plants were producing pollen laced with clothianidin.

When the study finally arrived, it essentially claimed that clothianidin was harmless to bees. Experts outside of the government found serious problems with the methodology. Yet, EPA deemed the research “scientifically sound” and quietly gave clothianidin full registration in April 2010.

Now we get to the interesting part. In a leaked memo [PDF] sent on November 2, 2010, two EPA scientists repeated concerns about clothianidin’s “potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.” Here’s what they said about the Bayer study [emphasis mine]:

…after another review of this field study in light of additional information, deficiencies were identified that render the study supplemental…. Another field study is needed to evaluate the effects of clothianidin on bees through contaminated pollen and nectar. Exposure through contaminated pollen and nectar and potential toxic effects therefore remain an uncertainty for pollinators.

So EPA scientists basically rejected the study that led to clothianidin’s registration. And independent research confirms that neonics are dangerous to bees. But so far, EPA has no plans to reconsider the use of neonics.

That may change soon, since beekeepers and environmental groups are petitioning the agency to ban neonics until a scientifically sound review is completed. If EPA does not respond, the petitioners could sue under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Takeaway 

Clearly, neonics should be taken off the market as soon as possible. Beyond the obvious, I  can make two more points based on this story.

First, it is absurd to say EPA should be more “industry-friendly.” The agency was too friendly toward Bayer, and our food security is now threatened as a result. (Granted, a lot of this happend under the Bush Administration. Whether the Obama EPA acts more responsibly remains to be seen.)

Second, the ecological threat of pesticides should be taken seriously, and enforcement  should be a priority. This isn’t about “conservation”; it’s about, quite literally, saving the humans.

What if the FBI had uncovered some terrorist plot targeting a third of our food supply? The defense budget would skyrocket. Congress would pass emergency laws and launch an investigation. John McCain would be calling for war.

Instead, we hear about the EPA bureaucrats strangling the economy. Republicans in Congress want to slash the agency’s budget, and many want to eliminate it altogether. Most recently, Tea Party Representative Stephen Fincher said “We must cut the EPA’s legs off.”

Pardon me for saying that this borders on lunacy.

If anything, EPA needs more resources, not less. In any case, we need much more thorough oversight of potentially devastating pesticides in the future.

What you can do: For more details on this story, I’d highly recommend Tom Philpott’s article for Grist. If you feel the urge to act, you might want to sign this petition asking EPA to prohibit neonics.

 

Image: Cygnus921

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Why the Bees are Dying (and Why We Should Be Alarmed)

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Honey bee photoNew research points to pesticides as culprit in mysterious bee die-offs.

We’ve known for a while that bees are in trouble. Since around 2006, beekeepers have been seeing entire colonies disappear, as if they’d been zapped away by aliens.

This phenomenon, dubbed “colony collapse disorder” (CCD), has been attributed to fungi, stress, and malnutrition, among other causes. A number of factors likely play a role. But a growing body of research seems to show that pesticides are the prime culprit.

The trouble stems from one class of pesticide, in particular: neonicotinoids (neonics for short). When seeds are treated with neonics, the chemicals are taken up into the plant’s vascular system and “expressed” in nectar and pollen. As built-in pesticides, neonics turn an innocent corn plant into an insect-killing machine.

Neonics are used on a huge portion of our crops, including almost all of our corn. According to Pesticide Action Network of North America, at least 140 million acres are planted with neonic-treated seeds.

How do neonics affect bees? Tom Philpott has the answer:

The ubiquitous pesticides appear to affect bees in two ways: in big lethal doses that occur at the time of seed planting, when neonic-infused dust wafts around in growing areas; and in tiny doses that happen when bees bring neonic-infused pollen into hives, which don’t kill them immediately but appears to damage their immune systems and homing abilities.

But that’s not all. Harvard scientists recently found that high-fructose corn syrup, fed to bees by beekeepers, can trigger CCD. Since corn plants are treated with neonics, corn syrup contains traces of the pesticide–not enough to kill bees right away, but enough to slowly destroy colonies.

More new research further clarifies the problem:

  • A paper released in the journal Science found that small doses of a neonic hinder bees’ ability to locate their hive “at levels that could put a colony at risk of collapse.”
  • Another Science paper showed that (surprise!) neonics harm bumble bees, as well, causing an 85 percent reduction in the number of queens produced. Maybe that’s why bumble bees in the US have declined 96 percent in the last few decades.
  • study in Environmental Science & Technology looked into the effects of neonic-contaminated dust. The result? “Environmental release of particles containing neonicotinoids can produce high exposure levels for bees, with lethal effects compatible with colony losses phenomena observed by beekeepers.” In other words, bees can die immediately after flying over freshly-sown cornfields.
Should we be worried about bee-killing chemicals? Absolutely, and not just for the bees’ sake. As advanced as modern agriculture is, we still depend on bees to pollinate most of our crops. The economic value of honeybees in the US is in the billions, and it’s estimated that every third bite of food you eat is brought to you by bees. In fact, Einstein once predicted that, if bees went extinct, humans would follow shortly.
Now you might be wondering how these pesticides got approved in the first place (and why they’re still on the market). The answer is a disturbingly familiar government fail, which I’ll cover in my next post.

[Image: William Warby]

Worried About Shark Attacks? The Sharks are the Ones That Should be Scared

With Shark Week drawing to a close, the ocean’s top predator is swimming through many Americans’ minds. But even if you haven’t been tuned in to the Discovery Channel, you might have heard that there were 79 shark attacks in 2010, up 25 percent from the year before.

That’s not quite correct. There were actually millions of shark attacks last year. In all but those 79, the sharks were the victims.

We’ve all heard that the chances of getting bitten, not to mention eaten, by a shark are extremely low, as humans are not sharks’ normal prey. But it only takes a few horror stories (and a blockbuster film or two) to make us fear and loathe the cartilaginous hunters.

The truth is that sharks have much more reason to be afraid of us. Worldwide, less than 10 people per year die from shark attacks, while between 20 million and 100 million sharks are killed by humans. Some sharks are killed for sport, but most are killed for profit, the fins being especially valuable. As renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle explains in her book The World is Blue, 

In 1980, designated as the “Year of the Ocean” in the United States, a perverse but well-intended campaign was intiiated at NOAA to help fishermen by developing markets for sharks as “underutilized species” and by fostering new connections to Asian consumers. In two decades, fears about man-eating sharks shifted to man…eating sharks….

For centuries, soup made from the fins of sharks has been a traditional but rare treat in China, the primary attraction being the difficultury of obtaining the vital ingredients…. By the end of the 20th century, however, new wealth in Asia and new means of finding, catching, and marketing sharks made shark-fin soup much more commonplace.

Because shark fins are in higher demand than meat, fishermen haul their catches on deck, slice the fins off, and throw the still-living sharks overboard. As many as 73 million sharks die each year from this practice.

Shark finning is illegal in the U.S., but a loophole allows shark fins to be imported into California. Ocean Conservancy, NRDC, and other conservation groups are campaigning for a bill to ban the trade of shark fins–you can sign the petition here, even if you don’t live in California. Change.org also has a petition asking Food Network to stop featuring recipes that include shark meat.

Sharks have survived for 400 million years, but humans may manage to wipe them out in a geological heartbeat. About a third of shark species are endangered, with some populations declining 90 percent in recent years. And any ecologist will tell you that eliminating top predators can have a disastrous effect on an ecosystem.

Of course, sharks aren’t the only fish in trouble. After decades of irresponsible fishing, we are beginning to realize that the ocean does not have an infinite capacity to restore wildlife. In 2003, nearly a third of marine fisheries were in a state of collapse, and research indicates that the remaining stocks could be gone within 50 years.

Entire books have been written on the causes and impacts of this decline, but the solutions are not out of reach. In your daily life, you can choose to buy sustainable seafood (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide will help you with that). On a political level, you can join the effort to restore the oceans–for example, Mission Blue, founded by the brilliant Ms. Earle, is working to establish marine protected areas, or “hope spots.”

We named our planet Earth because that’s where our species dwells, but it would be more accurate to call it Ocean. We hear a lot about saving the earth; now we need a new worldwide effort to save the seas. Sharks are a good place to begin.

And if we can save the oceans, we just might save the humans in the process.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Victory for the Sea Shepherd: Japan Cuts Short Whaling Season

Activists halt whale slaughter in Southern Ocean and prevent hunters from meeting quota

For years, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been giving new meaning to the word activism, garnering both fame and controversy with its agressive disruption of Japanese whaling activities. This week, Sea Shepherd’s direct-action tactics payed off in a tremendous way.

First, some background: Commercial whaling is currently illegal, but the ban allows whale-hunting for scientific purposes. Japan uses this loophole to continue its commercial harvest, killing hundreds of whales each year for “research” and selling their meat on the open market.

This year, in an unprecedented decision, the Japanese fleets have retreated halfway through the whaling season, having taken less than 20 percent of their annual quota of 1,000 whales. At first, the suspension was said to be temporary, but now it’s official. The Japanese government has recalled the whaling fleet, due to harassment by Sea Shepherd activists. Japan’s agriculture minister, Michihiko Kano, told reporters the hunt had been called off because of safety concerns:

“We had no choice but to end the season to ensure the safety of lives, assets and our ships.”

But the Sea Shepherds could not have posed a serious physical threat to the whalers. The activists use strategies that are extreme but nonviolent. In the most recent case, they were obstructing the stern of a factory ship to prevent it from hauling whales onboard. As Ecorazzi points out,

…it’s worth noting that the Sea Shepherd’s tactics have not changed in the seven years they’ve been harassing the Japanese whaling fleet. So it’s mighty interesting that safety would suddenly force an early return — an unprecedented decision, save a need for repair — in the time that Japan has been hunting whales.

The truth is that the whaling fleet was simply unable to operate. Sea Shepherd has been enforcing an unofficial suspension of whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary for several weeks. Captain Paul Watson claims that his crews have blocked all whaling operations since February 9 and 75 percent of operations for the month of January.

Economics was probably another factor in the whaling fleet’s withdrawal. Apparently, the demand for whale meat is declining, and killing the animals may not be worth the trouble. Of course, Japan can’t publicly say that without admitting that scientific research is not the real motive for its whaling.

The halt of whaling in the Southern Ocean is a major victory for the activists that have fought relentlessly to stop the slaughter. In an update on the Sea Shepherd web site, Paul Watson said,

“I have a crew of 88 very happy people from 23 different nations including Japan and they are absolutely thrilled that the whalers are heading home and the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is now indeed a real sanctuary.”

Federal protections restored for Northern Rockies wolves

Image credit: dalliedee on Flickr

In May ’09 I blogged about the threats facing wolves in Greater Yellowstone, the Northern Rockies, and (famously) Alaska.  This week, wolves gained a moderate victory, something I thought you might want to hear about.  Here’s the press release from Defenders of Wildlife:

On August 5, 2010, a federal judge overturned a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act (ESA), paving the way for these critical predators to rebuild their numbers to ecologically sustainable levels. This ruling is the result of a lawsuit brought against the FWS in 2009 by Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation organizations….

After Defenders of Wildlife led efforts to restore the gray wolf population in the Northern Rockies in 1995, this great success was dealt a serious setback when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a plan from the Bush administration era to delist gray wolves from the ESA. Once off the list, the wolves were quickly approved for hunting in Idaho and Montana, where more than 350 wolves—almost 20% of the total population—were killed in 2009….

One of the immediate impacts of the ruling is that the hunting seasons in Montana and Idaho, originally planned to begin this fall, will be canceled.

Good news if you’re a wolf — or someone who recognizes that wolves are an important part of the ecosystem.