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]