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


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


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


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]

BP’s money muzzles scientists researching Gulf oil spill

BP is flexing its monetary muscle in what looks like an effort to control research on the Gulf oil spill.  Climate Progress reports,

Scientists from Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and Texas A&M have “signed contracts with BP to work on their behalf in the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) process” that determines how much ecological damage the Gulf of Mexico region is suffering from BP’s toxic black tide.

The Mobile Press-Register learned that the contract “prohibits the scientists from publishing their research, sharing it with other scientists or speaking about the data that they collect for at least the next three years.”  In addition, they can only carry out research that BP approves.  Despite these restrictions, the deal is lucrative; several scientists said that the oil company offered them $250 an hour.

Robert Wygul, an environmental lawyer who reviewed BP’s contract said,

“This is not an agreement to do research for BP.  This is an agreement to join BP’s legal team. You agree to communicate with BP through their attorneys and to take orders from their attorneys.”

So BP is recruiting scientists to help them fight the federal lawsuit resulting from the oil spill.  But these experts are not just paid for their service — they are also paid for their silence.  George Crozier, head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, was approached by BP.  He said:

“It makes me feel like they were more interested in making sure we couldn’t testify against them than in having us testify for them.”

If you’ve read Climate Cover-Up, you know that paying off scientists is nothing new for the oil industry’s disinformation machine.  It will be interesting to see whether oil-friendly scientific reports start popping up.  After all, if you’re paying scientists to keep quiet, why not also buy some custom-tailored research while you’re at it?  Actually, BP has already set up a Gulf Research Initiative to distribute $500 million in research grants.

Scientists are reportedly accepting BP’s offer due to a scarcity of federal funding for their studies.  By now, Congress probably feels like a rich parent with a bunch of kids, all asking for money.  But if the government would sponsor the research needed in the Gulf, it really would lessen the conflict-of-interest problem.  Our government is, at least, supposed to answer to the people.  But we all know that BP is only loyal to its own bottom line.


EPA Climate Change Indicators: Evidence of Warming All Around Us

The EPA released a new report on climate change indicators.  Here are the graphs for the data; they don’t really need explanation.

As Dan Lashof says at the NRDC Switchboard, it would take one heck of a conspiracy to get all those independent data to point toward the same conclusion.

Scientists Discover a Garbage Patch in Atlantic Ocean

A two-decade-long study revealed a concentration of plastic debris in the Atlantic Ocean, much like the more widely known Pacific Trash Vortex.  The BBC reports:

The work is the conclusion of the longest and most extensive record of plastic marine debris in any ocean basin.  Scientists and students from the [Sea Education Association] collected plastic and marine debris in fine mesh nets that were towed behind a research vessel…

The researchers carried out 6,100 tows in areas of the Caribbean and the North Atlantic – off the coast of the US. More than half of these expeditions revealed floating pieces of plastic on the water surface.  These were pieces of low-density plastic that are used to make many consumer products, including plastic bags.

The maximum plastic density — 200,000 pieces per square kilometer — is comparable to the Pacific Garbage Patch, though the size of both patches is hard to estimate.  The Pacific Vortex is often described as a “plastic continent,” but this isn’t strictly accurate.  Although the total area is indeed continental, the plastic pieces are generally small (up to one centimeter across) and widely dispersed.

Nevertheless, plastic debris in the ocean is a serious problem.  Dr. Lavender Law, part of the team of researchers from SEA, told BBC News that, while specific impacts remain unknown,

“…we know that many marine organisms are consuming these plastics and we know this has a bad effect on seabirds in particular.”

The very thing that makes plastic useful, its durability, also makes it a problem for oceans.  Plastic does not decompose, but breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.  While it’s clear that plastic debris is hazardous, it’s difficult to judge the actual “size” of the Garbage Patch.  In her (highly recommended) book The World is Blue, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, writes,

“[The Pacific Trash Vortex] is as big, as wide, as deep as the ocean itself.  On every dive I have made in the past 30 years, whether snorkeling or in deep-diving submarines, trash of some sort, and sometimes of many sorts, is visibly present.” (page 94)