(Beyond Pesticides, July 20, 2012) On Thursday, July 19, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it had formally refused to recognize that honey bees face an “imminent hazard” and denied a request by beekeepers to immediately suspend the use of pesticides that pose harm to pollinators. The decision comes in response to a legal petition filed earlier this year by twenty-five beekeepers and environmental organizations, citing significant acute and chronic bee kills across the United States linked to neonicotinoid pesticides, particularly clothianidin.
“We’re disappointed. EPA has signaled a willingness to favor pesticide corporations over bees and beekeepers,” said Steve Ellis, a petitioner and owner of Old Mill Honey Co, with operations in California and Minnesota. “This decision puts beekeepers, rural economies and our food system at risk. And the injury we are sustaining this year will be unnecessarily repeated.”
This spring and summer, beekeepers from New York to Ohio and Minnesota, are reporting extraordinarily large bee die-offs, due, in part, to exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides. The die-offs are similar to what beekeepers have reported in the past few weeks in Canada (where EPA has admitted there are 120 bee kill reports, a huge number). On average, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that beekeepers have been losing over 30% of their honey bee colonies each year since 2006 — but some are losing many more times that number.
“EPA has failed in its statutory responsibility to protect beekeeper livelihoods and the environment from an ”˜imminent hazard,’” said Peter Jenkins, attorney at Center for Food Safety and author of the legal petition filed in late March. “The agency explicitly refused to consider the massive amount of supplemental information we submitted that came to light after we filed the petition, as bees started dying in large numbers this Spring during the April and May corn planting season.”
Last month, over 250,000 people from across the country urged EPA to follow the science and move swiftly to suspend the use of the neonicotinoid pesticide clothianidin. At the same time, pesticide manufacturer Bayer CropScience has misleadingly attempted to discredit and refute new key scientific information showing the hazard clothianidin poses to bees.
“EPA has caved to corporate pressure and failed to follow the science,” said Paul Towers, media director for Pesticide Action Network and co-petitioner. “This is a reminder of the power and influence of pesticide corporations, despite significant impacts to the livelihood of beekeepers and rural economies.”
While refusing to issue an immediate suspension, the agency has agreed to open a 60-day public comment docket to review additional points raised in the legal petition, starting at some point during the week of July 23. The agency expects to complete its scheduled re-evaluation of clothianidin in 2018 and any implementation plans could take years beyond that to complete. Beekeepers and environmental groups cite EPA’s current timeline for making a decision on the safety of neonicotinoids for honey bees as too slow, and filed the “imminent hazard” claim in hopes of more immediate action.
“Bees and beekeepers can’t wait around for more agency inaction,” said Mark Keating, senior scientist at Beyond Pesticides, a co-petitioner. “We’ll have to consider all other options in order to protect the food and farming system.”
Neonicotinoids, including imidacloprid and thiamethoxam in addition to clothianidin , are highly toxic to a range of insects, including honey bees and other pollinators. They are particularly dangerous because, in addition to being acutely toxic in high doses, they also result in serious sublethal effects when insects are exposed to chronic low doses, as they are through pollen and water droplets laced with the chemical as well as dust that is released into the air when treated seeds that have been coated with the chemicals are planted. Previous research has shown that these effects cause significant problems for the health of individual honey bees as well as the overall health of honey bee colonies, including disruptions in mobility, navigation, feeding behavior, foraging activity, memory and learning, and overall hive activity.
The emergency legal petition to EPA was filed on March 21, 2012 and asked the agency to suspend all registrations for pesticides containing clothianidin. The petition, which is supported by over one million citizen petition signatures worldwide, targets the pesticide for its harmful impacts on honey bees. The legal petition establishes that EPA failed to follow its own regulations when it granted a conditional, or temporary, registration to clothianidin in 2003 without a required field study establishing that the pesticide would have no “unreasonable adverse effects” on pollinators. The granting of the conditional registration was contingent upon the subsequent submission of an acceptable field study, but this requirement has not been met. EPA continues to allow the use of clothianidin nine years after acknowledging that it had an insufficient legal basis for initially allowing its use. Additionally, the product labels on pesticides containing clothianidin are inadequate to prevent excessive damage to non-target organisms, which is a second violation of the requirements for using a pesticide and further warrants removing all such mislabeled pesticides from use.
EPA’s partial response can be read in full here. The agency has published an electronic docket with the petition, the partial response, and other supporting material available for viewing. The public can not yet comment on the petition, but Beyond Pesticides will provide an update as soon as the docket is opened and accepting public comments.
For more information on how pesticides affect pollinators and what you can do to help, see Beyond Pesticides’ Pollinator Program page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.