Trump Administration Reverses Ban of Bee-Toxic Pesticides on National Wildlife Refuges, as California Confirms Neonicotinoid Pesticides Harm Bees
(Beyond Pesticides, August 7, 2018) At the same time that a new analysis by California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), current neonicotinoid uses in the state expose bees to residue levels known to cause harm, the Trump administration has reversed a 2014 U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) decision to ban neonicotinoids on National Wildlife Refuges. In 2014, newly passed state legislation required DPR to study the impacts of neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and dinotefuran) and adopt control measures to protect sensitive pollinator health within two years.
In its report, released last month, DPR finds the highest risk to bees is posed by use of two neonicotinoids, thiamethoxam and clothianidin, on cereal grains like corn, wheat, rice, and barley. The seeds of these crops are typically coated with neonicotinoids before planting, where residues persist in the pollen and nectar. Although these findings are not surprising and have been documented in the scientific literature, California’s analysis indicates neonicotinoids can cause much broader harm, including to pollinators commonly found on many types of vegetables, cereal grains, tree nuts, fruits and tobacco.
Shortly after a decision in the Pacific Region, FWS announced that all National Wildlife Refuges would join in the phase-out of neonics (while also phasing
out genetically engineered crops) by January 2016. “We have determined that prophylactic use, such as a seed treatment, of the neonicotinoid pesticides that can distribute systemically in a plant and can potentially affect a broad spectrum of non-target species is not consistent with Service policy. We make this decision based
on a precautionary approach to our wildlife management practices and not on agricultural practices.” Given the widespread use of risk-benefit analyses from other government agencies, FWS’ appeal to a precautionary approach sets a positive, refreshing tone for U.S. federal agencies. The news from FWS comes partially in response to the President Obama’s executive order to evaluate what federal agencies are doing to protect pollinators, and after Beyond Pesticides, along with Center for
Food Safety and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, conducted a nearly decade-long legal campaign urging FWS to prohibit genetically engineered
crops, and, more recently, neonics in National Wildlife Refuges. This move will not only protect honey bees that have suffered average losses above 30% since 2006, but also the federally threatened and endangered pollinators that live in our National Wildlife Refuges.
According to DPR, pesticide use data from across the state between 2007 and 2016 show that the use of neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and dinotefuran) increased by 69.6%, while organophosphate and carbamate use decreased by 41.5% and 20.9%, respectively. In response to growing public concern over pollinator decline, DPR placed pesticide products containing imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and dinotefuran, into reevaluation on February 2009 to assess the magnitude of their residues in the pollen and nectar of agricultural crops and the corresponding levels of risk to honey bee colonies. The reevaluation covered 50 manufacturers and 282 pesticide products with formulations or applications likely to move into plants that bloom or serve as a foraging source for honey bees and other pollinators. But progress on this review stalled. Then in 2014, the legislature adopted AB 1789 (Chapter 578, Statutes of 2014), requiring DPR to issue a determination with respect to its reevaluation of neonicotinoids by July 1, 2018, and adopt control measures necessary to protect pollinator health within two years after making the determination.
According to the report, crops considered to present a risk at maximum application levels include fruiting vegetables (e.g., cucumbers, tomatoes), berries, citrus, and tree nuts. These results are similar to results published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its assessment. Now DPR will have to consider ways to minimize risks to bees. DPR notes that mitigation measures could include modifying application rates or the times at which applications may occur. Earlier this year, California announced that it would no longer consider any applications by pesticide companies that would expand the use of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides in the state.
California leads the nation in its agricultural production which includes more than 400 commodities representing over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts. Many of these agricultural commodities rely on pollination by bees for optimal production. Action is therefore needed in the state to ban neonicotinoid uses.
EPA is currently reviewing public comments on its preliminary ecological and human health risk assessments for the neonicotinoids clothianidin, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran, and a preliminary ecological risk assessment for the neonicotinoid imidacloprid. In addition to high risks to bees, EPA’s assessments find deadly impacts to birds from neonicotinoid-treated seeds, poisoned insect prey, and contaminated grasses. Researchers have found that tiny amounts of neonicotinoids are enough to cause migrating songbirds to lose their sense of direction. A study by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researchers found neonicotinoids widespread in the Great Lakes at levels that harm aquatic insects, and potentially the aquatic food web—the foundation of healthy aquatic ecosystems. Previous studies have indeed found neonicotinoids to be associated with altered feeding behaviors and reduced egg development in bumblebee queens, as well as the inhibition of pollination skills among bumblebee workers, the loss of bumblebees’ characteristic “buzz” pollination technique, and reductions in overall colony size. For more, visit the What the Science Shows page.
Despite the mounting scientific evidence, there is no apparent indication that EPA will ban the use of these chemicals. This, in spite of recent action taken in the European Union (EU), which instituted an EU-wide moratorium in 2013 on the use of thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and imidacloprid on bee-attractive flowering crops, such as oilseed rape. The EU earlier this year expanded the ban to include all field crops in 2019. According to the European Commission, protection of bees is an important issue, since it concerns biodiversity, food production, and the environment.
And even though agricultural restrictions on neonicotinoids can go a long way to reduce acute exposures to pollinators, a recent UK study finds bees living in suburban habitats are being exposed to high levels of neonicotinoid pesticides, highlighting the need for urban and suburban gardeners to forgo the use of these pesticides in favor of more holistic, pesticide-free approaches.
Take Action: Urge your U.S. Representative to support the Saving America’s Pollinators Act. With managed honey bee losses remaining at unsustainable levels and many wild pollinators at risk of extinction, it’s time, for the future of food and our environment, for the U.S. to finally protect pollinators.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.