EPA Can’t Tell Difference Between “Beekeeper” and “Bee-killer”

First, how does “Environmental Dereliction Agency” sound? I feel like “Protection” is really giving people the wrong idea about the actual results of EPA regulation.

Second, I should warn you that if you continue reading, you’ll be begin to wonder how we’re all not dead yet. Thanks to Grist’s Tom Philpott, I was just alerted to the leaked EPA documents that show the agency’s fumbling approval of a broadly used, very toxic pesticide.

It’s been on the market since 2003–bringing in $262 million in sales in 2009 alone says Philpott–but a key study on the pesticide’s safety was not produced until 2007. And now, EPA scientists have in essence repudiated that study’s findings, though EPA officials didn’t think the public needed to know that.

A little while ago, I went to see a documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), Colony, at the Northwest Film Forum. While it was really about beekeeping as a vanishing way of life, the film did track the efforts of David Mendes, the president of the American Beekeeping Federation, to lobby a German pesticide maker, Bayer, into researching more carefully the impact of their product Poncho (clothianidin). Mendes’ fixation on pesticides was surprising to me because the word was that CCD was probably related to a fungus and viruses. (Mendes argues that if you poison people, we’ll be more likely to pick up odd funguses and viruses, too.)

I have to admit, when I first heard Bayer, I thought it was odd the aspirin people were implicated in this, but of course they are a huge company, and crop sciences is another division. In any event, Mendes’ interest in their pesticide Poncho becomes clearer once you know that it’s absolutely clear that it’s toxic to honey bees; the only question is, how would the bees be coming into contact with it?

Bees come into contact with a lot: a study on pesticide burden conducted across 23 states in 2007-08 found that:

Almost 60% of the 259 wax and 350 pollen samples contained at least one systemic pesticide, and over 47% had both in-hive acaricides fluvalinate and coumaphos, and chlorothalonil, a widely-used fungicide. In bee pollen were found chlorothalonil at levels up to 99 ppm and the insecticides aldicarb, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos and imidacloprid, fungicides boscalid, captan and myclobutanil, and herbicide pendimethalin at 1 ppm levels.

For context, another study analyzed bee deaths over the same period, finding “A total loss of 35.8% of colonies was recorded; an increase of 11.4% compared to last year.”

Beekeepers, naturally, would prefer to have had Bayer rule out the possibility of pesticide transmission from the beginning. But the EPA, feeling more grandly generous, gave Poncho a “conditional” permit in 2003 for use on canola, cereals, corn, sunflowers, and sugar beets, and gave them until December 2004 to produce a study showing that the systemic pesticide, known to be toxic to bees, would not be transmitted to bees in harmful amounts via pollen. Bayer got right on…applying for an extension.

As mentioned, it wasn’t until August 2007 that they produced a study giving the all clear, which the EPA accepted. (When the NRDC asked for a copy of the study, the EPA never got around to providing it. The NRDC filed of Freedom of Information request. The EPA refused to hand over the study. The NRDC filed a suit and won. As you know, when your mission is environmental protection, the last thing you want to do is let one of the nation’s leading environmental groups check your work. Let’s pause to remember the Bush years with extra fondness.)

The study was criticized roundly as flawed outside the EPA (for one thing, the control bees would have been able to forage in the same pesticide-carrying fields as the test bees), but the smoking gun has now arrived in the form of EPA scientists downgrading the Bayer-supported study and requesting that better research be done. They wrote in a memo on Bayer’s request to expand clothianidin’s use for cotton and mustard seeds:

This compound is toxic to honey bees. The persistence of residues and potential residual toxicity of Clothianidin in nectar and pollen suggests the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual instability of the hive.

And again:

Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct RQ based risk assessments on non-target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects. An incident in Germany already illustrated the toxicity of clothianidin to honey bees when allowed to drift off-site from treated seed during planting.

(And just in case you’re feeling unsympathetic to bees: “The major risk concerns are with aquatic free-swimming and benthic invertebrates, terrestrial invertebrates, birds, and mammals.” You know who’s a mammal? You.)

The Pesticide Action Network and Beyond Pesticides–along with beekeepers–feel like this should be enough to pressure the EPA to ban clothianidin. Europe has been moving more swiftly in this area, despite Bayer being a German company, but enjoy this wonderfully qualified statement on the EPA site: “To EPA’s knowledge, none of the incidents that led to suspensions have been associated with Colony Collapse Disorder.”

And finally, beekeeper Tom Theobald urges you to remember the big picture: “In an apparent rush to get products to the market, chemicals have been routinely granted ‘conditional’ registrations. Of 94 pesticide active ingredients released since 1997, 70% have been given conditional registrations, with unanswered questions of unknown magnitude.” That is, 70 percent of those known toxic chemicals have been allowed to be used without full-scale safety tests.

Again, that’s the work of the Environmental Protection Agency. Protection. You thought I was just being snarky at the top, didn’t you?

5 thoughts on “EPA Can’t Tell Difference Between “Beekeeper” and “Bee-killer”

  1. In 15 years Imidacloprid (a neonicotinoid systemic insecticide) has rapidly grown to become the most widely used insecticide. It now has a market share of 25% of the world insecticide market. In the US its use started to explode in 2004 following EPA’s ban on diazinon: many users switched to imidacloprid. Imidacloprid is 7297x more toxic to honeybees than DDT (acute toxicity). However, acute toxicity is not the main problem. Imidacloprid is highly persistent (160 days halflife time in water, 2 years in soil) and it is a total disaster for social insects because of so called sub-lethal effects (in low dose that is not acute lethal it impairs behavior).

    A Bayer Brochure clearly explains the way by which imidacloprid kills social insects such as bees as follows:

    “What is Premise 200SC plus Nature?
    Low doses of imidacloprid, such as the edge of the Treated Zone, disoriented the termites and cause them to cease their natural grooming behaviour. Grooming is important for termites to protect them against pathogenic soil fungi. When termites stop grooming, the naturally occurring fungi in the soil attack and kill the termites. Imidacloprid makes fungi 10,000 times more dangerous to termites. Nature assists imidacloprid in giving unsurpassed control. This control is called Premise 200SC plus Nature.”

    For honeybees, (just like ants and termites bees are social insects that live in a colony) it works similar. Low doses of imidacloprid disorient the bees, they stop grooming, stop washing themselves, stop cleaning the hive and get prone to varroa, viruses and nosema and cause the colony to collapse.

    Regulators know this since 2003 but willingly and knowingly keep supporting Bayer’s profit in stead of protecting the worlds pollinators.

  2. Hey, sugar and salt is toxic to honey bees too, would you have the EPA ban them?

    (now that’s snarky, ain’t it?)

  3. This is the sort of thing which happens when economic fundamentalists run the nation. Fundamentalist capitalism (aka crony capitalism) dictates that only the market can and should regulate all economic activity, including agriculture. Indeed, it should be apparent that a strong-selling pesticide (brought to you by the same people who gave us aspirin) is by definition a good pesticide. These ideologues believe that governmental regulatory entities like the EPA must be eliminated, or, at least, they must be run by True Believers who will see to it that economic activity is not interfered with by socialist bureaucrats. Combine this mentality with a strong dislike for the study of science of any and all kinds, and you have the recipe for this disaster. The Bush/Cheney approach to government regulation strikes again, governing best by governing least.

  4. Bayer have a long track record of manufacturing dangerous poisons; Bayer was originally called I.G. Farben, the manufacturer of the Zyklon B Insecticide which was used to kill millions of Jews at Auschwitz and other camps.

    Everyone needs to understand that these insecticides are truly revolutionary in three ways;

    Firstly= they are Nerve Agents which block nerve impulses in the brains and nerves of ALL animals: bees, butterflies, birds, humans – all of us use the acetyl choline neuro-transmitter, which Imidacloprid blocks completely.
    Secondly – they are INCREDIBLY TOXIC.
    The earlier pesticides were like a wooden club to kill insects with; the nicotinoids are like a molecular laser-beam and they kill at the molecular level. It takes just 3 parts per billion of Imidacloprid to kill a honeybee. What does that mean? Well if you dissolved one teaspoon of this pesticide in 1000 metric tonnes of water and mixed it really well, a single drop of that water would kill a bee.

    Thirdly – you have to udnerstand that these insecticides are not used ON the crops, they are contained WITHIN the food crop, in the sap, cells, leaves, nectar,pollen, fruit and grain. Which means an insect dies if it bites the crop anywhere; but it also means that you and I are consuming a nerve-agent with every bite of corn, canola, almonds, blueberries, wheat, barley etc we eat.

    If the EPA had come to the American Congress 20 years ago and said: ” Hey guys, we’ve got this amazing ‘nerve gas’ that we plan putting inside every crop we grow – and crops will increase, but there’s a small issue about putting a nerve-gas-agent inside the human food chain”.

    I think Congress would have had a few doubts about the wisdom of that move. However, you and I and the Congress were never told, it was all done in secret, and now this stuff is in the soil and water on every single continent. And my bees are dying.

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