On April 29, the European Commission, the governing body of the European Union, voted to implement a continent wide two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids or neonics, a family of potent pesticides. The decision came after research from various institutions and protests from farmers suggested a link between the pesticides and the widespread mass disappearance of honeybees.
Since 2006, researchers have noted that honeybee populations in the United States and Europe are inexplicably disappearing on drastic levels. This mass depopulation has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The United States suffered its worst honeybee population loss on record last year with many beekeepers losing up to 50 percent of their beehives, leaving domesticated bee populations at a 50-year low.
Despite such dramatic losses, the United States has made no move towards adopting preventative measures against such developments. A joint report released last week by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that there is not enough evidence that pesticides are a leading contributing factor of CCD, and therefore a ban on neonics, the pesticides which have been banned in the EU for the decline in the bee population, has been deemed unnecessary. Instead, the report references a variety of factors including parasites, diseases, poor nutrition and lack of genetic diversity alongside increased contact with pesticides as key contributors to the decline of bee populations.
While the United States stands to lose roughly $20 billion in agricultural losses from CCD this year alone, the joint report provides no solutions and suggests no concrete actions which might stop the decline. Environmentalists and beekeepers in the US have expressed hope that the EU’s ban on neonics will influence the EPA to take similar action, but a poor track record and heavy corporate influence seem to suggest otherwise. If the European ban on pesticides proves successful, will the US be influenced to make similar changes with enough time to save the bees?
Colony Collapse Disorder
In 2006, beekeepers in the United States began to notice inexplicable disappearances among their hives. Seemingly healthy beehives would empty in a matter of hours without a trace or evidence of why. The mass exoduses were made more strange by the fact that no dead bodies were found at the hives, and the queen and young bees were often left behind, which is extraordinarily strange behavior for bees. Colony Collapse Disorder has claimed between 30 to 50 percent of bee populations on average annually since 2005, and has had detrimental effects on commercial beekeepers.
As pollinators, bees are integral to the cultivation of roughly 35 percent of the world’s food crops, valued at nearly $200 billion annually. However, as the agriculture business has turned more and more to monocultural farming practices (when only one crop is planted over many acres), pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have become an important part of keeping crops alive, as monocultures increase the likelihood of mass infection and die-off. Monocultures also lead to poor nutrition for bees due to a lack of variety in their food source. In 2005, neonics became widely used pesticides for crops like corn, canola and soy. In their report, the EPA lists pesticides as the lowest contributing factor in CCD despite evidence that the rise in popularity and usage of neonics, which started in 2005, has followed the rise of CCD.
Neonicotinoids and bees
Neonicotinoids are part of a particularly potent class of pesticides including imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, the three recent pesticides banned by the EU. Neonics are systemic pesticides, meaning they are part of the plant and are endemic in the nectar and pollen. In honeybees, if the amount of pesticide ingested is not strong enough to kill them, it can still cause impaired communication, disorientation, decreased life span, suppressed immunity and disruption of brood cycles. Neonics can remain in the soil for up to ten years after the original planting, contaminating new plants that grow in the soil.
These pesticides are not the only threat for bees. Genetically modified herbicides and fungicides are often modified with regulators which can hinder the development of insects, a problem frequently reported by beekeepers in their populations. Speaking with the New York Times, Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, reported that analysts have documented about 150 distinct chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.
While some studies have shown immediate die-offs when hives are exposed to high levels of pesticides, many chemical companies which produce these pesticides, like Bayer, argue the science is flawed and pesticides are not solely to blame for CCD. The report released by the EPA and USDAnotes that pesticides are part of the problem, but are a small part. Instead, the report cites the Varroa mite as the biggest contributing factor. The report states that when it comes to pesticides, “further … research is required to establish the risks associated with pesticide exposure to US honey bee declines in general.”
However, a recent investigation by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international environmental advocacy non-profit organization, has revealed that the EPA’s regulatory standards have historically been haphazard and that popular pesticides like neonicotiniods have not been researched to determine their environmental or human harm, and have not been government reviewed or approved for widespread use.
The flaws of the EPA
Sylvia Wu of the Center for Food Safety is one of the defendants in a lawsuit filed by the NRDC against the EPA. “The public is under the false impression that if a substance has been registered by the EPA, it has gone through government review,” Wu said in a statement to the Inter Press Service (IPS). “The reality is that a lot of these substances are being widely applied even though the EPA has been aware of potential harm.”
The two year NRDC investigation into the EPA found that as much as 65 percent of the 16,000 pesticides that the EPA approved between the late 1970’s to 2010, including one of the neonics banned by the EU, clothianidin, were approved under “conditional registration.” This registration allows for limited use of the product until it can be properly tested as long as initial data shows that it does not pose significant harm to human health or the environment. But, as the NRDC report observes, the EPA does not have a system to track the use of conditionally registered pesticides, and does not follow up on the data regarding its potential harm, or new data that has been received.
Furthermore, a leaked document from 2010 shows that objections by the Environmental Fate and Effects Division of the EPA to widespread use of clothianidin without more research was largely ignored. “Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis,” the document states. The document also states that “deficiencies” were identified in the original field study, and that another field study is needed to study the effects of clothianidin which was deemed to have possible “severe long term effects” on bees and other pollinators.
There is evidence that corporate interests may also play into the regulatory process of the EPA. Many employees of the EPA, USDA, FDA and other agricultural government branches are representatives or former employees of major companies including Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Arysta (the largest private pesticide company in the world), and DuPont, among others. Chemical lobbies spend millions of dollars a year, and many of these companies and their associated research facilities send research findings to government agencies like the EPA. Some of these companies, including Bayer and Monsanto, are also producers of the pesticides which kill the Varroa mite, the EPA’s reported number one contributing factor of CCD.
The European ban and the US
While pesticide companies in the European Union such as Bayer and Syngenta also lobbied heavily against the neonics ban, many believe that Europe’s tendency to regulate through the “precautionary principle,” which states that lack of scientific consensus should not preclude action on an issue with potential harm to human or environmental health, led to the ban of pesticides. Ultimately, a two-year moratorium will allow Europe to take precautions to ensure that neonics aren’t responsible for CCD before risking more harm to bees. The United States, however, tends to regulate on a risk analysis basis, assessing risk as it appears, being reactive rather than preventative.
Under pressure from beekeepers and environmentalists, the EPA has said that it will be accelerating the schedule for registration review of the neonicotinoid pesticides due to uncertainties about these pesticides and their potential effects on bees. But that reevaluation isn’t set to take place until 2018, which at current CCD rates might be too late for honeybees. Many, including Jennifer Sass, a co-author of the aforementioned NRDC report, think that the inaction of the EPA will help no one but corporations. “These chemical makers are clearly the biggest lobbying voice in this discussion – bigger than the growers and way bigger than the beekeepers,” Sass says. “While the action in Europe will protect agriculture, the EPA’s action will simply protect corporate profits.” The EPA, however, maintains that despite its research connecting pesticides to CCD, the evidence is not strong enough to support a moratorium like that of the European Union.
Whatever the reason behind Colony Collapse Disorder, its impact is being felt across the board. Honeybees are disappearing at alarming rates. Hundreds of billions of dollars stand to be lost in the agricultural sector without them, food prices could rise, and the health of the US agricultural system would suffer. The EPA states that CCD is a complex problem with many contributing factors, but that does not answer why the US should not follow the same lead as the European Union by implementing measures which stand to protect bee populations. If action isn’t taken soon, the United States could see major consequences in an increasingly bee-less world.