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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EPA Under Fire for Bee Deaths

Air Date: Week of

A group of bee keepers have signed a petition asking EPA to ban a pesticide they believe is responsible for massive bee deaths. Center for Food Safety attorney Peter Jenkins tells host Bruce Gellerman the agency has failed to regulate a chemical they know is dangerous to bees. But Jack Boyne, from chemical company Bayer, cites hundreds of studies and says the pesticide is safe. Lastly, USDA scientist Jeffrey Pettis talks about the latest research on bee colony collapse disorder.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, MA, it’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Scientists have a name for it: colony collapse disorder. But they still don't know what's causing the massive die-off of honeybees nationwide. Since 2006, half the bees have died. There are many suspects: cell phone radiation, climate change, parasites, and a growing suspicion that modern industrial pesticides play a significant role.

The new chemicals are called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short. They're safer for people than older pesticides, but toxic to bees. One of the most commonly used neonics is clothianidin. It was approved for crops around the time the bee die-off was first observed. Now a coalition of environmental groups and beekeepers has filed a petition with the EPA urgently requesting that the agency suspend the sale and use of clothianidin.

Representing the group is Peter Jenkins, a lawyer for the Center for Food Safety.

JENKINS: Well, clothianidin is the newest of the systemic pesticides. It's used probably over 160 million acres of corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops, canola. We know that just in corn last year there were 92 million acres treated with this insecticide. That's larger than the size of Germany. And what it does is it becomes part of the plant itself, turning the plant into a twenty-four seven killing machine, basically, as far as insects are concerned. And that's what's destroying honeybee populations.

GELLERMAN: Well, what evidence is there that this chemical is killing honeybees?

JENKINS: There's quite a bit of evidence. There's a number of ways in which bees and other beneficial insects are being exposed to clothianidin and the other neonicotinoids. One is when the farmers are planting these corn seeds and other sorts of seeds that there's a lot of dust that comes off the seeds and it is very toxic to bees and it's well documented that it's at the levels that are killing bees. The worst thing about it, though, is that the half-life of these insecticides is very long, in some cases several years, so that it stays in the soil, it stays in the crop residues, it stays in the nearby plants and gets caught up so that bees are exposed to it year after year. So even if it's not used one year, the bees will still be exposed to it if it was used the year before.

GELLERMAN: So, Mr. Jenkins, how do you think this chemical kills bees? What does it do to them?

JENKINS: One of these recent studies, the important study from France, the mechanism is that it disorients the bees. You know, bees depend very closely on social communication, on being able to go out and then come back to the hive and somehow this thiamethoxam, another neonicotinoid, was messing up their ability to navigate and get back to the hive, and so if you don't get back to the hive, you don't bring the food back, the hive eventually fades away.

GELLERMAN: These neonicotinoids were introduced with the understanding that they were safer than other alternatives, things like the pyrethrins and the organophosphates, which were implicated in the book, Silent Spring.

JENKINS: Well, to a certain extent they are safer for humans and for direct exposure to larger animals like mammals and perhaps direct exposure to birds, but those other insecticides were used only periodically. These systemic insecticides, the neonicotinoids, they're in use all the time, so they're killing insects all the time. Here's the problem. This is what we laid out in our petition, which was in 2003, Bayer was told to do a study that showed there were no unreasonable adverse effects on honeybees. Well, the fact is that Bayer submitted a study several years late and a few years after that, in 2010, EPA took a closer look at that study and said it was inadequate. The reason the pesticide has to be controlled is because it was illegally approved in the first place. And that's what we've said in the petition, that's what the beekeepers are saying to EPA, that's what EPA's going to recognize.

GELLERMAN: Well, the question is, why are you going after the regulatory agency if they already know that this chemical is harmful?

JENKINS: (laughing) Well, the regulatory agency is the one that has the power to suspend the registration, and that's what the law says. If you don't have adequate studies showing that it's safe, that you have to suspend the registration - it's very clear and we think the agency's going to agree with us.

GELLERMAN: In terms of the regulatory process, you filed a legal petition with the EPA, they have 90 days to reply - if they come back and say to you, "You're wrong. The science says this stuff is safe," do you have recourse?

JENKINS: Well, you have recourse if the agency were to do what you said, because if they actually said that they would be wrong. But we're going to go to Congress, we're going to work on the political angles, we think there's a groundswell of support. We had over a million people sign petitions in support of our petition already - and when there's a public comment period we will be weighing very heavily on EPA and they just can't ignore it.

GELLERMAN: Well Mr. Jenkins, thanks a lot.

JENKINS: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: That's Peter Jenkins, a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety.

Call entomologist Jack Boyne and you get an entirely different take on the safety of the insecticide clothianidin. Jack Boyne is Director of Communications with Bayer CropScience, maker of the neonic pesticide.

BOYNE: Bayer's position is simple, that is that honeybees play a critical role as pollinators in agriculture and Bayer CropScience, as a leader in the agricultural industry, has a vested interest in finding solutions to the real problem of bee health. Neonicotinoids is not one of them, however. The EPA has basically said, and stated on their website, that there is no evidence that these products pose a chronic threat or health hazard to honeybee colonies.

GELLERMAN: But back in 2003 when the EPA gave conditional registration to clothianidin, it said that "it's highly toxic to honeybees on an acute contact basis. And in honeybees the effect of this toxic, chronic exposure may include lethal and sublethal effects."

BOYNE: I don't know exactly that comment you're making, but I will say that like many insecticides, clothianidin is highly toxic to bees upon direct contact. But when used according to label directions as a seed treatment, honeybees are not exposed to concentrations to cause harm.
GELLERMAN: So, the notion that these bees are going into the fields, getting exposed to the systemic pesticides, these neonicotinoids, doesn't affect the bees? They're not collateral damage?

BOYNE: No, it doesn't. And the reason is that yes, some neonicotinoids are toxic to honeybees, but it's all about the level of exposure. So these neonicotinoids, they're used in many ways, but the primary use for the neonicotinoid is as a seed treatment, where you coat the seed. It's applied in the seed coating and the seed is planted and the product moves systemically through the plant as it grows and it targets foliar feeding insects, pest insects, and the amount that actually gets into the bee-attractive parts of the plant, the pollen and the nectar area of the flowers—is miniscule. So the exposure is so low, there is no effect on honeybees.

GELLERMAN: In Germany a couple of years ago, they were planting this, there was a mechanical breakdown in the planter and the seed coating got aerosolized and one hundred percent of the bees that were exposed to this stuff died. Germany subsequently banned the use of clothianidin on seed corn.

BOYNE: Well, you're partially right. Germany didn't ban the use, it suspended the use on that particular crop, it didn't ban the use of the product on other crops in Germany. But there was a case where the formulation of the seed treatment as applied to the seed was not done correctly so you did get dust exposure and it did cause some bee losses. There's a lot of work that's been conducted out there and again, the weight of the evidence clearly shows that these products do not pose a hazard to bees.

Researchers collect data on bee health. (Photo: Jeff Pettis)

GELLERMAN: I'm just wondering, on behalf of our listeners, what they're to make of this. You know, we've got an interview with somebody, they're a legitimate organization, they're beekeepers, they're lawyers, and they say, "You know, there's a real problem here and we need the EPA to get off the mark," and here you are, the makers of this, saying it's got a clean bill of health. I was wondering, what do I tell my listeners?

BOYNE: Well, one thing you might tell them is we do have a vested interest in this and in fact we have skin in the game. I will tell you that Bayer CropScience in Canada is the largest supplier of hybrid canola seed in Canada. Canola is completely dependent on honeybee pollination to create a new crop of seed and so we are the largest renters of honeybees for pollination purposes in Canada. Now, every acre of canola that we grow is treated with a neonicotinoid and we've been doing this for many years without incident, by the same beekeepers that bring their bees in. So I would say that's pretty compelling evidence. The other, in addition to the extensive studies we've conducted, is, you know, as a part of the agriculture, we know the importance of honeybees and therefore, I think it's ludicrous to assume that we would bring a product to market that would be as potentially devastating to honeybees as some may claim.

GELLERMAN: That's Jack Boyne. He's the Director of Communications with Bayer CropScience.

So should the neonic pesticide clothianidin be banned as some environmental and beekeeping groups are urging, or is it a relatively safe way to grow industrial food crops? The government scientist charged with finding an answer is entomologist Jeffery Pettis. He's research leader at the USDA's bee lab.

PETTIS: We've been on the hot seat a bit lately trying to figure out what's killing bees.

GELLERMAN: Do you know, or do you have a hint as to what it might be?

PETTIS: The bees we see dying from CCD are very sick. They have viruses, bacteria, fungi and things in their bodies and we think there's a combined effect of things like poor nutrition, pesticide exposure, things like that, leading to these pathogen outbreaks. So we think it's a combined effect. It's really hard to pin it on one - we're not going to find a single cause, we think.

GELLERMAN: So multifactor.


GELLERMAN: In the absence of these pesticides, do you think bees - these neonics - do you think bees would be dying or getting that sick?

PETTIS: Good question. Certainly they would be doing better, but bees have had a long association with pesticides and it's never been that good. Back in the 40's and 50's we had massive die-offs with some of the things they were using back then and this newer class of chemistry, the neonicotinoid group, it's just a new way of exposure. So it's coming now in nectar and pollen, which is not a route of exposure that we've seen in the past.

GELLERMAN: But is there any doubt in your mind that these neonics play a role?

PETTIS: Well, I would say that they're one of the suspects in the things that we see going on. I couldn't point to them as the leading cause. I have good beekeeper friends that say it is the leading cause. I guess for my research it's still multi-factorial and they're higher on the list than they were in the past, so they're definitely up there, and we're trying to find ways to balance that exposure. Because it's certainly not good for bees.

GELLERMAN: We heard from some environmental groups and beekeepers, and they say, you know, these neonics, they've got to come off the market. And then you've got the chemical companies and they say, no, no, no it's not causing this thing. The public is in the middle; what do I do?

PETTIS: Well, it's gotten very political and both sides have a bit of truth on their side, but certainly there's a new route of exposure and we know that bees are being exposed. It's a question of whether these things are leading the cause of some of the losses we're seeing. Our lab here and a number of labs around the country are doing a lot of research looking at the effects of pesticides so that's a very active area of research. I think, actually, from the two sides, the truth is actually a little bit in the middle. I don't know what the answer is and I know that there is a lot of interest from the general public and from farmers, beekeepers, and everybody in trying to resolve this thing.

GELLERMAN: Some of these colonies, 90 percent of the bees are dying.

PETTIS: We have been doing surveys of beekeeper losses for the past six years now and within a beekeeping operation, losses can be really severe. On average, we've been running at about 33 percent loss in the fall and winter. That's really hard for them to recover from economically.

GELLERMAN: Well, how do we recover from the fact that we've got all these colonies collapsing?

PETTIS: The bees are very resilient, but the beekeepers are even more resilient, but there's a limit to that. I mean their economic livelihood is at stake. But for us, the general public, it's our food supply. In other words, if we can't meet our pollination needs, then food costs would go up and we'd have less fruits and vegetables available.

GELLERMAN: I guess these bees are responsible for pollinating about 130 different crops that we eat.

PETTIS: Yes, it's only about a third of our diet, but the other two-thirds are the cereals - rice, corn, wheat, things like that, so you can survive on those but you really thrive on those fruits, nuts, and vegetables. So it's a very important part of the diet.

GELLERMAN: Well, Jeffery Pettis, thank you so very much.

PETTIS: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Jeffery Pettis is research leader at the USDA Bee Lab.



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