EPA under pressure to protect pollinators

Beekeepers and environmental groups make a big buzz with lawsuit against agency

Boulder beekeeper Kristina Williams

Boulder-area beekeeper Tom Theobald, three other beekeepers from around the country and five environmental organizations filed a joint lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for the agency’s alleged failure to protect bees and other pollinators from systemic neonicotinoid pesticides, which are commonly applied in the U.S. These beekeepers and environmental groups, among others, argue that the EPA’s failure to create a moratorium on the pesticides that scientific studies show are toxic to bees amounts to negligence. The plaintiffs are using the lawsuit, filed in federal court in March, to pressure the agency to put sanctions on those chemicals, which the European Union voted to do in early May.

“The EPA claims that bees are being harmed by a number of factors and I wouldn’t argue with that,” says Theobald, president of Boulder County Beekeepers’ Association, owner of Niwot Honey Farm and a beekeeper of 35 years. “But they choose to put pesticides at the bottom of that list and I believe that science shows us something very different. The EPA is choosing to significantly downplay the role that pesticides are occupying.”

Two research studies released in 2012 and published in Science show that non-lethal doses of neonicotinoid pesticides severely disrupt normal navigational and reproductive bee behavior.

“You’d think what the EU did — banning the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides for two years in order to determine unacceptable risks — would have a ripple effect here,” continues Theobald. “But that’s simply not the case.”

For more than a decade now, commercial beekeepers have sustained significant colony losses — with average losses accounting for roughly 30 percent of commercial hive populations annually. This year, however, losses were even higher, with the average beekeeper losing 45.1 percent of their colonies in operation over the 2012-2013 winter, according to Bee Informed Partnership’s online survey. And, some beekeepers reported much higher losses. One long-term commercial beekeeper out of New York, whose bees are responsible for 10 percent of the state’s apple pollination, reported losing 100 percent of his colonies.

These abrupt, dwindling and seemingly mysterious colony losses have been dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD). The EPA is currently attributing CCD to a combination of environmental, nutritional and various other stress factors. Although the agency cites pesticides as a possible contributor, plaintiffs in the lawsuit contend that science shows that pesticides are a key contributor to CCD — if not its root cause — and that the EPA must create policy and practices that ban or restrict the use of bee-harming chemicals.

“The coalition, represented by attorneys for the Center for Food Safety (CFS), seeks suspension of the registrations of insecticides that have repeatedly been identified as highly toxic to honey bees, clear causes of major bee kills and significant contributors to the devastating ongoing mortality of bees known as colony collapse disorder (CCD),” reads a press statement released by the plaintiffs. “The suit challenges EPA’s ongoing handling of the pesticides as well as the agency’s practice of ‘conditional registration’ and labeling deficiencies.”

“We feel that the EPA regulatory process is too slow and broken in too many ways,” says Larissa Walker, policy and campaign coordinator for the Center for Food Safety, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Science tells us that pesticides are toxic to bees and the EPA just isn’t acting and we felt the need to step in. We feel that we have a very strong case and now we’ll see.”

The EPA does not comment on pending litigation, but did provide information detailing actions the agency is currently taking to protect bees and other pollinators from pesticides that peer-reviewed scientific studies suggest are harmful. EPA administrators are going out into fields to talk directly with farmers and growers and holding public meetings with beekeepers and pesticide manufacturers. The agency has accelerated the schedule for the registration review of neonicotinoid pesticides. And the EPA has also taken regulatory measures such as moving to change pesticide labels to limit applications and adding warning statements to bags of pesticide-treated seed. The EPA is working on national and international efforts to develop tests to evaluate both exposure to and effects of pesticides on insect pollinators, but currently, the EPA is showing no indication of banning or suspending systemic insecticides that scientific studies have suggested cause pollinators harm.

“At this time, the data available to the EPA does not support a moratorium,” according to a media officer at the EPA’s press office. “If at any time the EPA determines there are urgent human and/or environmental risks from pesticide exposure that require prompt attention, the agency will take appropriate regulatory action, regardless of the registration review status of that pesticide.”

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs say that hard science and the losses that beekeepers have suffered are enough to indicate that pesticides’ effects need to be addressed by EPA — now.

“Unfortunately, the agencies charged with the public trust in protecting the environment, sustaining the environment and the future global health of the environment are not living up to that challenge,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit. “That challenge and its outcome is critical to our survival and I don’t think anything captures the problem more succinctly than the declining health of honey bees and other pollinators.”

“Bees are an indicator species,” Walker says. “They are absolutely critical to a sustainable and healthy food system, and we’ll be facing catastrophic economic, agricultural and environmental damages if the process isn’t changed.”

Bayer AG, the German company that makes many of the pesticides in question, did not return calls for comment.

While beekeepers and environmental groups take the pesticide issue to the courts, they’re encouraging people to take actions locally, from writing congressional representatives and chemical companies to cleaning up their own act when it comes to pesticide use.

“One of the biggest abusers of neonicotinoid pesticides are homeowners,” says Kristina Williams, who has a master’s degree in insect behavior from the University of Colorado and has been keeping bees locally for 30 years. “They are for sale everywhere and they work. They kill insects. They kill bees.”

Getting rid of grass, which is commonly treated with pesticides and doesn’t feed bees, and replacing it with bee-friendly plants and flowers can also support healthier bee populations. Plant species that do well in Colorado and attract bees include anything in the mint family, such as mint, sage, lavender and salvia. Anything in the sunflower family is good, too, she says. Williams also suggests an app called BeeSmart Pollinator Gardener, which will provide a list of plants that are good for bees and other pollinators in any given location.

“Environmentalists are calling what is happening to bees and other pollinators the second Silent Spring,” explains Walker, referencing Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on DDT and its effects on songbirds. “This is a very valid analogy. Pesticide use is persistent and the problems they’re causing are becoming prevalent in our food system. And, it’s not just bees that are being affected. It’s working its way up the food chain and that is extremely concerning.”

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