EPA Slapped With Lawsuit Over Ongoing Bee Deaths

Uncle Sam is blamed for not doing enough to stop harmful pesticides from decimating bee populations and threatening our food supply.

Can the government do more to protect honey bees from dying? (Photo: Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

A group of beekeepers and environmentalists announced today that they are suing the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to curb the use of insecticides they say are decimating bee populations and putting our nation’s food supply in jeopardy.

The four beekeepers and five environmental and consumer groups involved in the lawsuit, including the Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides, say the link between neonicotinoids—a nicotine-like class of pesticides that include clothianidin and thiamethoxam—and bee die offs is crystal clear. And they claim the EPA acted outside the law when it allowed for “conditional registration” of their use. Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science are the primary manufacturers of clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

“We are taking the EPA to court for its failure to protect bees from pesticides,” Paul Towers, spokesperson for the Pesticide Action Network, tells TakePart. “Despite our best efforts to warn the agency about the problems posed by neonicotinoids, the EPA continued to ignore the clear warning signs of an ag system in trouble.”

Towers says the bee shortage for this year’s California almond crop, a story we told you about a few weeks ago, was proof enough that the EPA needs to act now, and must reconsider this class of pesticides.

Unlike older classes of pesticides, says Towers, neonicotinoids are applied before planting to coat seeds. The pesticide is then taken up through the vascular system of the plant and expressed through the pollen and nectar, which bees rely on for food. Their introduction onto farms in the mid-2000s, also coincides with more widespread bee colony collapses than had been seen before.

“These are persistent pesticides,” he says. “They remain in the soil and persist into the next generation of plants.”

This isn’t just a California problem. The finger pointing has been active across the country, including Ohio, where bees are needed to pollinate more than 70 crops, including apples, pumpkins and berries. Bee die offs there were rampant last spring. (Bayer, by the way, sponsored seminars for beekeepers in Ohio—a move that stung critics. Doh!) And the story is repeated from Illinois to the Carolinas. The Europeans are alarmed at bee population crashes as well, and tried to limit a trio of pesticides, but failed.

On Tuesday, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) called for a ban on their use, because, they say, the pesticides have moved up the food chain and are now impacting song birds.

“A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird,” said Cynthia Palmer, pesticides program manager for ABC, one of the nation’s leading bird conservation organizations. “Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid—called imidacloprid—can fatally poison a bird. And as little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction.”

University of California-Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen tells TakePart that the disappearance of bees is extraordinarily complicated. Pesticides, nutrition, disease and mites can all play a role in colony collapse disorder, and that scientists simply don’t know what’s causing bees to vanish at a 30 percent rate.

“It’s a combination of all these things. I certainly wouldn’t let the neonicotinoids off the hook. They are negatively impacting honeybees and other insects that we don’t know anything about, but if the neonicotinoids were yanked from the market, I don’t anticipate seeing a rapid return to the ‘good old days’ of pre-mite 5-10 percent losses,” he says.

When you go into thriving hives versus collapsed hives, the chemical soup scientists measure is still the same, says Mussen.

“But there is something different between the two. We still haven’t determined what that is.”

More on Bees from TakePart:

• Are Cell Phones Killing Bees and Threatening Our Food Supply?

• Burt's Bees Founder Abuzz About Creating New National Park

• Bees in Paris One Up Their Rural Counterparts

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