Good News for the Bees: The Government Ends Pesticide Use in Some Wildlife Refuges

Environmentalists praise the phaseout of neonicotinoids linked to bee deaths but press for a nationwide ban.

(Photo: Don Emmert/Getty Images)

Jul 16, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

In another sign that the United States government is starting to take the plight of the bees seriously, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is banning the use in some wildlife refuges of a pesticide linked to the mass die-off of pollinators.

By January 2016, the agency’s Pacific Region—Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands—will eliminate neonicotinoids (neonics), a nerve poison widely used to kill crop pests in the U.S. and Europe. It also kills bees that pollinate a third of the world’s food supply, and several scientific studies have identified neonics as one of several interrelated factors that have led to the demise of more than 10 million beehives in the U.S. alone since 2006.

“The Pacific Region will begin a phased approach to eliminate the use of neonicotinoid insecticides (by any method) to grow agricultural crops for wildlife on National Wildlife Refuge System lands, effectively immediately,” Kevin Forester, the regional chief for the National Wildlife Refuge System, wrote in a July 9 memo, citing studies implicating neonics in bee deaths.

It’s a small step—the ban affects just 8,710 acres—but a significant one, as the federal government has been widely criticized for continuing to approve the use of neonics even as scientific evidence mounts of their widespread impact on bees and other wildlife. Several environmental organizations have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for green-lighting new neonics, and last week some of those groups asked a judge to halt the use of the pesticide in California.

So why isn’t the Fish and Wildlife Service banning neonics nationwide?

Miel Corbett, a FWS deputy assistant regional director, said that it’s up to the discretion of the agency’s regional refuge chiefs to approve the use of pesticides in wildlife areas they supervise.

“Pollinators are a vital part of our ecosystem, and the (Fish and Wildlife) Service is actively involved in their conservation,” Corbett said in an email. “In this case, our chief has decided that the Pacific Region is going to explore and use other alternatives to neonicotinoids to the best of our abilities.”

Neonics are a so-called systemic pesticide that is absorbed into a plant’s roots, stems, leaves, flowers, pollen, and nectar. Honeybees feed on pollen and nectar, which they bring back to the hive. Neonics can be sprayed on crops, but it’s more common for seeds to be treated with the pesticide, meaning it spreads throughout the plant as it grows.

The wildlife agency’s move follows the Obama administration announcement in June that it would form a task force to address the apian apocalypse.

“FWS has taken a responsible and necessary first step in the Pacific Region, but the agency must permanently institute this policy on all refuge lands across the country,” Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.