The Latest Threat to Bees? Flupy

The government approves a new pesticide called flupyradifurone that environmentalists say threatens wildlife and people.

(Photo: Yorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

May 7, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

Just as it was beginning to look like the movement to ban bee-killing pesticides was gaining ground, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved a new pesticide that threatens to be just as toxic.

Flupyradifurone, developed by Bayer CropScience under the brand name Sivanto, is a systemic insecticide that kills aphids, whiteflies, mites, and other “sucking pests.” Slated for use on a cornucopia of crops, including fruit and nut trees, grapes, citrus, potatoes, corn, soy, and cotton, Sivanto is poised to be enormously popular with growers eager for a chemical that’s effective against increasingly resistant pests.

Environmental experts contend that the chemical’s killing power also poses a threat to bees, beneficial insects, wildlife—and possibly humans. “The research shows both indirect effects and direct effects to fish, reptiles, mollusks, mammals—the whole suite of life,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Flupyradifurone is the first in a new class of insecticide called butenolides. But a closer look shows it’s closely related to neonicotinoids, also called neonics, an agricultural pesticide scientists have implicated in the mass die-off of bees over the past decade. Both groups of chemicals are systemic neurotoxins that work by similar mechanisms to disable nerve impulses.

The European Union in 2013 imposed a two-year ban on neonicotinoids, and environmentalists in the U.S. have been urging the EPA and state regulators to withdraw approval for the pesticides.

“Flupy,” as some of those fighting the pesticide call it, comes on the market touted by Bayer and by the EPA as “safer for bees” than other systemic pesticides available. But the EPA’s own review shows it’s anything but, according to environmentalists.

“The EPA’s review cites a 50 percent mortality rate for bees that ingest this pesticide,” said Jason Rylander, senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “They say it’s not as damaging to hives and colonies, but the reality is that any bee that ingests it is probably dead before it gets back to the hive anyway.”

The EPA argues otherwise. “The 38 studies used to characterize potential exposure to and effects of flupyradifurone on bees are comprehensive and provide compelling evidence that the compound does not have a pronounced effect on bees, even though applications were made during full bloom while bees were actively foraging,” said EPA spokesperson Cathy Milbourn.

The Center for Food Safety, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity have put the EPA on notice of their intent to sue the agency based on flupyradifurone’s potential impact on not just bees but endangered species.

“If you look at the ecological risk assessment, it states pretty clearly that there are known and acute and chronic effects on aquatic species, yet they neglected to consult with fish and wildlife experts, which is required under the Endangered Species Act,” said Rylander.

The EPA acknowledges the environmental risks in flupyradifurone product disclosures. “This product may have effects on endangered species,” it reads in part. “When using this product, you must follow the measures contained in the Endangered Species Protection Bulletin for the county in which you are applying the product.”

Like the neonics, flupyradifurone is a systemic pesticide designed to be absorbed from the soil and water as well as through the leaves of plants. Farmers can apply Sivanto by spraying crops, adding it to irrigation water (so-called “chemigation”), or drenching the soil.

What this means in practice is that systemic pesticides are designed to persist in both soil and water. One recent study from the U.S. Geological Service found neonics in 100 percent of water samples tested from the Midwest’s major streams and rivers, including the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Emerging research shows that such pesticides are making their way through every level of the food chain. “Systemic pesticides are particularly dangerous because they’re taken up by the entire plant—the leaves, stems, flowers, pollen, and seeds,” said Burd. “It’s in the plant tissues and makes the entire plant toxic both to insects and anything that eats it.”

According to research conducted by toxicologist Pierre Mineau of the Canadian National Wildlife Research Centre and published by the American Bird Conservancy, neonicotinoids have such high toxicity to wildlife that ingesting one pesticide-dosed seed can kill a songbird.

While research into the health effects of systemic pesticides on humans is still in the early stages, studies show high-level exposure causes motor problems in adult rats and shrinks the brains of immature rats. Other research shows liver damage, bone weakness, and fetal death in rabbits and dogs. The risk of damage to developing human brains was one of the prime reasons cited by the European Food Safety Authority for recommending the banning of systemic pesticides.

“Human studies take a lot longer to do, so the research is just beginning to emerge, but what’s coming out is certainly disturbing,” said Burd. “They’re approving pesticides much faster than they’re studying them, which leaves us putting chemicals out there when we don’t even really know the effects they might have on environmental and human health.”