Bee-Killing Pesticides May Get New Restrictions From the EPA
The bees are dying, and we need to ban neonicotinoid pesticides before they kill them all, taking away a third of the crops we rely on for food with them.
That’s the dominant chorus heard around the issue of bees and their tendency to die in great numbers—last year, 40 percent of managed hives died—in recent years. The European Union announced a two-year ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013, so why doesn’t the United States?
While it’s not suggesting an outright prohibition, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it’s accepting public comments on a proposed label change that would create temporary pesticide-free zones in areas that are being pollinated by hired bee hives. It’s all part of the new federal effort to protect bees (and monarch butterflies) outlined in the Pollinator Research Action Plan released earlier this month.
The plan was criticized for not “adequately addressing the impact of pesticides, including neonicotinoid insecticides, on bees and other pollinators,” as the environmental group Friends of the Earth said in a statement.
So, Why Should You Care? Bees and other pollinators are a key part of the food chain, amounting to $15 billion in value to the agriculture industry and pollinating roughly one-third of the food we eat. And while people are increasingly aware of the high die-off rates and other concerns over honeybees and other pollinator species, the full range of probable causes isn’t always understood.
The issues facing bees aren’t limited to neonics. And while public concerns over pollinator health spiked when colony collapse disorder—in which an entire hive of bees essentially disappears—was first observed, the 40 percent of managed colonies that were lost last year died less apocalyptic deaths. (The overall population has remained the same, however.) As Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the University of Maryland etymologist who helps conduct the annual population survey, told me last year, “I, as a researcher, was a little naive in the beginning, thinking that we would find one cause and then hopefully one solution.”
Rather than just being a pesticide issue, the plight of the honeybees is linked to a complex array of problems. Here’s a rundown on the ways the White House plan will help address them.
The proposed EPA rule would make the blooming almond orchards in California, which require 85 percent of commercial U.S. beehives to pollinate, a safer place for the bees that keep the orchards producing year after year. It would apply to all pesticides “with an acutely lethal dose to 50 percent of the bees tested of less than 11 micrograms per bee, based on acute contact toxicity testing,” which includes neonics.
But the proposed rule has two concerning loopholes: It only protects hives contracted for pollinator services, and it only applies to foliar applications, or pesticides applied directly to a plant’s leaves.
The EPA acknowledges the first of those issues, saying that while bees could still be exposed, “it is less certain than in situations where a pesticide is applied to a site when large numbers of managed bees have intentionally been positioned at the site for the purposes of providing pollination services.”
But the rule fails to address the issue of systemic pesticides, which are applied by treating a plant’s seed, allowing the chemical to be taken into all parts of the plant as it grows—including the pollen and nectar.
“More than 100 million U.S. acres are planted with seeds drenched in bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides,” Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Countless studies have linked these toxic seeds to declines in honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bee populations, and the EPA has found that they don’t even provide any benefits to farmers.”
Pesticides aren’t the only risk that farms present to bees—the very flowers that they’re gathering nectar from can present a problem too. It’s akin to you or me facing hundreds of acres of flowing apples, peaches, or berries and contemplating eating nothing but the same for an extended period of time. If bees are foraging on only one flower, they aren’t getting a balanced diet, making them more susceptible to other health problems—just as a person might be after subsisting on nothing but watermelon for days on end.
While the White House plan doesn’t call out industrial farming per se, it does point out that beekeepers often supplement their colony’s feed with pollen substitutes and stand-ins for nectar, including high-fructose corn syrup, which can change gene expression in bees, affecting the way they process amino acids and protein. What’s not understood is how that impacts reproduction—and, in turn, the continuing health of the hive.
In addition to continuing research on bee nutrition, the plan calls for “identifying combinations of plantings that meet the nutritional needs of pollinators throughout the year for major geographical regions of the United States,” so that the area around, say, an almond orchard looks a bit more like a salad bar of nectar and pollen for the bees attending to it.
The White House plan will help to “restore or enhance” 7 million acres of pollinator habitat—including a sort of bee-and-butterfly highway that will run along the I-35 corridor from Mexico to Minnesota. Native habitat provides everything an agricultural environment cannot: lots of different types of flowers (and lots of them) and few deadly chemicals. And for monarch butterflies, native habitat provides the milkweed its existence depends on—female butterflies won’t lay their eggs on any other plant—and which has disappeared from corn and soy farms with the rise of crops that are genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant.
The ferociously named Varroa destructor is an invasive mite that can wreak havoc on a hive—and it’s even more devastating when the bees are malnourished or otherwise weakened. Along with Varroa, there are a host of other pathogens that can lay waste to weak hives. While these pests can kill bees outright—something that can be limited by controlling for the likes of Varroa—the environment a hive is in can change how the overall population is affected by mites and pathogens. Just this week, a new study published in PLOS One found that the a parasite called Nosema ceranae can infect larvae as well as adult bees, raising new questions about the size of its role in die-off. The White House plan calls for continued study on the “roles of nutrition, enhanced forage, and pesticide exposure on pathogen buildup” and colony growth.
Not only can extreme weather kill bees, but the rising temperatures and increase in climatic events such as drought affect native plant habitats, giving bees and other pollinators less of their ideal environment in which to thrive. While the report mentions climate change repeatedly and highlights the importance of understanding how it will affect pollinator health and populations, it goes without saying that government action on that front has been nearly impossible to achieve.