EPA’s new ‘bee protection’ warning for pesticides seen as lame labeling effort

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September 3, 2013

New pesticide labels for bee-toxic chemicals designed to “better protect” pollinators,  announced  by the Environmental Protection Agency last month, just “don’t cut it” according to environmentalists.

The EPA’s new action, prohibiting use of certain neonicotinoid pesticides when bees are present, does “little to address the problem of bee declines,” said Paul Towers, organizing director of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) on the group’s website.

The new labels contain a colorful “bee advisory box” with information on how to avoid direct exposure and spray drift, even admitting that the most common method in which these chemicals are used – as seed treatments –  can “kill bees” it stops there, leading Towers to call them “practically unenforceable.”

The new labels “fail to acknowledge the unique properties of systemic, persistent neonicotinoid pesticides..,” Towers declared, adding that the EPA’s efforts “will only make matters worse by giving a false sense of acceptability for the use of these bee-harming products.”

Honeybees collecting corn pollen

As Food Identity Theft reported earlier this year, the plight of the honeybees known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD, in which honeybees abandon their hive and queen, was first recognized around 2006 and coincides with the registration of neonicotinoid pesticides and extra high-dose corn seed treatments that began around 2004.

Another way bees may be consuming the pesticides could come from the high fructose corn syrup fed to them by beekeepers. Practically all corn – with the exception of organic – comes from seed treated with neonicotinoids.

According to the EPA, corn seed treatment is the single biggest use for these chemicals, and being that corn is the most widely grown crop in North America, this is no small use. Because these pesticides act in the plant systemically, they stay active as a plant grows, causing contamination of the pollen and nectar, and potentially any products made from seed-treated crops. Giving further credence to the HFCS-bee-decline connection, a study last year published in the Bulletin of Insectology showed that bee colonies fed HFCS treated with one of the nicotine pesticides resulted in collapse of almost every test hive, reflecting the same pattern as that seen by beekeepers.

Who will win, Bayer or the bees?

While the EPA is working on its label revisions and graphics, the European Union has gone one giant step further by banning three of the neonicotinoids for two years — but not without resistance from two agricultural giants that manufacturer the chemicals.

Both Switzerland-based Syngenta and Bayer CropScience of Germany have initiated legal action challenging the EU ban, claiming it is “unjustified” and “goes beyond the existing regulatory framework.”

A report released at the beginning of this year by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) appears to have been the tipping point leading to the EU ban, finding that the three chemicals pose an “acute risk” to honeybees with possible exposure from pollen, nectar, dust from the pesticides and leaf sap.

But at the same time the EU was preparing to institute the neonicotinoid ban, the EPA granted “unconditional registrations” for sulfoxaflor, another systemic pesticide considered to be the next generation of neonicotinoids.

With this year having seen more massive bee declines, even Congress has stepped in, with Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) recently introducing “The Save America’s Pollinators Act,” which, like the EU restrictions, would ban certain uses of neonicotinoids.

Not in your backyard – or is it?

If all this wasn’t bad enough news for our beleaguered bees, a new study released last month has found that 54 percent of the sampled “bee friendly” nursery plants sold at big-box retailers for backyard gardens contain the same neonicotinoid pesticides banned in the EU.

The study, Gardeners Beware, by Friends of the Earth, a federation of grassroots environmental groups, has already resulted in a petition signed by over 175,000 people asking the stores to stop selling pre-treated neonicotinoid plants as well as the chemicals for consumer use.

Lisa Archer, director of the Food and Technology Program at Friends of the Earth said in a press release that the study “is the first to show that so called ‘bee-friendly’ garden plants contain pesticides that can poison bees, with no warning to gardeners.”

The group recommends that home gardeners use untreated seeds or only buy organic plants. “We must take immediate action to address this crisis,” said Archer.  “Europe has banned bee-harming pesticides, retailers in the UK are refusing to sell them, and stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s have a moral obligation to make the same commitment here in the U.S.”

All of which boils down to one inescapable truth: without bees, we will also be without many of the essential crops we’ve always taken for granted – making our survival largely dependent on theirs.