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In no particular hurry, EPA limits new uses of bee-killing crop treatments

REUTERS/Mike Blake
Whether the action announced late last week will ever make much difference to the overall health of the managed honeybees whose labor is critical to something like one-third of the American diet – or to the well-being of other, wild insects and invertebrates also thought to be harmed by the neonics – can’t be known for a while.

In placing a tentative sort of moratorium on new uses of neonicotinoid insecticides across the United States, the federal Environmental Protection Agency seems to be signaling at last a possible willingness to slow the spread of crop treatments that have been implicated in honeybee die-offs.

But don’t be misled by headlines that, by combining words like restrict, pesticide, bees and die-off in condensed phrasing, could be taken to suggest that something like an immediate change in regulation of neonic use is in the offing.

Indeed, whether the action announced late last week will ever make much difference to the overall health of the managed honeybees whose labor is critical to something like one-third of the American diet – or to the well-being of other, wild insects and invertebrates also thought to be harmed by the neonics – can’t be known for a while.

Possibly not until sometime in 2018, unless Congress or a court forces the agency to pick up the pace.

On the one hand, EPA is saying that it is sufficiently concerned about harm to bees and other pollinators that it probably won’t approve any new uses until it has had a chance to review incoming data on bee impacts, along with “pollinator risk assessments.” That same information will inform its ongoing review of the registrations it has granted to the neonics, a process it notes has been “accelerated.”

On the other hand, as EPA explains on its status page regarding current pesticide registration reviews, the speed-up was undertaken not to move more swiftly toward any necessary rethinking of its earlier approvals of the neonics, but to assure “a level playing field for the products” by reviewing them in more or less the same time frame, regardless of when they were originally approved.

According to Reuters, that time frame extends to 2018 for four of the neonic types and the following year for two others. Efforts to quicken that pace through litigation and lobbying have fallen short so far.

As for the moratorium on new and expanded uses announced last Thursday, it is less than entirely clear how much iron cladding has been applied to the new policy anyway.

Meanwhile, new findings extend the neonics’ risk beyond managed honeybees. Just yesterday came news of a fresh study linking them to monarch butterflies’ decline as well.

Exceptions to the new rule

Here’s the relevant portion of EPA’s letter to applicants seeking an OK for new uses of four neonics – imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – and to manufacturers of products that customers might want to use in new ways (my emphasis and paragraphing added):

[U]ntil EPA receives and assesses the outstanding pollinator health data, EPA is unlikely to be in a position to grant any submitted registration action that involves a request with  one of these pesticides for a new outdoor use or use expansion.

However, EPA acknowledges that the merits ofindividual actions may differ and that, for example, a pest management need could arise during this interim period that would support the issuance of an emergency exemption. …

EPA will assess such requests by relying on currently available information and risk mitigation strategies. This announcement does not preclude the approval of products that are identical or substantially similar to existing uses (i.e., “me-too” products).

EPA’s information pages on bee die-offs note that the honeybee situation has changed somewhat, and become more complex, over the last few years, which certainly is so.

The incidence of “colony collapse disorder” in its initial, classic form detected in 2006 and 2007  – mass abandonment of colonies, for unknown reasons, by bees that are never found – has become less prevalent. But the overall rates of colony loss have changed little; they fluctuate and remain unsustainably high for most commercial beekepers.

It remains true that bees are also beset by other pressures, the two most important being parasitic infection via varroa mites, and the disappearance of natural forage because of habitat loss.

But of the three principal factors, addressing the neonics is a simpler if not easier solution to embrace than restoring vast swaths of habitat or, so far, finding a magic bullet to kill the mites. (EPA recently approved a new use for oxalic acid as a varroa-killer, but nobody seems confident  it will eliminate the mite factor anytime soon.)

European examples

Some European countries have banned the neonics to save their pollinators, and many in the U.S. think it’s an example that deserves at least experimental emulation.

Instead, EPA has elected only a modest step to reject expanded use of the neonics – for the time being, unless emergency situations or individual circumstances warrant an exception – and that drew swift responses from organizations that have been working on pollinator protection from a variety of angles.

A sampling of their comments, assembled by the Center for Food Safety:

Peter T. Jenkins, attorney for the center:  “EPA has finally admitted it lacks the basic data needed to determine whether bees, other pollinators, or the environment will be adversely affected by neonicotinoids. If EPA is unable to assess the safety of new uses, the agency similarly is not able to assess the safety of the close to 100 outdoor uses already approved. In view of its admissions, EPA has no option under [the federal pesticide law] other than to suspend the existing uses, as well as follow through with its moratorium on the proposed new uses.”

Jeff Anderson, a beekeeper and owner of California Minnesota Honey Farms: “EPA’s announcement is disingenuous. In the last year, EPA has approved registration for two new neonics, and expanded uses of these pesticides to additional blooming crops — also increasing residue tolerances to accommodate these new uses. Allowing increased toxic exposure to my bees and then announcing a moratorium? Very disingenuous.”

Kristin Schafer, policy director at Pesticide Action Network North America: “It’s welcome news that EPA is finally beginning to address the threat that neonics pose to the nation’s bees and other pollinators, but given the threats to the nation’s food and farming system, more is needed. Numerous bee-harming neonics and their cousin products are already on the market, and seed coatings in particular have led to a dramatic surge in use over the last few years. EPA should go further to place a moratorium on existing products.”

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides: “Although EPA acknowledges the harm neonicotinoids cause to pollinators, this action simply does not address the current neonicotinoid and other systemic insecticide products used in agriculture and by consumers that already pose unacceptable risks to pollinators. We urge the agency to suspend neonicotinoid products and take meaningful action on pollinator health.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 04/07/2015 - 11:27 am.


    I think it would be irresponsible to ban neonics since they have been shown to not have a significant effect on bee losses and are incredibly valuable in other areas of our food supply. A University of Maryland study shows neonics applied at real world rates have little effect on bees: By banning these pesticides you would be handicapping other areas just to make yourself feel better while having little to no actual effect on bee populations.

    • Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 04/07/2015 - 12:07 pm.

      Not irresponsible.

      “The study does not totally absolve imidacloprid of a causative role in honey bee colony declines. Rather, the results indicate that insecticides are but one of many factors causing trouble for the world’s honey bee populations.”

      • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 04/07/2015 - 02:19 pm.


        That is exactly my point. To ban only one of many factors is irresponsible and blaming one thing when there are many others equally or possibly more responsible for the decline of bees. Based on the effect banning would have on other areas of agriculture banning neonics because it might have a minor role in the decline of bee populations is rather silly. A one sided approach won’t benefit bee populations greatly.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/07/2015 - 01:00 pm.

    A year and a half

    We are nearing a year and a half into a 2 year test on restricting neonicotinoid usage in Europe. I suspect that nothing will happen (if anything needs to happen, anyway) until some sort of result is published from that experiment. I have seen nothing, even anecdotal, to suggest that the European experiment has had any positive effect. While the absence of data doesn’t preclude a positive outcome, we’ll know soon enough whether the lack of data is due to lack of effect.

    That being said, pesticide use needs to be done more responsibly. It’s likely that irresponsible use of many pesticides has had an impact on honey bees and native species, and not just pollinators. While I don’t believe that farmers are blameless in this issue, how many of those bags of yard treatments on the shelves of Menard’s can harm unintended species? All of them. And how many home owners bother to figure that out before applying any of them all over their yard in an effort to have the greenest grass possible? Very few. Since purchasing a home, I’ve had a greater desire to have a nice yard (who wants to increase the value of a rental home???), so I’ve looked into lawn maintenance chemicals. It turns out that if you don’t want grubs attracting moles who dig up your yard, you can purchase grub killer. I discovered that only one brand is safe for use anywhere near a pond, as it will kill aquatic invertebrates and potentially harm frogs and fish. We live on a pond. We’re probably the only people who bother to check the labels in our neighborhood. Also, if you’re desperate to get rid of those stinking Japanese beetles–prepare to do it by hand with a bowl of soapy water. Not a single product that’s marketed as effective in killing Japanese beetles is considered “safe” for pollinators. It says “don’t apply to flowering plants.” Well, those beetles eat flowering plants. We picked beetles all summer. Ugh. Still, it seems that most of those products have little effect on Japanese beetles, anyway.

    I highly support more restrictions and bans on home use lawn chemicals. Very few people bother to use them as directed, so they shouldn’t probably be used at all. While there is a legitimate debate over the proper use of pesticides on crops, the existence of several species, including honey bees, is certainly more important than an ornamental expanse of green grass.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 04/07/2015 - 02:25 pm.

      pesticide use

      Rachel, studies have indicated that pesticide use by farmers is very efficient. I’ve posted a link to the study on a different article here. I’m sure there are some that abuse pesticides but for the most part they are used correctly. Licensing for pesticide application has caused many people to rely on trained professionals who are more likely to use them responsibly. I can’t say the same for the common homeowner although pesticide use overall is likely lower compared to farmers. I’m a bit lazy when it comes to my lawn so generally only use winterizer and crab grass preventer but there are some people who apply stuff 4-5 times a year and it gets a bit ridiculous.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/08/2015 - 08:35 am.

    For the record

    I object to the title of this article. While it has been shown that, at certain doses, certain crop pesticides are lethal to bees, “bee-killing crop treatments” is probably inaccurate. We do know that applying neonics improperly can kill bees–it’s been documented in a handful of cases that improper use has killed large numbers of nearby bees. It may be that non-fatal doses of neonics contribute, along with other factors, to bee death, as well. But the latter is not “bee-killing” on its own. If used in the wrong dose and at the wrong time, lots of otherwise innocuous things can kill a wide variety of living things. Dihydrogen monoxide kills around 10 people a day in the US and probably countless animals, insects, and plants. Yet, no one is ever going to ban it (though they might consider some judicious regulation in California). I’m sorry that “bee death contributing crop treatments” isn’t as good a title, but it’s probably far more accurate.

  4. Submitted by Frank Bowden on 04/09/2015 - 02:53 pm.

    report from European study just released

    Today the New York Times reports that the European Academies Science Advisory Council “said on Wednesday that a group of pesticides (i.e., neonicotinoids) believed to contribute to mass deaths of honeybees is probably more damaging to ecosystems than previously thought and questioned whether the substances had a place in sustainable agriculture.” According to the article, “an estimated 75 percent of all traded crops, including apples, soybeans, and corn, depend on pollination” yet neonicotinoids “…do not discriminate between harmful pests and beneficial pollinators.”

    Not surprisingly, as we have seen with tobacco and climate change, the vested interests have leaped to disparage the findings of the scientists. By allowing widespread use of these neurotoxins before the impact of their use is fully understood, we are risking the sustainability of the environment on which our very lives depend.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 04/09/2015 - 03:52 pm.


      Based on the life expectancy of pollinators and a recently released USDA study that shows pesticide residue levels are below acceptable levels I’m not sure I’d put too much weight towards this one. This study suggests effects from the pesticides are cumulative and that may be correct but with a short life span of pollinators I’d expect they’d only get one or possibly two non-lethal doses. Low amounts of pesticide residue also lead me to believe the effect would not be as great as the study suggests.

      • Submitted by Frank Bowden on 04/09/2015 - 10:17 pm.

        re European studies

        With all due respect, Joe, the European study is based on a review of over 100 peer-reviewed articles; so I think it should be taken pretty seriously.

        • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 04/13/2015 - 10:32 am.

          No disrespect intended

          towards the European study but it appears as though we have several studies with opposing findings. Both University of Maryland and Purdue Univerisity (and I think also University of Illinois) have studies that suggest there is no significant effect from these pesticies but the European study suggests there is. Certainly more information is needed on this but I would think if multiple studies suggest no significant impact on bee populations I doubt there would be much of an impact in other areas either with correct application of these pesticides.

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