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Bee health debate heats up over pesticides

A new national campaign to restrict use of a widely applied group of pesticides is bringing increased attention to the question of how to improve the health of honeybees and other pollinators. 

This week a full-page advertisement appeared in major U.S. newspapers calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose a moratorium on use of neonicotinoids, a type of chemical used in seed treatments and other insecticides. 

A large group of advocacy and environmental organizations, organic food businesses, and agricultural activists signed the petition, which cites the website The ad was paid for by the Ceres Trust. 

The ad also endorsed a U.S. House Bill, Saving America’s Pollinators Act, which seeks to require EPA to suspend the registration of a group of neonicotinoid insecticides used in seed treatments and other products until proving that the insecticide aren’t causing “unreasonable adverse effects" on pollinators.  

“This week, 15 countries are imposing a two-year restriction on the use of several of these chemicals,” the ad stated. Currently, EPA is not expected to take further action until 2018, it said. “Bees can’t wait five more years — they are dying now.” 

The pollinators bill in the House, introduced by Representative John Conyers (D-MI) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), is cosponsored by 38 Democrats. In other recent action, House Republicans prepared a draft report directing EPA to further review neonicotinoids for their impact on pollinators. The draft from the House appropriations committee stated that research suggests that the pesticides increase threats to bee health, according to a report from 

Also, a federal lawsuit in a U.S. district court pits environmentalists against manufacturers over the claim that pollinator impacts are unavoidable because of their systemic mode of action, which places the chemicals in the plant pollen, nectar, leaves, and stems.

Pesticide manufacturers and other agricultural interests have pointed to a recent report from EPA and USDA showing that there is no “smoking gun,” no single cause, in the honeybee health crisis. 

The report, released last spring, cited multiple factors for the decline in honeybee colony numbers, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition, and pesticide exposure.

The campaign “distorts the real situation regarding pollinator health and repeats the same unsupported accusations regarding the use of critical crop protection products,” says Robyn Kneen, head of the Bayer North American Bee Care Program. Bayer is a manufacturer of neonicotinoid products.

“While our industry recognizes the importance of honeybees to agriculture and supports reasonable measures to protect them, it is incorrect and irresponsible to suggest that neonicotinoid insecticides are responsible for declines in bee colony health,” Kneen told “Calls by advocacy groups to ban neonicotinoids would only hurt the American farmer and would have no appreciable benefit to bee colony health."

A scientific group devoted to conservation of pollinators disagrees, saying that neonicotinoids are a significant cause of bee declines. The problem with the insecticides is fourfold, says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society: The insecticides are highly toxic to pollinators, they are systemic, long-lived, and they are widely used, he says.

While embracing “smart use of pesticides” in integrated pest-management practices, Black says “neonicotinoids don’t work well in the IPM structure. They are a problem for bees. Action should be taken to learn where they are safe and where they are not. We think EPA should pull the products from the market then reevaluate their safety.”

In the same week as the media campaign against neonicotinoids, agricultural groups launched a program promoting “safe use of seed treatments.” 

The effort by the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and CropLife America (CLA) provides new information and research to growers on planting, storing, and handling treated seed. It was endorsed by the National Corn Growers Association, Farm Bureau, the American Soybean Association, and the National Cotton Council.

The groups began the campaign in response to “growing concern about the potential effect of seed treatment dust from planting on pollinators and the environment,” ASTA and CLA said in a statement. 

“The health of pollinators, especially honeybees is crucial to agricultural production,” said Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CropLife America, a crop protection industry trade organization. “The crop protection industry, seed companies, seed treatment applicators, equipment manufacturers, and farmers all play a role in supporting thriving bee populations through stewardship and sound science.”

Black of the Xerces Society welcomed the initiatives from the industry organizations. But, he added that “if they are serious about pollinator conservation, they need to work to provide more nontoxic pest-control alternatives, including nontreated seed.” 

“As any farmer knows, there’s no silver bullet,” Black says. “But we need to keep looking for multiple solutions.” 

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