In light of recent European bans of a pesticide linked to Bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), at least one key bee expert is calling for a ban of the same pesticide in the United States.
“In the United States, drastic action is needed,” says Canadian geneticist Joe Cummins, explaining that U.S. farmers and beekeepers shouldn’t have to wait for more evidence or for an air-tight explanation for the complex syndrome, which threatens one in every third bite of food in the United States. Now most apiarists and scientists realize that pesticides are a factor in CCD, he says.
Cummins’ remarks, in an interview with GreenRightNow, come less than a month after Germany’s ban of clothianidin, a pesticide commonly used to keep insects off of corn crops. Germany banned the pesticide after heaps of dead bees were found near fields of corn coated in the pesticide, and in response to scientists who report that the insecticide severely impairs, and often kills, the honeybees that corn and other crops depend on for pollination.
The German government took the extraordinary action to protect bees and other essential pollinators, stating that there is now enough compelling evidence connecting the chemical to Bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in that country.
The ban also will likely fuel the European debate over genetically modified food, which involves treating crop seeds to resist harm from pesticide treatments. Critics of such modified foods say they are harming the environment, and have unknown human consequences, for little or no crop gain. Some scientists in Europe have called for their ban.
Bee Colony Collapse has been threatening bees, and the crops they serve, around the world for the past several years.
In other parts of Europe, including France, studies of other pesticides have shown they are negatively impacting bee behavior – and contributing to the collapse of entire bee colonies. France has outlawed the use of the pesticide imidacloprid — which like clothianidin is classed as a “neonicotinoid.” Imidacloprid has been linked to disoriented behavior in honeybees – and may help explain why many CCD cases result in abandoned hives.
“I think the Environmental Protection Agency would be well advised to put an immediate emergency ban on the neonicotinoid seed-treatment pesticides. I would say on all pesticides,” says Cummins.
The ban in Germany, and Cummins’ call for a U.S. ban, should be no surprise to the EPA. The agency’s own fact sheet on clothianidin shows that it has known of the dangers to bees since it conditionally approved the chemical in 2003.
“Clothianidin is highly toxic to bees on an acute contact basis…It has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other non-target pollinators, through the translocation [transfer] of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen,” states the EPA report. “In honey bees, the effects of this toxic chronic exposure may include lethal and/or sub-lethal effects in the larvae and reproductive effects in the queen.”
But a U.S. EPA spokesman says the ban of clothianidin in Germany was the result of an unusual confluence of events. First, the corn being planted did not have a seed coating known as a “sticker” that ensures the pesticide adheres to the seed; second, its application using air-driven equipment blew the clothianidin into a nearby canola field which was in early bloom (and attracting bees) due to unusually heavy rains.
This all conspired to create “unusual circumstances” that resulted in the suspension of clothianidin, said spokesman Dale Kemery. The suspension is in force while Germany reviews how best to limit pesticide “drift” and harmful effects on bees, he said.
“EPA is reasonably confident that a bee kill incident similar to what occurred in Germany will not happen in the United States because the application of neonicotinoid seed treatment products here is restricted to commercial treaters who already use sticker coatings as a standard practice,” Kemery said.
Still, with sticker coatings recommended but not required in the United States, the EPA will be reviewing its policies on seed treatment labels and “developing a policy that will require polymers or other sticker coatings to be applied to seeds with the pesticide,” Kemery said.
The EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture are engaged in ongoing research into Colony Collapse Disorder; government authorities suspect that the bees are dying because of multiple stressors, including a virus that affects bees, drought and enforced migration as they are shuttled around the country to service a variety of crops.
Bayer CropScience, the maker of the clothianidin seed coating, also said the Germany incident resulting in the bee deaths was an aberration, resulting in part from unusually “high quantities of dust” during the sowing of seeds that had not been treated correctly.
“We are saddened by the loss of the bees and the situation which as resulted for beekkeepers in Baden-Wurttemberg,” said Bayer ecologist Dr. Richard Schmuck in a news release. The company is working with authorities to “further improve application technology,” the release stated, so the corn pesticide “can be made available to farmers again as quickly as possible.”
The international seed and pest-control company, headquartered in Monheim, Germany, reported that it also is working with manufacturers of pneumatic corn-sowing equipment to find ways to avoid “drift of product particles” during sowing.
Cummins, professor emeritus of genetics at the University of Western Ontario, recently published a paper for the London-based Institute for Science in Society called “Saving the Honeybee Through Organic Farming.” In it, he urges a concerted move toward organic farming in general, and the creation of “bee refuges,” or large farms that offer bees a safe haven from insecticide-treated pollens and genetically modified crops. He points to the latest data on CCD, which increased from a 25 percent loss in U.S. commercial hives last year to a 34-35 percent loss this past winter.
Pesticides compromise bee health is by lowering their resistance to parasites and disease, according to the French, German and other studies. In particular, neonicotinoids harm bees’ ability to fight parasites, especially fungal parasites, which are now being linked with mass bee die-offs.
“This is fairly predictable, based on what was found of the bee’s genetic makeup when the genome was decoded,” Cummins says, speaking by phone from Ontario, “and it became apparent the bee is a very exquisite animal but one which is not geared to exposure to pesticides. The immune system, as well, is not really highly geared toward defense against invaders, and so, what happens with pesticides is it clearly makes the animal more susceptible to attack by parasites, such as, in particular, the fungal parasites. Fungal parasites are really the bee’s main predator in nature.”
Cummins says that in addition to a ban – which the EPA could “easily do” – farmers (or states or federal governments) should create bee refuges in the form of organic farms. Long-term, he believes the majority of food production should go organic, though he realizes that’s not quite so easily done.
“I think the best thing to do now would be to set up organic farms, refuges for the bees, that basically would provide a last stand for the bees, a place where they could survive. Given the current losses this year, in addition to last year, the bee is certainly not sustainable.”
Pesticides are only one element contributing to CCD, Cummins admits, but it’s now become more widely accepted within the scientific community that they do certainly play a role.
“In fact, there are multiple of causes, and instead of wringing our hands and waiting for the final answers – which may not be forthcoming – we should act.” (Until recently, the link between insecticides, fungal parasites and CCD haven’t been broadly recognized.)
The good news is that seems to be changing – slowly.
In Germany, Cummins says, the government decided to take action when studies consistently showed highly toxic levels of clothianidin in corn pollen. “That was the reason they banned it. They couldn’t not ban it.”
In the U.S., pesticide levels have not yet reached a “toxic” level, the geneticist says, but he thinks it’s foolish to wait until the evidence is staring us in the face or fields lay fallow.
“I think the message [bees are] giving us is very clear. They really can’t defend themselves against pesticides.”