Beekeepers Versus the E.P.A: How a Pesticide is Affecting Bees

Beekeepers Versus the E.P.A: How a Pesticide is Affecting Bees

Last week, members in the beekeeping industry sued the Environmental Protection Agency over a chemical proven to have negative impacts on bee colonization.

“Save the Bees.” We see this call for action all over t-shirts and propaganda billboards. But how does one really save the bees? The issue is a complex one, but answers are emerging about the role of pesticides and agricultural chemicals.

Between April 2018 to April 2019, beekeepers in the United States lost an estimated 40 percent of their managed bee colonies, according to the latest survey from the Bee Informed Partnership, a nonprofit that advises beekeepers.

While scientists confirm the decline in bee colonies has many complex causes, beekeepers have expressed worries that pesticides are partly responsible. Now, the beekeeping industry is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for its participation in reinstituting the use of certain chemicals that have proven to be harmful to bee populations.

The focus of the lawsuit is specifically the E.P.A’s reauthorization of the use of sulfoxaflor. This insecticide has proven to be harmful to bees in the past; the chemical is absorbed into plants, where it is ingested by pollinating bees. The bees then return to the hive and can transfer the chemical to the entire colony. This transfer of the chemical often affects the bees’ ability to breed and survive, according to studies cited by Earthjustice, whose lawyer Gregory C. Loarie is representing petitioners.

While sulfoxaflor is the not only insecticide proven to be harmful to bees, it is a major one, and there is sufficient evident that suggests this. Scientists specifically say fault likely lies with pathogens and pesticides like neonicotinoids, which chemically resemble nicotine and include sulfoxaflor. Other countries have banned neonicotinoids. In 2013, the European Union ordered a two-year ban, and France has imposed a similar one.

In response to the recent lawsuit and the bee crisis, Mr. Loarie said in a statement: “Honeybees and other pollinators are dying in droves because of insecticides like sulfoxaflor. This is illegal and an affront to our food system, economy and environment.”

A major fuel on the fire is arguably the E.P.A.’s awareness of the chemical’s hazards to bees. As of July 2019, the agency made the decision to allow the use of sulfoxaflor on crops, the latest twist in a series of challenges and approvals surrounding its use, according to the E.P.A’s website. The first applications for the use of the insecticide was back in 2019 when agriculture chemical company Dow AgroSciences, now Corteva Agriscience, wanted to register three products containing the chemical. In 2013, the E.P.A approved its use.

Just two years later, however, in 2015, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned that decision. The Pollinator Stewardship Council, an advocacy organization that documents the effects of pesticides on pollinating insects, and other industry groups petitioned for a review of the chemical’s approval. It was determined that Dow AgroSciences had not provided “substantial evidence” of the chemical’s effects on bees, and further studies were needed.

In 2016, the E.P.A. again approved the use of sulfoxaflor, but not on blooming crops that attracted bees and other pollinators. In July 12 of this year, though, the agency announced it had removed the restrictions and approved other uses for the insecticide, say it was “effective” for combating pests with “fewer environmental impacts.”

This is one of the Trump administration’s many actions against environmental standards. In some cases, agencies have skipped many key steps in approval processes like notifying the public and asking for comment.

How did the E.P.A. come to the decision to reauthorize the use of the pesticide? In an interview, Mr. Loarie said that the agency’s decision was “out of the blue,” had not solicited public comments or feedback from the beekeeping industry, and was “contrary to federal law and unsupported by substantial evidence.”

An E.P.A. spokesperson said that the agency does not comment on pending litigation, and the agency had sought public feedback in previous stages of approving the pesticide, “receiving considerable feedback on sulfoxaflor from stakeholders.” Corteva is pleased that the agency is expanding the use of the insecticide.

The lawsuit, filed last week in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, names the E.P.A. and its administrator, Andrew Wheeler, as defendants. It was filed by the Pollinator Stewardship Council; the American Beekeeping Federation; and Jeff Anderson, a beekeeper. To read more about the lawsuit and contributing accounts, read the New York Times article.