The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that three of the nation's most-used neonicotinoid pesticides pose significant risks to commercial honey bees. But in a second decision, which represents a deep bow to the pesticide industry, the agency refused to restrict the use of any leading bee-killing pesticides despite broad evidence of their well-established role in alarming declines of pollinators.
The EPA analysis indicates that honey bees can be harmed by the widely-used pesticides clothianidin, thiamethoxam and dinetofuran. The agency also released an updated assessment for a fourth leading neonicotinoid—imidacloprid—showing that in addition to harms to pollinators identified last year, the pesticide can also harm aquatic insects.
Yet on the same day the EPA revealed the dangers these pesticides pose to pollinators, it reversed course and backed away from a proposed rule to place limited restrictions on use of the bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides when commercial honey bees are present in a field. Instead, the agency announced voluntary guidelines that impose no mandatory use restrictions.
"It's outrageous that on the same day the EPA acknowledged these dangerous pesticides are killing bees it also reversed course on mandating restrictions on their use," said Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Environmental Health program. "This is like a doctor diagnosing your illness but then deciding to withhold the medicine you need to cure it."
Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides known to have both acute and chronic effects on honey bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinator species, and they are a major factor in overall pollinator declines. These systemic insecticides cause entire plants, including their pollen and nectar, to become toxic to pollinators. These chemicals are also slow to break down and they build up in soil, where they pose an especially grave threat to thousands of species of ground-nesting native bees. In November the largest and most comprehensive ever global assessment of pollinators found that 40 percent of pollinating insects are threatened with extinction, naming neonicotinoids as a significant driver of wild pollinator declines.
"The new policy does virtually nothing to protect America's thousands of declining native bee species or to curb the escalating use of these harmful neonicotinoid pesticides across hundreds of millions of acres in the United States," said Burd. "It's shocked that the EPA's response to the crisis of declining pollinators and the abundant science linking that decline to neonicotinoid insecticides is to meekly offer a policy encouraging industry to consider restricting pesticide use in limited situations where plants are blooming while commercial honey bees have been brought in to work the fields. This is a rejection of science that should be deeply troubling to all Americans as we move into a Trump administration."
Neonicotinoids have already been banned by the European Union and in 2016 they were banned on all U.S. national wildlife refuges due to their harmful impacts on wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Canada has also proposed a ban on a neonicotinoid because of its unacceptable threats.