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By Joe Sandler Clarke
The revelations come with the UK set to decide its own policy on pesticide use once it leaves the EU. The UK lobbied against the current EU ban when it was introduced.
Dead bees in a French beekeeping farm.Wikipedia Commons
The company research—designed to reveal the level at which their products harm bees—was obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. environmental regulator.
Publicly, the two firms have often sought to play down suggestions that their products can cause harm to honeybees.
However, the studies will cause little surprise in industry circles. Industry and scientists have long known that the products can harm bees at certain levels.
Instead, the research has been criticized by experts because it assumes a very narrow definition of harm to bee health and ignores wild bees, which evidence suggests are more likely to be harmed by neonicotinoids.
It means the studies may substantially underestimate the impact of the two firm's products on pollinators.
Due to commercial confidentiality rules, Greenpeace Energydesk is not allowed to release the studies in full.
The latest revelations have sparked calls for greater transparency from the industry and regulators to publish data on the impact of pesticides on pollinators used to make—or lobby for—regulatory decisions.
Responding to Greenpeace, Syngenta said it's study was due to be published in a journal—though the company did not give details. Bayer said the study would be discussed at an upcoming conference.
Both firms claimed that whilst the studies did show a risk to honeybees from their products this would only apply at higher concentrations than normally seen in agriculture.
Each study focused exclusively on honeybees, though recent research has shown that the chemicals have a negative impact on wild bees.
Matt Shardlow, chief executive of the charity Buglife, told The Guardian:
"These studies may not show an impact on honeybee health [at low levels], but then the studies are not realistic. The bees were not exposed to the neonics that we know are in planting dust, water drunk by bees and wildflowers, wherever neonics are used as seed treatments. This secret evidence highlights the profound weakness of regulatory tests."
The newly uncovered studies examined the impact of Bayer's clothianidin and Syngenta's thiamethoxam on honeybees at varying concentrations.
Both show that chemicals can seriously harm honeybee colonies at high concentrations, though the effects were less marked at lower levels, concentrations of 50 parts per billion (ppb) and 40 ppb respectively.
"Bayer and Syngenta's commitment to pollinator health should include publishing these data or otherwise making them public," Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University, told Energydesk. "This work presents a rich dataset that could greatly benefit the many publicly-funded scientists examining the issue worldwide, including avoiding costly and unnecessary duplication of research."
In the U.S., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently conducting a review of neonicotinoid pesticides and their impact on pollinator health.
Back in January, the first stage of this review found that imidacloprid, which is made by Bayer, harmed honeybees and suggested it "could potentially take action" to "restrict or limit the use" of the chemical by the end of 2016. The findings of the reviews into thiamethoxam and clothianidin, from which these two studies are taken, are due to be published in 2017.
The unpublished research comes after previous assurances by Syngenta in particular about the impact of its product on pollinators.
On its website, Syngenta states there is "no direct correlation between neonicotinoids use and poor bee health" and "the allegation that neonicotinoids-based pesticides are inherently damaging to bee colonies or populations is not true."
In statements issued to Energydesk last month, the firm added, "None of the studies Syngenta has undertaken or commissioned for use by regulatory agencies have shown that thiamethoxam damages the health of bee colonies and we stand by the integrity of our neonicotinoid product.
The private research did not examine the impact of the product on bee colonies in "normal" conditions. However, other studies have done so.
Last month, a study by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology linked the long-term decline of wild bees in England to the use of neonicotinoids.
A major field study in Sweden last year found that wild bees were badly affected when exposed to fields treated with clothianidin, while honeybees proved more robust.
Energydesk reached out for comment from the EPA, but did not receive a response at press time.
In a statement to Energydesk, a Bayer spokesperson said:
"The study conducted in North Carolina is an artificial feeding study that intentionally exaggerates the exposure potential because it is designed to calculate a "no-effect" concentration for clothianidin. Although the colony was artificially provided with a spiked sugar solution, the bees were allowed to forage freely in the environment, so there is less stress (which can be a contributing variable) than if they were completely confined to cages.
"This protocol was developed jointly by Bayer and the EPA several years ago and it is now being applied to other compounds. Based on these results, we believe the data support the establishment of a no-effect concentration of 20 ppb for clothianidin, which is consistent to that of other neonicotinoids.
"One of our research scientists will make a public presentation next week at the International Congress of Entomology meeting in Orlando, Florida, in which he will discuss the similarities of the findings of these studies, as well as the merits of the new test protocol."
Responding to our story, a Syngenta spokesperson said:
"The EPA asked us to do this study and agreed the methodology. A sucrose based mechanism was used on the basis that it was required to expose bees artificially to Thiamethoxam to determine what actual level of residue would exert a toxic effect.
"There were transient effects observed and the reported No Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) for this study was 50 ppb (parts per billion). It is accepted that residues of Thiamethoxam in pollen and nectar from seed treated crops are in the single ppb level. So this reported NOAEL of 50 ppb indicates that honeybee colonies are at low risk from exposure to Thiamethoxam in pollen and nectar of seed treated crops.
"This research is already in the process of being published in a forthcoming journal and is clearly already publicly available through the Freedom of Information process in the United States."
By Laura Beans
Last week, the beekeeping industry filed legal action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approving a new bee-harming pesticide.
According to Beyond Pesticides, the petitioners—including the National Pollinator Defense Fund, American Honey Producers Association, National Honey Bee Advisory Board, the American Beekeeping Federation, and beekeepers Bret Adee, Jeff Anderson and Thomas R. Smith—filed the suit in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Despite evidence about the harms of the new pesticide, and research questions left unanswered, in May, the EPA approved the full registration of sulfoxaflor. The active ingredient is similar to that of neonicotinoid; it acts on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in insects and causes similarly harmful impacts on bees' brains.
Comments were submitted to the EPA by concerned beekeepers and environmental advocacy groups, stating that approval of a pesticide highly toxic to bees would only exacerbate the problems faced by the honey bee industry and further decimate bee populations, which has already reported unparallelled lows across the globe.
However, according to Pesticide Action Network, the EPA dismissed these concerns outrightly and instead pointed to a need for sulfoxaflor by industry and agriculture groups to control insects resistant to pesticide technologies. The EPA is unable (or unwilling) to act decisively to protect bees, and has instead fast-tracked the new pesticide to market.
"The EPA is charged with preventing unreasonable risk to our livestock, our livelihoods and most importantly, the nation’s food supply," said Bret Adee, a beekeeper at Adee Honey Farms with operations in South Dakota and California—and a petitioner on the case. "This situation requires an immediate correction from the EPA to ensure the survival of commercial pollinators, native pollinators and the plentiful supply of seed, fruits, vegetables and nuts that pollinators make possible."
The suit is filed on the heels of several recently publicized mass bee die-offs. Last month in Oregon, 50,000 bumblebees were found dead after a cosmetic application of dinotefuran—a neonicotinoid pesticide—was applied to ornamental trees while they were in flower. In Canada last week, 37 million bees were found dead in Elmwood, Ontario. Current estimates of the number of surviving hives in the U.S. show that these colonies may not be able to meet the pollination demands of agricultural crops.
With reports to the contrary, the EPA says that none of the objections to sulfoxaflor point to any data “to support the opinion that registration of sulfoxaflor will pose a grave risks to bees,” even though the agency itself acknowledges that sulfoxaflor is highly toxic to bees. The EPA downplayed the effects of sulfoxaflor—which include behavioral and navigational abnormalities in honey bees—as “short-lived.”
The groups are being represented by the public interest law organization Earthjustice. The appeal process through the courts is the only mechanism open to challenge EPA’s decision.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Just as Pollinator Week began last week, an estimated 50,000 bumblebees, likely representing more than 300 colonies, were found dead or dying in a shopping mall parking lot in Wilsonville, OR. Authorities confirmed Friday that the massive bee die-off was caused by the use of a neonicotinoid pesticide, dinotefuran, on nearby trees. Then on Saturday, it was reported by The Oregonian that what could be hundreds of bees were found dead after a similar pesticide use in the neighboring town of Hillsboro.
According to the Xerces Society, this is the largest known incident of bumblebee deaths ever recorded in the country. Bumblebees, which are crucial to the pollination of multiple berry and seed crops grown in the Willamette valley—as well as many other food crops across the country—have recently experienced dramatic population declines, a fate similar to other pollinators.
Dan Hilburn, director of plant programs at the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), told Oregon Live that he’s “never encountered anything quite like it in 30 years in the business.” The incident highlights the difficulty of permitting in commerce such a highly toxic material that indiscriminately kills beneficial insects.
A recent study—an overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides—published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, documents that neonicotinoid persistence in soil and water can cause broad, far-reaching impacts on ecosystem health, much of which has undergone little scientific scrutiny. The author asserts that world leaders have failed to meet their commitment made at the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity—to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss. David Goulson, Ph.D, of the University of Sussex, author of the study, points to neonicotinoids as a potential cause of this failure, due to their long-term persistence in soil and water. He specifically points to soil dwelling insects, benthic aquatic insects, grain-eating vertebrates and pollinators as being in particular danger from the use of these chemicals.
The ODA and Xerces Society had been working together to investigate the pesticide poisoning. After interviewing the landscaping company that maintains dozens of ornamental trees around the parking lot, the ODA investigators learned that Safari, a pesticide product with the active ingredient dinotefuran, had recently been applied on June 15 to control aphids. Dinotefuran is a neonicotinoid pesticide that is highly toxic to bees; the product’s label strictly forbids its use if bees are in the area.
Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, noted that the pesticide was applied to the tree while it was flowering, an action that violates the product’s instructions.
“Beyond the fact that a pesticide was applied to plants while they were attracting large numbers of bees, in this case the pesticide was applied for purely cosmetic reasons. There was no threat to human health or the protection of farm crops that even factored into this decision,” stated Black.
Neonicotinoids, including dinotefuran, can be broadly applied as a spray, soil drench or seed treatment, however, the ability of these chemicals to translocate through a plant as it grows has led to the creation of a large market within chemical-intensive landscaping and agriculture. Once these systemic pesticides are taken up by a plant’s vascular system, they are expressed through pollen, nectar and guttation droplets from which pollinators such as bees then forage and drink. Neonicotinoids kill sucking and chewing insects by disrupting their nervous systems.
Beginning in the late 1990s, these systemic insecticides also began to take over the seed treatment market. Clothianidin and imidacloprid are two of the most commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides. Both are known to be toxic to insect pollinators, and are lead suspects as causal factors in honey bee colony collapse disorder. An extensive overview of the major studies showing the effects of neonicotiniods on pollinator health can be found in Beyond Pesticides’ What the Science Shows.
Several different crops in the Willamette valley of Oregon rely heavily on the pollination services provided by bumblebees. Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and crop seed production, which are grown in Oregon, all rely on bumblebees for pollination. Mace Vaughn, pollinator conservation program director with the Xerces Society, told Oregon Live, “Bumblebees are the single most important natural pollinator in Oregon.”
In the midst of the all the attention that is focused on the loss of honey bees and colony collapse disorder, wild pollinator losses are often overlooked. Pesticide risk mitigation measures intended to protect honey bees do not always constitute risk mitigation for other pollinators like bumblebees because they have different foraging practices, social structures and genetics. Minimal research has also been done on pesticide toxicity for wild pollinators.
This massive bee death marked an unfortunate beginning to National Pollinator Week, which was first declared in 2006 by Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to raise awareness about the global decline of many pollinator species. During Pollinator Week and year round, Beyond Pesticides urges communities to come together to highlight the importance of pollinators through public education, the creation of pollinator friendly habitats and other important activities, while hundreds of actions to support pollinators took place across the U.S.
Though pollinator week is over, there are still many ways that you can get involved and help protect pollinators, from providing bee habitat in your yard, to keeping bees in your backyard or simply choosing to eat organic foods. Beyond Pesticides’ BEE Protectivecampaign has all the educational tools you need to help pollinators.
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By Paul Towers
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Last week, the term “bee-washing” emerged in public conversation. It doesn’t refer to some new bee cleaning service, but to the insidious efforts of Monsanto and other pesticide corporations to discredit science about the impacts of pesticides on bees—especially neonicotinoids—by creating public relations tours, new research centers and new marketing strategies.
This week, pesticide makers are showcasing these tactics during National Pollinator Week with offers of free seed packets to people who take their poorly named “pollinator pledge.” The “bee-washing” term has gained traction as scientists and groups like Pesticide Action Network (PAN) continue to cut through the misinformation and point to the emerging body of science that points to pesticides as a critical factor in bee declines.
Monsanto hosted their first so-called Honey Bee Health Summit last week, a gathering at the company’s headquarters in Missouri. Without question, some truly smart, dedicated scientists attended Monsanto's bee summit and are participating in these efforts.
And a similarly committed group of beekeepers who care about bees, beekeeping and our food system have also participated. What’s increasingly clear, though, is that the credibility of these individuals is being used to shield the agenda of a handful of pesticide corporations and their bee-harming insecticide products. The corporate public relation gymnastics on display are truly impressive.
Unfortunately, Monsanto is not alone in its efforts. Just this spring, Bayer sponsored a tour of its “specially-wrapped beehicle” and hosted a talk at Ohio State University in March, over loud objections from local beekeepers.
Industry has largely set its sights on one issue to blame for bee declines. While lack of sufficient forage and diseases are a challenge to bee health and beekeeping, challenges exacerbated by the weakening effect of pesticides on bees, the pesticide industry has focused a large proportion of its attention on the varroa mite. And it’s an easy distraction that places the burden of unprecedented bee losses on beekeepers—while subverting any blame for the widespread pesticide products.
Unfortunately for Monsanto & Co, and as most beekeepers and academics will say, the varroa mite has been around a long time, predating dramatic bee declines in the U.S. that started in 2006. While mites no doubt affect bee colonies, they are unlikely the primary driver of population declines.
There is a correlation, however, between the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides (or neonics) on the market and bee die-offs. Independent studies show—and beekeepers corroborate from hands-on experience—that these pesticides weaken bees' immune systems, likely damaging their resistance to common challenges like the varroa mite.
Neonics are one of the largest growth sectors for the pesticide industry. And industry has a vested interest in keeping the neonic market growing. But we know that spin efforts to refocus attention on varroa mites were already attempted in Europe, and the approach has been largely unsuccessful. The European Union just put continent-wide restrictions on the use of neonics in place.
Pesticide corporations don’t show any sign of letting up. If this spring and summer are any indication, then the “bee-washing” campaign will continue. Beekeepers will remain the victims of this targeted public relations campaign.
And the costs of are very real. Earlier this month, Jim Doan—a third generation commercial beekeeper from upstate New York—literally sold his farm due to bee losses. For years, he produced over half a million pounds of honey annually and eventually grew his business to 5,300 hives. But when neonicotinoid pesticides started being commonly used in the U.S., around 2006, Jim's bees started dying.
He’s experienced serious losses to bees he brought to citrus groves in Florida and the cornfields of New York. And now, he only has 300 hives left. In an email he circulated last week, he wrote: “I am done. I cannot continue. Sold my farm 2 weeks ago, I am giving up, there is no hope here."
Bees are continuing to die off at unprecedented rates and beekeepers are going out of business. There is clearly something amiss—and the pesticide industry would have us believe that their products play no part in this alarming trend. PAN, beekeepers and our partners will continue to shine a light on corporate "bee-washing" and spin efforts to subdue or obfuscate the growing body of science pointing to this clear message: Pesticides are playing a key role in bee deaths.
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By Rex Weyler
We know what is killing the bees. Worldwide Bee Colony Collapse is not as big a mystery as the chemical companies claim. The systemic nature of the problem makes it complex, but not impenetrable. Scientists know that bees are dying from a variety of factors—pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming and so forth. The causes of collapse merge and synergize, but we know that humanity is the perpetrator, and that the two most prominent causes appear to be pesticides and habitat loss.
Biologists have found over 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen, a deadly "pesticide cocktail" according to University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen. The chemical companies Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, DuPont and Monsanto shrug their shoulders at the systemic complexity, as if the mystery were too complicated. They advocate no change in pesticide policy. After all, selling poisons to the world's farmers is profitable.
Furthermore, wild bee habitat shrinks every year as industrial agribusiness converts grasslands and forest into monoculture farms, which are then contaminated with pesticides. To reverse the world bees decline, we need to fix our dysfunctional and destructive agricultural system.
Apis mellifera—the honey bee, native to Europe, Africa and Western Asia—is disappearing around the world. Signs of decline also appear now in the eastern honey bee, Apis cerana.
This is no marginal species loss. Honey bees—wild and domestic—perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but the best and healthiest food—fruits, nuts and vegetables—are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world's nutrition, are pollinated by bees.
Tonio Borg, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, calculates that bees "contribute more than €22 billion ($30 billion U.S. dollars) annually to European agriculture." Worldwide, bees pollinate human food valued at more than €265 billion ($350 billion). The bee collapse is a challenge to human enterprise on the scale of global warming, ocean acidification and nuclear war. Humans could not likely survive a total bee collapse.
Worker bees (females) live several months. Colonies produce new worker bees continuously during the spring and summer, and then reproduction slows during the winter. Typically, a bee hive or colony will decline by five to 10 percent over the winter and replace those lost bees in the spring. In a bad year, a bee colony might lose 15-20 percent of its bees.
In the U.S., where bee collapse first appeared, winter losses commonly reached 30-50 percent and in some cases more. In 2006, David Hackenberg, a bee keeper for 42 years, reported a 90 percent die-off among his 3,000 hives. U.S. National Agriculture Statistics show a honey bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60 percent reduction.
The number of working bee colonies per hectare provides a critical metric of crop health. In the U.S., among crops that require bee pollination, the number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90 percent since 1962. The bees cannot keep pace with the winter die-off rates and habitat loss.
Europe Responds, U.S. Dithers
In Europe, Asia and South America, the annual die-off lags behind the U.S. decline, but the trend is clear, and the response is more appropriate. In Europe, Rabobank reported that the annual European die-offs have reached 30-35 percent and that the colonies-per-hectare count is down 25 percent. In the 1980s, in Sichuan, China, pear orchard pesticides obliterated local bees, and farmers must now pollinate crops by hand with feather dusters.
A European Food Safety Authority scientific report determined that three widely used pesticides—nicotine-based clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam—pose "high acute risks" for bees. These neonicotinoid pesticides—used in soils, on foliage and embedded in seeds—persist at the core of the toxic pesticide cocktail found in bee hives.
A Greenpeace scientific report identifies seven priority bee-killer pesticides—including the three nicotine culprits—plus clorpyriphos, cypermethrin, deltamethrin and fipronil. The three neonicotinoids act on insect nervous systems. They accumulate in individual bees and within entire colonies, including the honey that bees feed to infant larvae. Bees that do not die outright, experience sub-lethal systemic effects, development defects, weakness and loss of orientation. The die-off leaves fewer bees and weaker bees, who must work harder to produce honey in depleted wild habitats. These conditions create the nightmare formula for bee colony collapse.
Bayer makes and markets imidacloprid and clothianidin; Syngenta produces thiamethoxam. In 2009, the world market for these three toxins reached over $2 billion. Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto and DuPont control nearly 100 percent of the world market for genetically engineered (GE) pesticides, plants and seeds.
In 2012, a German court criminally charged Syngenta with perjury for concealing its own report showing that its genetically modified corn had killed livestock. In the U.S., the company paid out $105 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for contaminating the drinking water for more than 50 million citizens with its "gender-bending" herbicide Atrazine. Now, these corporate polluters are waging multi-million-euro campaigns to deny responsibility for bee colony collapse.
In May, the European Commission responded, adopting a two-year ban on the three neonicotinoid pesticides. Scientists will use the two years to assess the recovery rate of the bees and a longer-term ban on these and other pesticides.
Meanwhile, the U.S. dithers and supports the corporations that produce and market the deadly pesticides. In May, as European nations took action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the neonicotinoid pesticides, in spite of a U.S. Department of Agriculture report warning about the dangers of the bee colony collapse.
Also in May, President Obama, signed the now infamous "Monsanto Protection Act"—written by Monsanto lobbyists—that gives biotech companies immunity in federal U.S. courts from damages to people and the environment caused by their commercial compounds.
Common sense actions could restore and protect the world's bees. Experienced bee keepers, apiculturists, farmers, the European Commission and the Greenpeace report, Bees in Decline have outlined these solutions:
- Ban the seven most dangerous pesticides
- Protect pollinator health by preserving wild habitat
- Restore ecological agriculture
Ecological farming is the over-arching new policy trend that will stabilize human food production, preserve wild habitats and protect the bees. The nation of Bhutan has led the world in adopting a 100 percent organic farming policy. Mexico has banned GE corn to protect its native corn varieties. In January, eight European countries banned GE crops, and Hungary has burned over a 1,000 acres of corn contaminated with GE varieties. In India, scientist Vandana Shiva and a network of small farmers have built an organic farming resistance to industrial agriculture over two decades.
Ecological or organic farming, of course, is nothing new. It is the way most farming has been done throughout human history. Ecological farming resists insect damage by avoiding large monocultures and preserving ecosystem diversity. Ecological farming restores soil nutrients with natural composting systems, avoids soil loss from wind and water erosion, and avoids pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
By restoring bee populations and healthier bees, ecological agriculture improves pollination, which in turn improves crop yields. Ecological farming takes advantage of the natural ecosystem services, water filtration, pollination, oxygen production and disease and pest control.
Organic farmers have advocated better research and funding by industry, government, farmers and the public to develop organic farming techniques, improve food production and maintain ecological health. The revolution in farming would promote equitable diets around the world and support crops primarily for human consumption, avoiding crops for animal food and biofuels.
The plight of the bees serves as a warning that we still may not quite understand ecology. Ecological farming is part of a larger paradigm shift in human awareness. The corporate denialists appear just like the Pope's shrouded inquisitors in 1615, who refused to look through Galileo's telescope to see the moons of Jupiter. Today's denialists refuse to recognize that Earth's systems operate within real limits. However, the state religion in this case is money, and the state religion won't allow it. The denialists cling to the presumed right to consume, hoard, and obliterate Earth's great bounty for private profits. But hoards of money won't reverse extinction, restore lost soils or heal the world's bee colonies.
A great reckoning awaits humanity if we fail to awaken from our delusions. Earth's delicately balanced systems can reach tipping points and collapse. Bees, for example, work within a limited range of marginal returns on the energy they exert to collect nutrition for their colonies. When winter bee deaths grow from 10 percent to 50 percent, the remaining bees are weakened by toxins, and the wild habitats shrink that thin, ecological margin of energy return can be squeezed to zero. Surviving bees expend more energy than they return in honey. More bees die, fewer reach maturity and entire colonies collapse. This crisis is a lesson in fundamental ecology.
Rachel Carson warned of these systemic constraints 50 years ago. Ecologists and environmentalists have warned of limits ever since. Bee colony collapse now joins global warming, forest destruction and species extinctions among our most urgent ecological emergencies. Saving the world's bees appears as one more necessary link in restoring Earth to ecological balance.
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