Bee decline overshadows Endangered Species Act’s 40th anniversary

Beekeeping and environmental groups have sued the EPA over registering a new pesticide linked to bee deaths

This Nov. 6, 2011 photo shows a bee colony run by Adam Finkelstein and Kelly Rausch who are are raising queen bees in Frederick, Md., in attempts to reverse colony collapse disorder.
Linda Davidson/AP

Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act being signed into law; the occasion, however, is being eclipsed by criticisms about whether government agencies are doing enough to protect some species – bees, especially.

A lawsuit, the first to invoke the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in defense of bees, was filed in March by major U.S. beekeeping associations against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its decision to register a new pesticide called sulfoxaflor.

Sulfoxaflor is a new chemical in the same category as controversial pesticides known as neonicotinoids – which scientific studies have shown contribute to mass bee deaths. Several neonicotinoids have been banned in the European Union.

The Pollinator Stewardship Council, American Honey Producers Association, National Honey Bee Advisory Board and the American Beekeeping Federation are among the groups that aim to challenge the EPA's decision in federal court.

On Dec. 13, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a national nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy organization, filed a legal brief in support of the lawsuit.

The disturbing trend of bee deaths, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has led to mass die-offs of pollinators in recent years and could cause an agricultural disaster.

Without pollinators, many fruits and vegetables, such as apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions and almonds, will also disappear.

"Our country is facing widespread bee colony collapse, and scientists are pointing to pesticides like sulfoxaflor as the cause," Attorney Janette Brimmer of Earthjustice, the public interest law organization representing the groups, said in a press release. "The effects will be devastating to our nation's food supply and also to the beekeeping industry, which is struggling because of toxic pesticides." 

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, recognizing that America's natural heritage is of "esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people." It added that many native plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct.

As CFS explained in its legal brief, scientists have linked the drastic declines in honey bees and other pollinators to neonicotinoids, like sulfoxaflor, which the EPA has determined to be "very highly toxic" to bees.

One-third of US bees vanished

Conservationalists worry that the introduction of yet another highly toxic pesticide into the environment will exacerbate the "ecological crisis" that is CCD.

The EPA said in a May 6 press release after it registered sulfoxaflor for public use that the chemical was safe when "used in accordance with the labeling terms and restrictions." The release specifically mentions concerns over pollinators in the release, and argues that "the final label includes robust terms for protecting pollinators."

But there is evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to pollinators even when "used as directed" – such as the largest mass bumblebee die-off ever recorded, which took place this summer in Oregon.

Some 50,000 bees were found dead in a suburban shopping center parking lot in mid-June in Wilsonville, Ore. The cause of death was determined to be a pesticide called Safari, the primary ingredient of which is dinetofuran – a compound in the same class as neonicotinoids, like sulfoxaflor.

About a month later, 37 million bees were found dead in Ontario. One local beekeeper, who lost 600 hives, blamed the heavy use of neonicotinoids on nearby fields where corn had recently been planted.

On Aug. 1, the EPA announced new neonicotinoid labeling requirements that are due to appear on products in 2014. The agency said it is in the process of reviewing several neonicotinoid registrations, which will be completed in 2018.

But beekeepers say the products shouldn't be sold until research is completed. Other scientific research has linked pesticides to CCD, including a March 2012 study published in Science.

Another scientific study published in July in Plos One, an international, peer-reviewed, online publication, said pesticide exposure and pathogens likely interact to contribute to CCD. 

Nearly one-third of all honey bee colonies in the U.S. have vanished, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has said. In some areas of the country, more than 50 percent of bees have disappeared.

There are dozens of neonicotinoid pesticide products, and they are used on approximately 75 percent of all acres planted with food crops –commercial and residential – in the U.S., and on 95 percent of all U.S. corn.

The NRDC links bee deaths to pesticide exposure and adds that the USDA has so far failed to aggressively seek out a solution. Without bees to pollinate many fruits and vegetables, the U.S. could lose $15 billion worth of crops and cause major food shortages, the NRDC said.

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