Scientists have now shown that imidacloprid, a popular pesticide from a class called neonicotinoids (or neonics for short), kills honey bees and is likely at least partially responsible for colony collapse disorder. CCD is the mass die off of honey bee colonies over the past decade that could have a disastrous effect on agricultural crops that rely on bee pollination to reproduce.
It’s one thing for scientists to prove this causal link between the pesticide and CCD, but quite another to convince government agencies to enact regulations to protect the bees’ health, our health, and the environment in general. But wonders never cease: On January 4, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the riveting report “Preliminary Pollinator Assessment to Support the Registration Review of Imidacloprid,” which concludes that imidacloprid “poses risk to hives when the pesticide comes in contact with certain crops that attract pollinators.” The EPA examined 75 existing peer-reviewed studies to form their conclusion, which is that a “safe residue threshold” of 25 parts per billion is called for.
Not too shockingly, the EPA is a Johnny-come-lately to the party. The European Food Safety Authority banned certain neonics (including imidacloprid and its cousins thiamethoxam and clothianidin) in 2013.
Imidacloprid is pervasive, with over $1 billion in sales in 2009. It was originally manufactured and sold by Bayer CropScience, a leader in genetically modified agricultural seed, but the patent has expired and it is now sold by many companies under many different brand names. Imidacloprid, like all neonics, is chemically related to nicotine and is a neurotoxin that interferes with the central nervous systems of insects, but not mammals.
Imidacloprid is used in levels harmful to honey bees on many U.S. cotton and citrus crops. The pesticide is less harmful to bees on corn and leafy vegetable crops, because those crops do not produce nectar, which is how the chemical is transmitted to the bees.
What about the rest of the neonics: acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam? The EPA is getting to them. In fact, bowing to pressure from scientists and environmentalists, the EPA has accelerated its evaluation of all these pesticides. Imidacloprid was evaluated first because of its ubiquity. The rest will be evaluated in a process that began in 2012 and should be complete by 2018. Despite the massive publicity CCD and pesticide use has received in the past few years, however, congressional efforts to halt the use of neonics haven’t gotten far. Environmental groups petitioned the EPA to suspend use of clothianidin, which was denied, and the “Save American Pollinators Act” to ban four neonics was sent to a congressional committee in 2013, where it died, like so many other worthy causes.
Neonics were first developed in the 1980s and reached the consumer market in the mid-1990s. That is, within recent history. The fact that it took only ten years for them to have a major impact the environment suggests that perhaps not enough research was done before they were sprayed all over an unsuspecting world.
Given that agriculture has existed for about 10,000 years, this sudden absolute need for pesticides seems somehow . . . unnatural. Look at this chart:
It begs the question: How in the world did we grow anything before 1994? Also, What happened between 2009 and 2010 that caused a sudden surge in use? The other terrifying piece of information in this chart is that green part of the column. That’s how much imidacloprid is used on U.S. soybean crops. What happens to the bees that haunt those fields? Well, we don’t know yet. According to Mother Jones environmental writer Tom Philpott, “soy remains an information black hole.” While soybeans don’t depend on honey bees for pollination, Philpott writes:
The EPA assessment notes that soybeans are “attractive to bees via pollen and nectar,” meaning they could expose bees to dangerous levels of imidacloprid, but data on how much of the pesticide shows up in soybeans’ pollen and nectar are “unavailable,” both from Bayer and from independent researchers. Oops. Mind you, imidacloprid has been registered for use by the EPA since the 1990s.
The takeaway from all of this is that the heavy use of neonics is disproportional to our knowledge about their effects on bees. According to a 2012 study published by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, neonics are highly toxic to honey bees and some other types of bees, but “there is no direct link demonstrated between neonicotinoids and the honey bee syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). However, recent research suggests that neonicotinoids may make honey bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens, including the intestinal parasite Nosema, which has been implicated as one causative factor in CCD.” I’m no apiologist, but if neonics contribute to a cause of CCD it seems like evidence enough to sound the alarm. According to USDA data, beekeepers lost 42 percent of their honey bee colonies between 2014 and 2015. While the number of colonies collapsing during the winter months has declined significantly since its peak around 2006, many more colonies are collapsing during the summer months, a new phenomenon.
The data is out there. If the proof of neonics’ safety was as stringent get them onto the market as it is to get them off it, they would have never been approved in the first place.