Fresh Ideas: Bee solution is likely to come much too late
March 5, 2014
In January I wrote "Bees Can't Wait for the EPA to Ban Pesticides" knowing there is much more that needs to be said on the subject.
There are 18,000 pesticide products in use in the United States. Neonicotinoids, identified as the ones most harmful to honey bees, account for 25 percent of the global pesticide market. The EPA is not ready to ban any neonicotinoid class of pesticides even though as early as 2007, the National Research Council stated that "The application of pesticides, especially insecticides used to control crop pests, kills or weakens thousands of honey bee colonies in the U.S. each year." And in 2010, the EPA itself noted "Studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis … When bees consume guttation (dewdrops) collected from plants grown from neonicotinoid-coated seeds they encounter death within a few minutes." So, you may well ask, why hasn't the EPA done anything to ban clothianidin's use?
Since the mid-1970s, the EPA has issued regulations restricting the use of only FIVE industrial chemicals out of more than 80,000 in the environment. The EPA doesn't have enough teeth. It's required "to regulate so as to prevent unreasonable adverse effects on people and the environment, taking into account the costs and benefits of various pesticide uses." It's that "take into account the costs and benefits" of pesticide uses that gives industry more clout and undermines the broader issue of health.
Our government, unlike the European Union, is more prone to tolerate risk when it comes to questions of health. In other words, as long as the pesticide industry (or the tobacco industry before it) could raise "scientific questions" regarding studies the EPA or independent scientists made, the "product" in question remained or remains on the shelves. The bar for "conclusive proof" of a product's harm is set higher than the "conclusive proof" required to license the product's use to begin with. At this rate, bees will have to become virtually extinct before there's proof enough to remove the incriminating pesticides from use.
If you were to look inside a hive suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder, this is what you would see: The queen (possibly artificially inseminated and with her wings clipped) still laying eggs, but the hive looks deserted. There is a small cluster of adult bees that live with the queen and care for the brood of immature young bees present, but they can barely do the job. The worker bees that should have returned home have not. There may be a few dead bees in the hive, but they provide no clue to the 400 that are missing.
The "suspects" responsible for the bee die-offs include mites, viruses, funguses, chemicals, genetically modified plants and associated pathogens. Pesticide manufacturers generally blame parasites and pathogens such as the Varroa mite and the Nosema ceranae pathogen. Organic farmers and beekeepers see pesticides (chemicals) as compromising the bees' immune systems, weakening them so they are susceptible to the parasites, viruses, and funguses.
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All bee and insect pollinators contribute to a worldwide crop production worth about $200 billion per year. There are 17,000 species of bees. Thus far, studies have been restricted to honeybees and those studies are not "sufficient" according to the EPA. Think how long it will take to do a thorough job.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.