Oh, so maybe that’s what happened to the honey bees

The world’s bee population, as we’ve discussed here many times, appears to be plummeting. And, as you might imagine, it’s kind of a big deal, seeing as how a huge percentage of our crops require pollination. So, scientists have been working diligently these past few years to figure it out. The culprit, we’ve been told, could be anything from a new strain of virus to the transmissions of cellular phones. According to an EPA document leaked recently, however, the real reason may be pesticide. The following clip comes from Fast Company.

The world honey bee population has plunged in recent years, worrying beekeepers and farmers who know how critical bee pollination is for many crops. A number of theories have popped up as to why the North American honey bee population has declined–electromagnetic radiation, malnutrition, and climate change have all been pinpointed. Now a leaked EPA document reveals that the agency allowed the widespread use of a bee-toxic pesticide, despite warnings from EPA scientists.

The document, which was leaked to a Colorado beekeeper, shows that the EPA has ignored warnings about the use of clothianidin, a pesticide produced by Bayer that mainly is used to pre-treat corn seeds. The pesticide scooped up $262 million in sales in 2009 by farmers, who also use the substance on canola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat, according to Grist.

The leaked document (PDF) was put out in response to Bayer’s request to approve use of the pesticide on cotton and mustard. The document invalidates a prior Bayer study that justified the registration of clothianidin on the basis of its safety to honeybees:

Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct RQ based risk assessments on non-target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects…

[Tonight’s post is brought to you by Operation Leak Spin.]

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  1. The Exterminator
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Well, that certainly is some spin on that leak, that’s for sure. Here’s what comes after the section quoted:

    An incident in Germany already illustrated the toxicity of clothianidin to honeybees when allowed to drift off-site from treated seed during planting.

    Stop right there: that’s drift toxicity to bees, not toxicity based on bees taking in the pollen of treated seeds. Big difference. I can think of few broad-spectrum pesticides that won’t kill honeybees due to drift. However, this does not necessarily mean the whole hive will be affected. I can tell you from experience that it can be annoyingly difficult to get rid of a honeybee hive in a building while injecting insecticides DIRECTLY INTO the nest. Drift exposure would be significantly less likely to cause hive collapse in most cases.

    However, they do go on to say that the previous study regarding Clothianidin’s potential to affect whole hives due to drift was deemed deficient once new info came to light:

    A previous field study (MRID 46907801/46907802) investigated the effects of clothianidin on whole hive parameters and was classified as acceptable. However, after another review of this field study in light of additional information, deficiencies were identified that render the study
    supplemental. It does not satisfy the guideline 850.3040, and another field study is needed to evaluate the effects of clothianidin on bees through contaminated pollen and nectar. Exposure through contaminated pollen and nectar and potential toxic effects therefore remain an uncertainty for pollinators.

    No cover-up, just deficiencies in the old study. Conclusion uncertain. They need a new study. Not the same thing as an ignored warning AT ALL, and not the same thing as being certain that Clothianidin drift is likely to wipe out whole hives AT ALL.

    EFED expects adverse effects to bees if clothianidin is allowed to drift from seed planting equipment. Because of this and the uncertainty surrounding the exposure and potential toxicity through contaminated pollen and nectar, EFED is recommending bee precautionary labeling.

    Summary: though they don’t know for sure, they expect that contaminated pollen/nectar due to drift may kill honeybees, so they recommend putting a precautionary statement to that effect on the label.

    A precautionary statement on the label, just in case drift may kill honeybees, is NOT the same thing as pulling an insecticide off the market altogether because it’s proper use is the cause of colony collapse disorder.

    I see nothing in this document which implies that seeds properly treated with insecticide will produce polin/nectar that is toxic to honeybee hives. All that they are saying is that drift of the pesticide from seed planting equipment MAY be toxic to honeybees. A mere precautionary statement would not affect the use of the insecticide beyond possibly telling applicators or planters how and when they can plant treated seeds to minimize drift, if that. As you’ll see below, the honeybee precautionary statement does not even do that.

    Here are their specific label recommendations, if you don’t believe me:

    Label Recommendations

    Manufacturing Use Product

    Do not discharge effluent containing this product into lakes, streams, ponds, estuaries, oceans, or other waters unless in accordance with the requirements of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and the permitting authority has been notified in writing
    prior to discharge. Do not discharge effluent containing this product to sewer systems without previously notifying the local sewage treatment plant authority. For guidance contact your State Water Board or Regional Office of the EPA.

    End Use Products

    This product is toxic to aquatic invertebrates. Do not apply directly to water or to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below the mean high-water mark. Do not contaminate water when cleaning equipment or disposing of equipment washwaters. Do not apply where runoff is likely to occur. Runoff from treated areas may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in neighboring areas. Apply this product only as specified on the label.

    This chemical has properties and characteristics associated with chemicals detected in ground water. The use of this chemical in areas where soils are permeable, particularly where the water table is shallow, may result in ground water contamination.

    This compound is toxic to birds and mammals. Treated clothianidin seeds exposed on soil surface may be hazardous to birds and mammals. Cover or collect clothianidin seeds spilled during loading.

    This compound is toxic to honey bees. The persistence of residues and potential residual toxicity of Clothianidin in nectar and pollen suggests the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual instability of the hive.

    So you can read their honeybee precautionary statement directly above. It has no teeth, and no use restrictions. The difference that this “leaked” document would have made on the use of Clothianidin on seeds? ZERO. Just a few sentences on a label, that’s it.

  2. M.C. Crack Rock
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    So we are just using stuff and not knowing what it is really doing.
    Oh, Exterminator, that is completely different.
    I feel much better.

  3. Knox
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    The exterminator lobby monitors this site now?

  4. Edward
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    If we find that we really need bees, the free market will find a way to provide them for us. Maybe we’ll have robotic bees with tiny advertisements on their sides. You people just need to be patient.

  5. Anonymatt
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the bees should remind the American people of their necessity through a P.R. campaign. There could be a musical group of bees called The Honeybees which could sing a song called “You Need Me.”

  6. mSS
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I remember when this story was big a couple of years ago people kept referring to a quote attributed to Einstein about how the world would starve in five years without bees, and I always wondered, what the hell does Einstein know about bees?

  7. The Exterminator
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been skimming online for pictures of commercial seed treatment equipment that this chemical would be used in… they look pretty self contained. Drift appears very unlikely.

    I’m not a farmer, but I bet that farmers are aware of how important honeybees are for pollination, seeing as how it’s their livelihood. But if you don’t trust me to have more expertise on insecticide labeling than you do, I’d wager you wouldn’t trust farmers to have more expertise on farming than you do.

  8. Farmer Jax
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I am a farmer. You can trust me because I am posting a comment on a blog under the name “Farmer.”

    As a farmer, I can assure you that I read labels with the same diligence as diabetics read the labels of Metformin and with the same diligence that borrowers of balloon payment mortgages had when signing the loan agreements that led to their foreclosure.

    I am also a diabetic, am facing foreclosure, and drive a Toyota. I also voted for Bush, realized my mistake, and voted for Obama. Now I am Tea Party.

    Trust me, because I am a farmer. Omnipotent and immune to any errors of judgment on farming.

    This is a good principle to apply to any profession; doctors, lawyers, politicians, hair stylists, mechanics. Trust the title, not the person, I say. And I’m a farmer.

  9. Paw
    Posted December 14, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Nothing to worry about anymore. The honeybee killer has been identified and eradicated.


  10. Meta
    Posted December 14, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Regulatory capture

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Regulatory capture occurs when a state regulatory agency created to act in the public interest instead advances the commercial or special interests that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure, as it can act as an encouragement for large firms to produce negative externalities. The agencies are called Captured Agencies.

    For public choice theorists, regulatory capture occurs because groups or individuals with a high-stakes interest in the outcome of policy or regulatory decisions can be expected to focus their resources and energies in attempting to gain the policy outcomes they prefer, while members of the public, each with only a tiny individual stake in the outcome, will ignore it altogether. Regulatory capture refers to when this imbalance of focused resources devoted to a particular policy outcome is successful at “capturing” influence with the staff or commission members of the regulatory agency, so that the preferred policy outcomes of the special interest are implemented.

    Regulatory capture theory is a core focus of the branch of public choice referred to as the economics of regulation; economists in this specialty are critical of conceptualizations of governmental regulatory intervention as being motivated to protect public good. Often cited articles include Bernstein (1955), Huntington (1952), Laffont & Tirole (1991), and Levine & Forrence (1990). The theory of regulatory capture is associated with Nobel laureate economist George Stigler, one of its main developers.

    The risk of regulatory capture suggests that regulatory agencies should be protected from outside influence as much as possible, or else not created at all. A captured regulatory agency that serves the interests of its invested patrons with the power of the government behind it is often worse than no regulation whatsoever.

  11. Posted December 26, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    The articles on the virus/fungus combination were very convincing, wish I could find the link to the one I read in the NY Times, I believe. But while there are undoubtedly pesticides that harm bees, I think it’s mainly interesting how conspiracy theories fail to die no matter how many facts are presented. (See birthers, anti-vaccine crowd, 9/11.) Facts simply do not matter to many people who have arrive at a conclusion before collecting the evidence.

  12. Loriann Bashinelli
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    If I’m not mistaken, the Honey Bees never made it off the island.

    (Comment left in the memory of Sherwood Schwartz.)

  13. Asenath Waite
    Posted August 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Any post that includes the phrase “what the hell does Einstein know about” always leaves me LOLing!

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