You probably haven’t thought much about honey bees. It’s not a subject likely to come up at a dinner party (with the possible exception of how the heck do you get them to stop building a hive inside your mailbox).  

But bees – better known as pollinators in agricultural circles – are critical to crop production.  USDA estimates that bees pollinate roughly 90 odd U.S. crops including apples, peaches, plums, strawberries avocados, green beans, cotton, tomatoes grapes and a host of other nuts and flowering veggies.  

It is no exaggeration to say that if bees were to go extinct Starbucks would be out of business.

So it was a real slap in the face when the latest annual nationwide survey from the University of Maryland found bees dying at an alarming rate.  

The UM survey showed U.S. beekeepers lost 40.7 percent of their bee colonies from April 2018 to April 2019.  Even more concerning is that winter losses for the same period were 37.7 percent – the highest since the survey began 13 years ago.  Yikes.

So to state the obvious:  the sky is blue, water is wet, and bees are responsible for much of the food we eat.

On the face of it keeping bees healthy should be job one for multinational agricultural companies.  But it hasn’t worked that way. As it turns out some pesticides produced by Bayer AG, Syngenta, and Valent to target aphids and other unwanted insects unfortunately impact bee colonies.  

These pesticides damage bees ‘ central nervous systems, resulting in death.

There is also growing anecdotal evidence that Bayer AG’s dicamba pesticide – already being heavily litigated in the U.S. for crop losses, is a bee killer as well.

In May 2017 a federal judge ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency broke the – specifically the Endangered Species Act – when it approved 59 pesticides containing thiamethoxam and clothianidin.

And in May 2019 in the settlement of a lawsuit brought by beekeepers and environmental advocacy groups EPA pulled a dozen pesticides containing chemicals harmful to bees.

That’s progress, right?  Not so much. Because at the cancellation ten of the products had nearly identical formulations.  And there are literally hundreds more products containing clothianidin and thiamathoxam still on the marketplace.

Which brings us to earlier this month when EPA published in the federal register its proposed Interim Decisions for Several Neonicotinoid PesticidesEPA also has its own web page on the proposal including  reviews of acetamiprid, clothianidin/thiamethoxam, imidacloprid, and dinotefuran.

EPA’s proposed rule makes it clear that neonicotinoids put bees at risk and puts forth recommendations to change how those pesticides are applied as well as warning labels stating:This product is moderately toxic to bees and other pollinating insects exposed to direct treatment, or to residues in/on blooming crops or weeds. Protect pollinating insects by following label directions intended to minimize drift and reduce risk to these organisms.”

Certainly beekeepers would have liked to see neonicotinoid pesticides outright banned.  But given the political climate and pending lawsuits it’s extremely unlikely. In 2014 the Obama administration issued a blanket ban on spraying neonicotinoids in National Wildlife Refuges. The POTUS Interior Department rolled that ban back and now there’s a lawsuit – Biological Diversity v. Bernhardt – in which plaintiffs argue the reversal failed to follow procedures in the National Environmental Procedure Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act. Is a world without bees more likely or less likely than a century ago?  Public comment to EPA’s interim neonicotinoid pesticide rule closes on April 3.  As I am writing this on February 10, EPA has received zero public comments.  Zero, nadda, zippo. Bee-ware.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dikcey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

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