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Advocates of the American Bumblebee won an oh-so tiny victory recently when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW) announced it would consider adding it to the endangered species list.  

For those too busy to keep track of what's been happening to bees in general, and the American Bumblebee in particular, the little critters are being absolutely obliterated by Big Ag pesticides from companies including Bayer AG and Syngenta. And that's a big deal because bees pollinate a bunch of fruits and vegetables in your local grocery.  

A Center for Biodiversity petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made no bones about how it views pesticides:

“...Neonicotinoid use has increased significantly since 2014 and represent the largest contribution to toxic loading for bees in the landscape...Even with some countries banning or phasing out neonicotinoids, in July 2019, the EPA granted new approvals for the relatively new neonicotinoid sulfoxaflor to be used on a massive scale on ornamental plants and crops that are highly attractive to pollinators...existing pesticide regulation does not provide an adequate regulatory mechanism for protecting this or any other native pollinator species...” 

The petition also points out the American Bumblebee faces significant survival pressure from habitat loss, disease and the changing climate. A virtual cauldron of death.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will take a year to decide whether the American Bumblebee follows the Rusty Patch Bumblebee, which was granted endangered species status (ESS) in 2017. But if you think ESS will guarantee the bumblebee's survival you would be sadly mistaken. The Fish and Wildlife Service found that the Rusty Patch population is just 13% of what it was two decades ago and now is found in just 0.1% of its historical range. 0.1% full stop.

Despite those dire numbers, the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to grant the Rusty Patch critical habitat status which would have afforded the bee additional protections. The Center for Biodiversity has sued the FWS, essentially making the argument that the agency is wrong to rule the Rusty Patch Bumblebee can survive anywhere, including presumably my hall closet.

“...the Service found that designating critical habitat would not be prudent because “it would not be beneficial to the species”... the Service's application gives unprecedented and unlawful breadth to the “not prudent” exception and cannot be reconciled with Congress's intent.”

How that lawsuit is resolved is anybody's guess but what is clear is both pesticide law and the culture at agencies are stacked against the bumblebee. 

As part of its recovery plan for the Rusty Patch Bumblebee, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued this steaming pile of whatnot as its plan to protect the bee from pesticides:

Successful minimization measures may include the following:

a. Conduct population-specific pesticide assessments and risk analyses.
b. Conduct research on sources, exposure, and impacts of pesticides.
c. Implement pesticide minimization measures (for example, create pesticide registry
programs, implement pollinator-safe labeling on nursery plants, establish buffers around populations, implement integrated pest management).
d. Provide outreach and education to the public and agricultural community.

That's a word salad that essentially is a whole lot of nothing. Many of these activities have gone on for years. Busy (bee?) work. And the bee population continues to shrink.

To its credit, the Environmental Protection Agency in January 2020 dipped a tentative toe into pesticide usage with publication of an interim registration review decision for neonicotinoids. Risk assessments of neonicotinoids are now underway with targeted completion this year. Perhaps EPA will follow the science and not the wishes of Big Ag.  One could hope.

Still, saving the Rusty Patch and American bumblebees will require a major course correction. Nibbling around at the edges of the problem is doomed to fail. The 116th Congress saw the introduction of H.R. 7940, the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act. If signed into law, the bill would have likely phased out neonicotinoid usage. Proponents of the measure will be introduced again this term. 

Big Ag has mixed up hundreds of products containing some combination of neonicotinoids. And as soon as one toxic pesticide is deregistered by EPA others spring up to replace it in a never-ending cycle. Well, it's time to break the cycle before agriculture creates unwanted consequences that might one day impact the food supply.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

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 Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.