Last year, beekeepers and environmental organizations took to the court in what was to be one of the first legal efforts to protect declining bee populations. The move was bold: Citing the Environmental Protection Agency’s purview over the approval of a class of chemical pesticides called neonicitinoids (neonics), they sued the EPA for circumstances that they say led to Colony Collapse Disorder. The suit maintained that through the approved use of pesticides like clothianidin and thiamethoxam, the EPA failed to prevent conditions that have led to mass deaths of bees and untold financial losses for beekeepers.
This year, Canadian beekeepers in the province of Ontario launched a similar tact. Rather than targeting Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, (PMRA) the class-action suit was launched against two pesticide manufacturers, Bayer Cropscience and Syngenta Canada Inc., which they say were “negligent in their design and development of the neonicitinoid pesticides.” It also blamed the companies for continuing to distribute and sell the chemical pesticides “because they knew or ought to have known … that [neonics] would cause damage to the property of the Plaintiffs.”
Both suits take advantage of growing research that shows that plants synthesize this new type of pesticide and pass on low levels of the chemicals to other species through contact. Bees, which extract pollen from the affected plants, are particularly susceptible to the poisons. And this risk, the litigants say, was already known or suspected early on in the development or the regulatory review of these chemicals.
The insecticide industry has a different explanation for the collapse: mites. The Varroa mite, which can be found in Ontario, “weakens bees and could lead to a devastating colony loss during the stressful wintering period.”
What is interesting is that bees (and beekeepers of course) have been dealing with mites for more than a century. Varroa mite infestations go back at least to the turn of the 20th century. And yes, beekeepers have continued to deal with mite issues successfully through the use of dips, formic acid and other approaches for years. Environmentalists point out, however, that neonics -- which are derived from nicotine -- were first developed in the 1990s, shortly before Colony Collapse Disorder was really documented to have gained momentum.
To understand a bit more about why a pesticide that is absorbed into a plant would be blamed for the rapid die-off of bees, I reached out to a beekeeper who, like many small bee farmers in Western Canada, deals with the seasonal challenges of this industry: my brother Jeff Lee. Jeff and his wife Amanda, with the help of lots of industrious honey bees, produce honey on the outskirts of Vancouver, British Columbia.
It’s always handy to have a beekeeper in the family, not just for the ample honey supply, but also for picking the brain on what often seems to be a complex issue.
What isn’t often discussed, says Jeff, is the method of transmission -- which isn’t just through the pollen, but also through the way the pesticide is applied.
The pesticide is applied through the use of talc, which the bee can then unwittingly transfer into the hive.
“In Ontario last year, some beekeepers also lost hives due to neonic-laden talcum dust that was blown up when farms used corn seeders,” said Jeff.
Recent findings suggest that the exposure to this talc has a greater effect on the health of the hive than was earlier suspected. Researchers who examined hives in a 2012 study reported that “clothianidin was found on all the dead and dying bees … while the apparently healthy bees we sampled from the same locations did not contain detectable levels of clothianidin.”
And the collapse may be only one indicator of problems to come. In January of this year, a biologist blamed the contamination of Canada’s prairies on a neonic pesticide used to treat agricultural stocks. The Prairie Provinces are Canada’s breadbasket and a vital link to the country's economy. According to Christy Morrissey, a biologist with the University of Saskatchewan, 44 percent of the area she reviewed was being treated with neonics, and residue from the pesticide found in Saskatchewan marshes were estimated to be at least three times the level that are considered tolerable by many species of insects. The finding, says Morrissey, who is still in the midst of her research, is worrying for birds that rely upon the insects, as well as the species that feed on the treated plants.
At this point, all quarters that have expressed concern about neonics are urging a ban on the chemical pesticides. Litigants in the U.S., as well as those who have joined forces in the Ontario class-action suit, say they want to see neonics pulled from the market and more research done on the implications of their use.
And those who have done the background research, Jeff says, have already realized that the real issue at hand won’t be solved just by banning or withdrawing a particular class of pesticides.
“One thing to keep in mind … is that while neonics are considered a growing problem they are not nearly as severe and unfocussed as the more dangerous organophosphate pesticides that have also created large problems.”
It's a point that was also raised recently by British Columbia's provincial apiculturalist, Paul Van Westendorp, who has said more research needs to be done before banning neonics outright. Organophosphate pesticides, which include some classes of nerve agents, don't seem to be a practical alternative for a food industry that is only now beginning to discover the implications of yesterday's chemical pesticides.
Image credit: Honey bee: Rakib Hasan Sumon
Disclosure: This post included an interview of a family member, Jeff Lee. Pretty smart guy for a younger bro, and not a bad beekeeper, either.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.