Canada, Europe act, but Trump administration doesn’t give a flying damn
OTTAWA, WASHINGTON D.C.––Bees busily harvesting pollen from almost every flowering plant as the summer of 2018 fades seem oblivious to the buzz against neonicotinoid insecticides, even as the pitch rises to screams everywhere else from down on the farm to courtrooms and the halls of government.
It isn’t just about bees, after all, or all bees, for that matter.
The afflicted bee species, as Genetic Literacy Project writer and contrarian Jon Entine points out, are not the be-all and end-all of crop pollination, since rapidly breeding more bees to replace those lost to any source of mortality is easily accomplished by professional beekeepers.
Threat to other animals, too
But among many of the 2,000-odd wild bee species who have evolved specialized adaptations to feed from and pollinate specific plants, neonicotinoid insecticides may pose a mortal threat. This translates into a threat to those plant species, as well, and to whatever other animals depend upon them for food and habitat.
That makes neonicotinoid insecticides perhaps the leading food chain issue of our time, or any time.
Chemically related to nicotine, a plant-produced compound that discourages insect attacks on leaves and helps to make tobacco deadly to humans, neonicotinoids may influence the survival of vastly more species than were afflicted by DDT, for example, even though food chain build-ups of DDT residues put bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and many other predatory birds on the first edition of the U.S. endangered species list.
More damaging than DDT?
Most species reduced to endangerment by DDT have long since recovered. Those at risk from neonicotinoid insecticide use have barely begun to be tallied, since the threat itself has been recognized for barely ten years.
Only seven Hawaiian yellow-faced bee species, the only bees native to Hawaii, and the rusty-patched bumble bee, added to the U.S. endangered species list in 2017, enjoy federal protection. The population status of most wild bee species is unknown, having never been surveyed or estimated.
Introduced by the Swiss chemical firm Bayer AG in 1985, neonicotinoid insecticides were acclaimed at the time as much less harmful to birds and mammals than insecticides in the much older organophosphate and carbamate chemical families.
Neonicotinoid insecticides over the next 30 years came to be by far the most used category of agricultural chemicals––but proved to be entirely too effective against too many insects, killing not only those who ravage crops but also those, especially bees and butterflies, who pollinate them.
“Colony Collapse Disorder”
Among the first hints that neonicotinoid insecticides might be a growing ecological problem was an April 2007 report from the Apiary Inspectors of America that about six million of the 2.4 million honeybee colonies in the U.S. had experienced recent population drops.
The “Colony Collapse Disorder,” as it came to be known, turned out to have multiple causes, including the effects of drought driven by global warming on flowering field crops, other extreme weather events, and varroa mites, “a honeybee scourge for more than three decades,” recently summarized Alan Bjerga for Bloomberg News.
But the problem is continuing––and getting worse.
40% of hives died
“Beekeepers in the U.S. reported an increase in honeybee deaths over the last year,” wrote Bjerga in April 2018. “U.S. beekeepers said 40 percent of their hives, also called colonies, died unexpectedly during the year that ended March 31, 2017 according to a survey by researchers from Auburn University and the University of Maryland. That’s up from 33% a year earlier.
“The survey had 4,794 responses from beekeepers in all U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia who collectively manage more than 175,000 colonies, 6.6 percent of the managed-bee population,” Bjerga wrote.
Disputing the significance of those findings, Genetic Literacy Project writer Jon Entine observed a 13.1% increase in the number of managed bee colonies between 2007 and 2012, according to USDA data.
Bee numbers up––but that isn’t the issue
“The overall population of honeybees in the US, Canada and Europe has held steady or increased slightly since the widespread adoption of neonics in the 1990s,” Entine reported. “The U.S. honeybee population hit a 22-year high in 2016, and globally is at an all-time high.”
The chief significance of “Colony Collapse Disorder” in the neonicotinoid insecticide saga, however, is not that neonicotinoid insecticides proved to be among the leading causes of farmed honeybee deaths, but rather that investigating the possibility turned up the evidence that neonicotinoid insecticides are devastating wild bee populations.
Unlike farmed bee colonies, wild bee colonies cannot be rapidly rebuilt by stimulating breeding in a protected environment. Wild bee colonies must rebuild themselves––and newly hatched bees must be able to survive and thrive in essentially the same habitat where their predecessors failed, if they are to keep doing the same work of pollinating wild flowering plants.
European Union acts
“Neonicotinoid pesticides protect crops against pests such as aphids by blocking receptors in the insects’ brains—paralyzing and killing them,” explained Claire Asher in the August 15, 2018 edition of Science magazine. “In small doses, the pesticides aren’t lethal to larger creatures, including mammals, birds, and even bees. But they can wreak havoc on bees’ abilities to navigate, find food, reproduce, and form new colonies. That kind of data convinced the European Union to ban the outdoor use of five neonicotinoid pesticides in April 2018.”
With 40% of invertebrate pollinators in drastic decline, the European Union had already restricted use of neonicotinoid insecticides in 2013.
Canada may soon restrict neonicotinoid use, but in a less sweeping manner.
Health Canada proposes restrictions
Announced Health Canada on August 15, 2018, “Following special reviews for two neonicotinoid pesticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has found that these substances are being measured at levels that are harmful to aquatic insects. These aquatic insects, which are a source of food for fish, birds and other animals, are an important part of the ecosystem. Based on these findings, Health Canada is proposing to phase out all outdoor agricultural and turf uses for clothianidin, and all outdoor agricultural and ornamental uses for thiamethoxam in the next three to five years.”
Observed Robert Arnason, writing for the Western Producer farm trade journal, but also a frequent contributor to the generally pro-industry Genetic Literacy Project, “Nearly every canola seed and corn seed in Canada, and a portion of soybean acres, are coated with a neonicotinoid prior to planting. If Health Canada does proceed with the phase-out, Canada would become the first country in the world,” but probably not the last, “to ban neonicotinoid insecticides because of a risk to aquatic insects.”
The Western Producer, in a separate article, reported the finding of University of Guelph researcher Nigel Raine that bumblebee queens exposed to the neonicotinoid pesticide thiamethoxam are 26% less likely to lay eggs to start new colonies.
Published by the peer-reviewed journal Nature Ecology & Evolution in August 2017, this discovery has ominous implications for some of the less prolific bee varieties, which nonetheless are the top pollinator in many places where farmed honeybees are seldom if ever seen.
U.S. neonicotinoid regulation, meanwhile, has recently gone backward.
Trump appointee allows neonicotinoids on wildlife refuges
The Health Canada announcement came a week after the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety on August 8, 2018 filed a notice of intent to sue the Donald Trump administration for abruptly reversing a 2014 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decision to prohibit the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and genetically modified pesticide-resistant crops on national wildlife refuges.
Greg Sheehan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting director from January 2018 until August 16, 2018, “unilaterally withdrew the 2014 agency decision last week without first assessing threats to protected plants and animals on or around the wildlife refuges, as required by the Endangered Species Act,” the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety publicists Hannah Connor and George Kimbrell charged in a joint media release.
Appointee was voice of trophy hunters
“The policy reversal means,” Connor and Kimbrell said “that national wildlife refuges are now immediately authorized to allow the use of neonicotinoid pesticides despite their well-documented harm to endangered wildlife like the red knot, American burying beetle, Rio Grande silvery minnow and many other imperiled animals and plants.”
Sheehan in his letter of resignation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted as his leading achievement “opening more than 380,000 acres of our refuge system to new hunting, fishing, and other recreational uses.”
“A member of the Safari Club,” reported The Hill, Sheehan was a key figure in the Trump administration’s push last fall to overturn an Obama-era ban on elephant trophy imports from a number of African nations. Sheehan first made the announcement that FWS was releasing a finding to overturn the ban at a Safari Club event in Tanzania in November. Following public outrage and a few tweets from President Trump promising to put a halt on the decision, the administration later announced it would allow imports in on a ‘case by case’ basis.”
California goes the other way
The Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety moved to sue the Trunp administration over neonicotinoids a week after Nathan Donley of the Center for Biodiversity issued a media release spotlighting “a new analysis by California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation,” which “found that current approved uses of ‘neonics’ on crops like tomatoes, berries, almonds, corn and oranges exposes bees to levels of the pesticides known to cause harm.
“Earlier this year,” Donley reminded, “California announced that it would no longer consider any applications by pesticide companies that would expand the use of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides in the state.”
Neonicotinoid relatives no safer
Ahead is the question of what might replace neonicotinoids, a question which would eventually have plagued agribusiness even if no ecological or regulatory issues were involved.
“Some insects have developed resistance to neonicotinoids in recent years,” wrote Claire Asher in her August 15, 2018 Science article. “In the search for an alternative, scientists hit on sulfoximine, a group of neonicotinoid-related chemicals that act on the same class of receptors in the insect brain but can dodge the enzymes that offer insects some resistance.
“But sulfoximine is starting to court the same controversy as its predecessor,” Asher wrote. “Despite being approved for use in China, Canada, and Australia, a French court last year suspended licensing for two sulfoximine-containing products, citing environmental concerns including potential toxic effects on bees.”