Bees and Pesticides

I had the opportunity to read a disturbing post over at Garden Rant the other day about the insecticide clothianidin and how the EPA required its producer, Bayer, to run tests on the safety of using plants grown from seeds treated with clothianidin for bees.  Tests which were, apparently, never carried out appropriately.  This post sent me over to another site, AlterNet, which explained the problem in detail.  In a nutshell what happened is that the EPA asked Bayer to run some tests on how its new pesticide might affect bees. Bayer was unresponsive at first, but eventually did run some tests (which were not what you would call robust) which showed that bees did fine when flitting around in a field of plants which came from clothianidin treated seeds  – at least for as long as the test was carried out.

Then one of our commenters asked for our opinion, and heaven knows, I am always more than happy to offer my personal opinion!  So here it is.  I am extremely unhappy with both Bayer and the EPA in this instance.  They didn’t do what they were supposed to do.  It’s as simple as that.  Tests were supposed to be run to demonstrate that it is unlikely that clothianidin affects bees.  This wasn’t done in a reasonable period of time.  Period.  As long as stuff like this occurs nobody is going to trust the EPA or the chemical manufacturers.  In terms of whether the tests were sufficient (basically some hives in a field of treated plants), well, I would have liked to have seen more depth, but they didn’t seem to be bad studies.

The implication is that, because we don’t have enough testing, clothianidin could be causing bee colonies to collapse.  This goes hand in hand with the suspicion that imidacloprid is leading to colony collapse since both of these chemicals are neonicotinoids.  We know that these pesticides can get into flowers where bees come into contact with them.  The question is whether the bees contact enough to cause hives to collapse (There is no question that these chemicals, at some level, are poisonous to bees – just as almost anything can be poisonous to humans at a high enough dose – even water).

One thing that is lost in this discussion is that SEED TREATMENTS were being examined.  A seed treatment is when the seeds which are planted are treated with a pesticide (in this case clothianidin) to protect the seed itself and the young plant from insects.  As the plant grows the insecticide will break down and become diluted – And so it is probably not going to be present at high levels in pollen that the plant (which comes from the treated seed) produces.  Still, there is potential for this to happen and so it is best if the plants which come from the seed are tested – hence the EPA’s request.

Historically, there are pesticides which have clearly and unambiguously lain waste to bee hives, the most infamous of which was Penncap-M.  This was a unique pesticide because it was a microencapsulation of the very dangerous insecticide methyl parathion.  The microencapsulation process made this pesticide last longer, and made it somewhat safer to handle, but it also made the pesticide into tiny little beads – about the same size as, you guessed it, pollen.  In fruit trees in particular this stuff would become attached to the bees (just like pollen does) and you can imagine the disastrous results.  The answer was to limit the use of this poison to certain times of the year and certain situations when bees were not likely to be around.  Why wasn’t it just banned outright?  Because it worked well and, when used appropriately, it didn’t affect bees (Here I’m giving you the official line – In my opinion its use should have been even more restricted than it was).   Penncap-M is not closely related to the neonicotinoids chemically, though it does affect insects’ nervous systems as many insecticides, including the neonicotinoids, do. 

You can count me as one of the people who suspect that the neonicotinoids have something to do with colony collapse.  I’m not a bee researcher — but it is easy to see how the use of these chemicals might weaken a hive to the point where mites or disease could come in.  One of the things that drives me a little nuts though are those people who think that banning neonicotinoids is going to save our bees.  It seems quite obvious at this point that these chemicals are definitely not the sole cause of the disease and perhaps not even one of the major contributing factors.  They essentially banned these pesticides in parts of Europe, and guess what?  They still have bee colonies collapsing.  An interesting side note is that historically large-scale losses of bees isn’t as odd as we might think – in fact, we might have seen this disease (CCD) before.  Perhaps even in the 1800s.  In short, it seems that the answer to this problem is not as simple as banning some pesticides (though restricting their use may be a piece of the solution).  I wish it were.

15 thoughts on “Bees and Pesticides

  1. Thanks for covering this. I too, found the info at Garden Rant and related posts disturbing. I was reluctant to comment or write about it without better understanding, and risk getting in trouble with Linda again :) (back track to that NYTimes article of a few months ago).
    I’m finding it difficult to wade through the real science and mainstream media science that this topic is attracting!

  2. Excellent post, as always! Thank you for giving us the imformation beyond the headlines. And especially thank you for emphasizing that this isn’t a simple problem with a simple fix.

  3. I hope you’ll keep us informed about what (if anything) happens with the EPA on the issue of Bayers non-compliance. It drives me nuts to see the big guys get a provisional license of sorts and then ignore the provisions without repercussions. Of course news on the continuing saga of the bees is always of interest ad well!

  4. Thanks for the hysteric free discussion. Did the tests look for clothianidin in the honey or pollen? If it doesn’t show up there, I doubt it would have much affect on the bees. It is possible to isolate the newly laid down supplies for even a short duration study

  5. There are some scary things here:

    p. 12 — 1.2 Exposure Characterization
    The first sentence: Clothianidin appears to be a persistent compound under most field conditions.

    p. 16 Note that the indicate accumulation in soils after repeated use.

    p. 32-33 Discussion of aerobic soil metabolism data which talks aobut one soil sample was excluded from the data because too little degradation occured to accurately determine a half life.

    p. 36 Aerobic soil metabolism half life of 745 DAYS!
    p. 37 Aerobic aquatic metabolism half life of 526 DAYS!

    p. 44 4.2.1 first paragraph. Clothianidin at 525 ppm in the diet adversely affected eggshell thickness (I assumed thinning, but thickening could also have an adverse effect on hatchability). The dose was high, but who knows how it bioaccumulates in soil and we have no information on bioaccumulation in mammals or birds as the metabolism studies are not included in this assessment. There was no further evaluation of this effect.

    p. 62 clothianidin remains on foliage for days after foliar spraying which endangers bees foraging after sprays.

    p. 63 residues were found in the pollen and nectar (honey???) from bee hives.

  6. Hi Daryl, yep, some scary stuff. But all chemicals have some scary stuff associated with them. The question is where to draw the line. I don’t have the answer, and I don’t envy those who make the decisions about whether or not to label something.

  7. I am far from being a rabid environmentalist, but in a nutshell, Bayer has no ethical standing dating back at least WW II. Why should we expect any differently today?

    PS to the Profs… if you find this inappropriate, please fee free to delete it.

  8. Wes, our philosophy is that everyone is entitled to their opinions whether or not we share them. We won’t delete anyhone’s comments unless they are personal attacks (or spam, for which I patrol relentlessly).

  9. Thanks for this post. I suspect part of what’s going on here is commercial beekeepers grasping at any perceived smoking gun that will permit them to continue their own shoddy practices–overuse of miticides, moving bees thousands of miles, keeping them in monocropped areas, feeding corn syrup etc. That being said I don’t think we should be using neonicotinoids. Why take a chance?

  10. Thanks for your perspective on this issue. I’m deeply disturbed by the EPA’s failure to monitor properly Bayer’s new chemical seed treatment. It makes me wonder what else harmful has been approved that hasn’t been discovered or publicized yet.

  11. Thanks for this article, Jeff. I am a retailer and am increasingly disturbed by the labelled products being put out that include imidacloprid and now clothianidin for homeowner use. I don’t carry them, but you are certainly going to be finding them in ‘big box’ retail stores.
    A big concern I have is that the focus on European honeybees, well-intended as it is, may cause us to overlook the impact of these products on other pollinators and other beneficial insects.
    I believe the required testing is inadequate and the regulatory oversight is insufficient.
    And at this point, with all the approved uses of imidacloprid, I have a basic question for any toxicologist who reads this: how full is the ‘risk cup’ for imidacloprid now?

    Here’s a blog post I did a while back. Any updated info and feedback is welcome.

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