Monday, June 6, 2011

The Bee Problem

This is a first - the first post on Cookistry that wasn't written by me. This appeared in the Left Hand Valley Courier and was written by my friend Liz Emmett-Mattox. She gave me permission to republish it here.

Although the article was written about a local beekeeper, the story is relevant world-wide. The bee population in many areas is declining and beekeepers are struggling to keep their hives viable.

Bees aren't important just for their honey (which, I'll admit, is tasty) but we need those darned bees to pollinate our crops. If we lose too many bees, we're going to lose a lot of human food.

Here's the article:

Many people love to see the cornfields growing in this area. It's part of what gives Niwot that rural feel. But it's entirely possible that these cornfields are a source of a toxic insecticide that is responsible for devastating honeybees in our area and across the country.

Tom Theobald has been raising bees for over 35 years and has watched his hives suffer tremendous winter losses over the last few years. When he got curious and started looking for the cause, the trail led him to a particular class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides that disrupt the central nervous systems of pest insects. But since they are systemic, the insecticide is released into every part of the plant, including the pollen and nectar that honeybees consume.

Theobald became convinced that this group of insecticides was a serious threat to the honeybee population and published his findings this summer in Bee Culture, calling clothianidin the "Deepwater Horizon" of agriculture.

In his article, he took the EPA to task for both bad science and bad policy, arguing that this pesticide should never have been granted approval because the safety studies were flawed, and the EPA's own regulatory process failed to catch a harmful product before it was put into widespread use.

After the publication of his article, an EPA scientist contacted Theobald and told him that the EPA had come to the same conclusion about the original study and sent Theobald a copy of a November 2010 memo about the issue. This is the so-called “leaked” memo put Theobald at the center of growing network of organizations calling on the EPA to pull clothianidin off the market until scientifically sound studies can be completed.

photo by Liz Emmett-Mattox
The story actually began nearly a decade ago when Bayer (the German chemical company) submitted an application for clothianidin, a new kind of neonicotinoid. Clothianidin was granted conditional approval in April 2003 on the basis of a study that was very limited in terms of assessing the impact on honeybees.

The company was supposed to complete a more thorough study by the end of the 2003 to receive full approval. This full study was not completed until 2007, during which time more and more farmers were using the pesticide on their crops.

Theobald criticized EPA management for the delays in getting a full assessment of clothianidin, but he is even more disturbed that the study itself, once it was finally completed, was deeply flawed.

First of all, instead of testing the pesticide on corn, and in the United States (as required by the original EPA conditions), it was tested on canola in Canada.

Second, the study consisted of putting bee hives in fields with 1 hectare of canola from treated seed, but the bees were about to forage over thousands of acres of untreated canola in bloom. In his article, Theobald gave the analogy of testing the effect of a noxious weed on cattle by planting 2 acres of the weed, but allowing the cattle to roam freely over 2000 acres of lush grassland. He asked, "How significantly do you think that noxious weed is going to be represented in their diet?"

Yet this study was declared "scientifically sound" by EPA scientists. Theobald wrote, "They [the EPA reviewers] should be embarrassed, and this makes a mockery of science."

As it turns out, when Bayer asked the EPA to approve further uses for clothianidin, EPA scientists re-visited the study and agreed that it was not sound.

In a memo from November 2010, EPA scientists wrote: "A previous field study investigated the effects of clothianidin on whole hive parameters and was classified as acceptable. However after another review of this study in light of additional information, deficiencies were identified that render the study supplemental. It does not satisfy the guideline, and another field study is needed ..."

When Theobald received this memo, he started sharing its contents with beekeepers and others who had been concerned about pesticides and their impact on the environment, kicking up a storm of protest in the process.

In December 2010, the National Honeybee Advisory Board, American Beekeeping Federation, American Honey Producers Association, Beyond Pesticides, Pesticide Action Network North America and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a letter asking the EPA to issue a stop use order on clothianidin and to set a moratorium on conditional registrations for products based on incomplete evidence.

Theobald and others concerned about the effect of pesticides in general and clothianidin in particular thought that the fact that the EPA's own scientists called into question the validity of the study would prompt the EPA to remove this product from the market until its safety could be established, but so far this has not happened.

The official EPA response was, "While this study was thought to be invalid as cited by the above groups, EPA reevaluation of the study determined that it contains information useful to EPA's risk assessment."

Theobald took this to mean that the EPA was not considering re-evaluating its approval of clothianidin, much less taking immediate action to take it off the market. For Theobald, this amounts to a dismal failure of EPA’s responsibility to protect the environment. “Instead of protecting the environment, they are using the environment as the experiment.”

It should be noted that several European countries have suspended the use of all neonicotinoids. Italy, which had seen significant bee mortality in hives near treated corn crops since 1999, banned the use of these pesticides in 2008, and in 2009 saw zero cases of bee mortality in apiaries near non-treated corn crops.

The stakes are huge. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating approximately one-third of all the food crops grown in the United States. Commercial beekeepers such as Theobald are essential to the food chain. But as Theobald said, “This goes far beyond the bees.”

Dutch Toxicologist Henk Tennekes has documented bird losses in areas treated with systemic pesticides, indicating concern that the lethal effects of these chemicals travel up the food chain.

Even if clothianidin were pulled off the market tomorrow, Theobald said we might not be out of the woods. Clothianidin can contaminate both surface water and groundwater, potentially affecting pollen producing plants far from the original source of application. And, Theobald said, “This chemical has a half-life of 19 years.”

As a commercial beekeeper who works closely with industrial-scale farmers, he is not one to call for a wholesale prohibition on insecticides. He just wants to make sure that the approval of these products is based on sound science, suggesting that the studies need to be done with the help of experienced beekeepers.

When asked what he thinks will happen with the EPA, Theobald said he doesn’t know. “I think that massive public pressure is the only hope. The thing that people really need to do right now is to educate themselves about this issue. This is a national and international issue, and the better understanding people have, the better solutions we’re going to be able to come up with.”

For more information, see the Boulder County Beekeeper’s Association website which has links to his original article, the letter written to the EPA, the EPA’s response, interviews and other documents at