A team based at the University of Vermont has produced a national map of 139 counties in which wild bee populations are at risk where they are most needed to pollinate the fruits and vegetables most Americans need to eat more of.
The red and purple shaded areas of the map below cover several of the most intensively farmed regions in the country, like California’s San Joaquin Valley and the Columbia River Basin in Washington State.
Both areas account for substantial shares of the nation’s fresh and processed fruit and vegetable supply, and the pollinators in both regions (wild and managed) have to contend with widespread use of neonicotinoid (neonics) insecticides. A recent piece in ScienceDaily entitled “Bee decline threatens US crop production” explains how the map was generated, and the serious consequences if current trends continue.
But do the neonics really harm bees? After all, the major manufacturers of them – Bayer and Syngenta – have submitted hundreds of studies they designed that show no substantial risk. They remain certain that the neonics do not harm pollinators when used properly in accord with label directions. And the U.S. EPA continues to allow their widespread use, despite years of data gathering and evidence in prominent, peer-reviewed journals reporting serious adverse impacts on bee populations.
What gives? The answer lies within the above noted phrase – neonics do not harm pollinators when used properly in accord with label directions. The labels for all neonic foliar insecticides and seed treatments contain multiple warnings to the effect that this product is extremely hazardous to bees, do not apply at a time or in a way when bees might come into contact with the insecticide.
But since neonics are systemic, they move into plants and then are spread by the plant’s vascular system throughout all plant tissues – from roots, to stems, leaves, nectar, pollen, fruit or grain, and even guttation droplets (you get a brownie point if you know what a guttation droplet is).
So, the warnings by Bayer and Syngenta to not use the products in a way that will harm bees shifts the burden for any damage to bees from themselves, and their super-toxic-to-bees products, to the farmer and/or applicator. They were the ones who, according to the companies, obviously did not follow label directions if pollinators were harmed as a result of an application. How clever, and how sad, that this ruse has stood the test of time for over two decades.
Perhaps science will finally expose the real harm being done and compel the EPA to act. A team in the U.K. studied the impact of neonic seed treatments on wild bees from 1994-2011 and report “increased population extinction rates in response to neonicotinoid seed treatment use on oilseed rape” (Woodcock et al 2016).
EPA’s opportunity to take meaningful action on the neonics will unfold in 2017-2018, as shown in this neonic review schedule. As part of this effort, the EPA has recently issued draft ecological risk assessment documents on the neonics that, among other things, document the extensive reliance by farmers on neonic seed treatments. DTN Progressive Farmer covered some of EPA’s major findings in a piece entitled “Seed Treatment Numbers: New Documents Detail Extensive Use of Neonic Seed Coatings.” In short, the seed planted on close to 200 million acres of cropland in the U.S. every year – about two out of every three – are coated with a neonic seed treatment.
It is hard to imagine how EPA scientists and regulators will be able to withstand the big ag forces that will defend the status quo to the last breath. Many farmers and farm organizations will weigh in heavily in support of continued use, and claim that fruits and vegetables will become much more expensive, if not disappear from store shelves without them.
The companies will, of course, stick by their science, which shows no real reason for concern, and they will reap the benefits of their many generous grants and gifts to university scientists and entomology departments. And last but surely not least, there will be the Trump effect.
For those wanting to learn more about the impacts of neonics, and efforts over many years to reduce the risks faced by pollinators, see our Pollinator Health section. We have also covered some recent science about the risk to human health posed by neonics in this Hot Science item, and Dr. Benbrook adds his perspective in this Hygeia’s Blog piece.
University of Vermont, “Bee decline threatens US crop production: First US wild bee map reveals 139 ‘trouble zone’ counties,” ScienceDaily, February 19, 2017.
EPA, “Pollinator Protection: Schedule for Review of Neonicotinoid Pesticides,” 2017, Access at: https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/schedule-review-neonicotinoid-pesticides
Ben A. Woodcock, Nicholas J.B. Isaac, James M. Bullock, David B. Roy, David G. Garthwaite, Andrew Crowe, Richard F. Pywell, “Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England,” Nature Communications, August 16, 2016.