Why New Pesticides are Putting Bees at Risk


Valley_Photographs / Flickr


Jay Feldman is a cofounder of EarthShare member charity Beyond Pesticides and has served as its director since 1981. In this, the second of our two-part series (read Part 1 here), Feldman talks about his concern about pesticides like clothianidin that have been in the news recently for their detrimental impacts on honeybees.

EarthShare: Why is clothianidin harmful to bees? What crops is it used most heavily on?

Jay Feldman: Clothianidin is an insecticide which is toxic to a range of insects, including many pollinators. The most common effects to honey bees exposed to clothiandin are sub-lethal in nature, meaning that the bees will not die from exposure to the chemical alone, but that it will injure them to a degree that it makes it difficult or impossible for them to perform essential tasks. It is thought that the chemical can weaken the bees’ immune systems, making it harder to fight off viruses and parasites which can have more direct and immediate effects on health and mortality. 

The most common application method is to actually coat the crop seeds with the substance before they are planted. Then, when they germinate, the pesticide literally becomes part of the entire plant pollen. When the bees land on the plant and gather the pollen, they are exposed to the chemical, and if they bring the pollen back to the hive, the rest of the colony becomes exposed as well.

There is also increasing evidence that bees are exposed to clothiandin during the planting season, even before the plants containing the chemical have grown. Several studies have shown that dust which is expelled from mechanical seed planters while planting treated seeds is laced with large amounts of clothianidin. When bees fly though this dust, they become coated with the chemical and begin to suffer adverse effects.

Clothianidin is currently registered for use as a seed treatment on corn and canola seed. Although these crops don’t require pollination, they do produce pollen and are often visited by bees whose hives are located nearby. Despite the fact that honey bees aren’t used commercially to pollinate corn, by virtue of its sheer prevalence (corn covers 88 million acres of U.S. farmland), this crop accounts for a large portion of honey bee nutrition and exposure, and nearly all U.S. corn is treated with systemic insecticides such as clothianidin.


What's the status of the drive to ban Clothianidin?

A petition has been filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by Beyond Pesticides and several other environmental groups on behalf of commercial beekeepers. The petition seeks to have the agency immediately suspend any use of clothianidin and more thoroughly study its effects on pollinators.

When the pesticide was first licensed (“registered”), EPA only allowed it to go ahead on the condition that the manufacturer, Bayer, submit data concerning the chemicals effects on the health of pollinators, namely honey bees. However, in the nine years since it was first registered, there has been no adequate data on pollinator effects submitted to EPA and the agency has simply allowed the chemical to achieve full, unconditional registration. Thus, the agency has failed to follow its own requirements and has seriously endangered the U.S. population of honey bees and the U.S. food system as a result.

Beekeepers and environmental advocates are asking EPA to respond to the petition within 90 days of its filing (by mid-June 2012) and are hoping that the agency will recognize the dire situation that has arisen as a result of allowing the use of this chemical.


What other pesticides most concern you right now?

We are concerned about a broad range of toxic pesticides that have adverse effects on human health and the environment. Pesticides in the organophosphate and synthetic pyrethroid families are particularly problematic because they are neurotoxic and have effects on the neurological and endocrine systems as a result of low-dose exposure.

While EPA has reduced the use of organophosphates in the residential environment, they are still used in agriculture, for mosquito control and on golf courses. Synthetic pyrethroids, which include pesticides like bifenthrin, cause detrimental effects on organ systems well after exposure in the developmental phases of life. EPA’s model for testing has been high-dose chemical exposure, ignoring the implications of toxic mechanisms that work in miniscule doses. We also are seeing studies that link the synthetic pyrethroids to learning capacity and autism.

In addition to specific chemical effects, the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically engineered (GE) crops has resulted in increasing dependency on pesticides. These crops are designed to be tolerant of herbicides, so that more pesticides can be used in the cultivation of the crops without fear of crop damage.

The most well-known GMO crop has been “RoundUp-Ready” corn, which allows the widespread use of the pesticide glyphosate. But, as the weeds have become resistant to the chemicals, new pesticide-tolerant crops are being developed. The latest is 2,4-D tolerant corn, which will increase the use of one of the most notorious chemicals, Agent Orange. While the other chemicals in Agent Orange were banned years ago, 2,4-D has a hazardous track record of its own, linked to cancer among farmers who use it.

In the end, these GMO system increase pesticide dependency and force a continuation of the pesticide treadmill, as chemical strategies try unsuccessfully to overwhelm nature. If you think this is just an agricultural issue, stay tuned for the newly developed genetically engineered grass seed that will soon be widely available.


How can EarthShare readers help protect bees and other wildlife?

Once EPA formally publishes the petition to ban clothianidin in the Federal Register, it will seek input from the public on the issue. You will have a chance to submit a public comment supporting the goals of the petition and urging the agency to take action to protect pollinators from this toxic chemical. Stay tuned to www.BeyondPesticides.org for important updates on how you can voice your thoughts to EPA.

Closer to home, managing your lawn and garden organically provides pollinators, as well as other wildlife, with a safe habitat and food source. Visit our website to pledge your property as a pesticide-free, bee-friendly habitat, and find out more about actions you can take to protect pollinators.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Rita Webb

Thanks for this information. I was aware of some of it but this article drove it all home for me. Agent Orange?!?! I will be on the lookout for the petition.

Joy Grant

This is the website of a non-profit bee research group located in Maine. Dr. Butzlof was able to take the first X-ray and first MRI of a bee. For additional information go to www.brinc.org

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.