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Leaked Memo Sheds Light on Mysterious Bee Die-Offs and Who's to Blame

The culprit may be a pesticide that the EPA has allowed on the market despite the fact that the company which makes the pesticide has failed to prove it is safe.

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About four years ago, Theobald saw his winter losses climb again, to 30 to 40 percent. It was around that time that a Pennsylvania beekeeper, David Hackenberg, lost two-thirds of his hives and began investigating. Ultimately, he identified and made public the problem now called Colony Collapse Disorder. Theobald recognized the symptoms described by Hackenberg as what he had observed in his own hives: the bees would mysteriously disappear, and the empty hive would go weeks without bees from other hives coming to rob all of the honey. "Normally," says Theobald, "that would be unheard of."

Beekeepers around the world who experienced the same mysterious problem began looking for causes, and they all came to the same conclusion: neonicotinoid pesticides were behind CCD. When Theobald checked his hives in the fall of 2006, he found that the brood nests (the area where larva are kept) were smaller than usual. He says they should have been the size of a basketball, but instead they were the size of a grapefruit. In 2007, he did a more thorough investigation and found many hives with no brood at all. That meant that, after the summer bees died off (as they usually do), there would be no winter bees to replace them and to keep the colony going throughout the winter.

It appeared that the queen had stopped laying eggs around mid-September, and the larva from eggs laid before were dying. In early November, the queens began laying eggs once again. Theobald suspected that contaminated corn pollen, collected in August and stored, would have been fed to the larva and to the queen (as royal jelly) when the number of flowers declined and the bees needed to use their stored pollen, around mid-September. The contaminated pollen would have killed the larva and caused the queen to stop laying. With no bees to carry the hive through the winter (or a few bees, who might not survive), the entire colony dies.

With similar findings, some countries, like France, Germany, and Italy, banned or restricted the use of neonicotinoids. The U.S. did no such thing. In fact, as beekeepers questioned the safety of clothianidin, a neonicotinoid registered in 2003, the Bush EPA stonewalled and refused to provide Bayer's study demonstrating the safety of clothianidin to bees, even after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued over the EPA's failure to comply with the FOIA. Around the same time, Theobald made an amazing discovery on the internet.

Theobald found the missing study, along with incriminating EPA memos showing their mishandling of clothianidin's registration. The first memo, dated February 20, 2003, says, "Considering the toxicity profile and reported incidents of other neonicotinoids (e.g. imidacloprid), the proposed seed treatment with clothianidin has the potential for toxic risk to honey bees, as well as other pollinators." The scientists recommended requiring a study that spanned the entire life of a worker bee to test clothianidin for toxicity to the workers (as well as to the queen) prior to allowing the product on the market.

Two months later, on April 10, 2003, the EPA scientists amended their request (presumably after their first request was denied), calling for the registration of clothianidin on the condition that the study was completed soon thereafter. In May, the EPA granted the conditional registration. In March 2004, Bayer requested an extension for the study, which was granted. However, the new May 2005 deadline passed and the study was not submitted. Bayer also requested -- and was granted -- permission to perform its study in Canada on canola (a minor crop in the U.S.), with no test performed on corn.

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