EPA Violating Duty Protect Environment by Keeping Bee-Toxic Pesticides on Market


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has revealed its plan to register the toxic chemical sulfoxaflor, in the face of overwhelming evidence that it negatively affects bee populations. This decision is the final result of a long-fought legal battle over the chemical’s registration, spearheaded by beekeepers and public health organizations concerned with what has been identified as EPA’s inadequate and flawed pesticide review processes.

The agency claims that amendments made to the original registration, such as reducing the number of crops for which use is permitted or only allowing post-bloom applications, will protect pollinators. However, scientific studies have shown that there is no way to fully limit exposure to bees, especially native species that exist naturally in the environment, given that the chemical, being systemic, is found in pollen, nectar, and guttation droplets.

Given the evidence of harm related to sulfoxaflor’s use, as well as its demonstrated lack of need, advocates maintain that the agency’s decision to issue an amended registration violates its duty to protect human health and the environment.

Sulfoxaflor’s initial 2013 registration was challenged by beekeepers and subsequently vacated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals due to overwhelming risks to bees and EPA’s inadequate review of the data. Last September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unequivocally rejected EPA’s registration of sulfoxaflor.

The Court concluded that EPA violated federal law when it approved sulfoxaflor without reliable studies regarding the impact that the insecticide may have on honey bee colonies. By vacating EPA’s unconditional registration of the chemical, sulfoxaflor could no longer be used in the U.S. This decision was issued, at least in part, as a response to a suit filed by beekeepers challenging EPA’s initial registration of sulfoxaflor, which cited the insecticide’s threat to bees and beekeeping.

The case was Pollinator Stewardship Council, American Honey Producers Association, National Honey Bee Advisory Board, American Beekeeping Federation, Thomas Smith, Bret Adee, Jeff Anderson v. U.S. EPA (9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, No. 13-7234). As a result of this favorable holding, a similar lawsuit was filed by European beekeepers, who asked the European Court of Justice to take the same action.

Sulfoxaflor, the chemical at issue, is a relatively new active ingredient, registered in 2013, whose mode of action is similar to that of neonicotinoid pesticides. Even though it has not been classified as a neonicotinoid, it elicits similar neurological responses in honey bees, with many believing that sulfoxaflor is the new generation of neonicotinoid.

Neonicotinoids, as well as sulfoxaflor, are “systemic” insecticides, which means that they are applied to plants, they are absorbed and distributed throughout the plant, including pollen, and nectar. Sulfoxaflor was previously registered in the U.S. for use on vegetables, fruits, barley, canola, ornamentals, soybeans, wheat and others, but the amended registration removes citrus, cotton, cucurbits, soybeans and strawberries from that list.

This reduction, though aimed at protecting pollinators, comes up short. Like nenonicotinoids, sulfloxoflor has a long half-life and persists in soil, where it is taken up by growing plants, presenting itself in the nectar and pollen that pollinators rely on for food. Because it can last in the environment into the next growing season, efforts to protect pollinators by mitigating measures, such as not spraying while crops are in bloom, do not do enough to protect bees.

In an effort to stop the amended registration from going through, public comments were submitted by concerned beekeepers and environmental advocacy groups, like Beyond Pesticides, that stated that approval of a pesticide highly toxic to bees would only exacerbate the problems faced by an already tenuous honey bee industry and further decimate bee populations.

However, EPA dismissed these concerns and instead pointed to a need for sulfoxaflor by industry and agriculture groups for justification, claiming they need it to control insects no longer being controlled by increasingly ineffective pesticide technologies. The comment period closed earlier this summer, and the recently issued amended registration indicates that the concerns of beekeepers and environmental groups were not addressed, as EPA believes these restrictions will “practically eliminate exposure to bees on the field, which reduces the risk to bees below EPA’s level of concern such that no additional data requirements are triggered,” despite comments submitted showing evidence to the contrary.

Honey bees and wild bees have been suffering elevated population declines over the last few years. A recent government-sponsored survey reports that U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies between April 2015 and April 2016, one of the highest recorded losses. A recently published study by researchers at Purdue University found that honey bees collect most of their pollen from non-crop plants that are frequently contaminated with a wide range of pesticides.

Numerous pesticides, including sulfoxaflor, neonicotinoids, pyrethroids, and fungicides are highly toxic to honey bees and have a range of effects including impacts on learning behavior, foraging, reproduction and queen production, as well as impairing bee immune systems making them more susceptible to parasites and disease.

In light of the shortcomings of federal action to protect these beneficial organisms, pollinators need pesticide-free habitat throughout communities. You can declare your garden, yard, park or other space as pesticide-free and pollinator friendly. It does not matter how large or small your pledge is, as long as you contribute to the creation of safe pollinator habitat. Sign the pledge today. Need ideas on creating the perfect pollinator habitat? The Bee Protective Habitat Guide can tell you which native plants are right for your region. For more information on what you can do, visit our BEE Protective page.

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