Neonicotinoids Under Fire

Pollinators: Pesticides linked to bee deaths

Britt E. Erickson


Credit: Shutterstock

Pressure to phase out neonicotinoids rose this year because of concerns that the insecticides may harm honeybees and other animals that spread pollen from flower to flower.

Citing the “breadth, severity, and persistence” of honeybee losses, President Barack Obama in June ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the impact of all pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on the health of pollinators.

As part of that assessment, EPA concluded in October that treating seeds with neonicotinoid insecticides provides little or no benefit for soybean yields. Pesticide manufacturers disputed the report, saying EPA did not consider all available information. Environmental advocacy groups, on the other hand, pointed to the analysis as support for arguments to end the application of neonicotinoid pesticides on soybeans.

09251-cover24-Structures_19180672-345beesEPA’s analysis came just a month after Canadian beekeepers filed a class-action lawsuit against pesticide manufacturer Syngenta, claiming the company’s neonicotinoid product thiamethoxam and its breakdown product clothianidin led to more than $400 million in damages from 2006 to 2013. These alleged harms include bee deaths and adverse reproductive, immunological, and behavioral effects in bees.

Despite the growing worries and lawsuits linking neonicotinoids with bee declines, Syngenta asked EPA earlier this year to increase allowable levels of thiamethoxam on certain crops. Environmental groups criticized the request, saying it would be a “step backward for pollinator health.” EPA is still considering the request.

Meanwhile, a group of U.S. senators also began putting pressure on EPA to restrict the use of neonicotinoids. In a November letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the lawmakers raised concerns about sublethal effects of the pesticides on bees, including impacts on navigation, behavior, reproduction, and disease resistance.

At the same time, the European Union is conducting its own review of the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators. The EU enacted a two-year ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides—thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and imidacloprid—last year because of concerns for bee health. Syngenta is challenging that ban, saying it was based on an inaccurate assessment by the European Food Safety Authority.

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