Concern over pollination services and colony collapse drive legal challenge
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Beekeepers around the country are feeling stung by the EPA’s approval of a new pesticide that’s known to be toxic to bees, and are headed to court to try and prove that the EPA didn’t consider all the facts when it gave the go-ahead for Sulfoxaflor.
The new pesticide was developed because some insect pests have developed a resistance to older pesticides, but it’s related to the neonicotinoid class of pesticides, which scientists across the globe have linked as a potential factor to widespread and massive bee colony collapse.
The lawsuit comes as beekeepers across the country struggles for survival. Just in the past few months, Florida beekeepers have reported losing 1,300 hives, with even greater losses in Minnesota (2,312 hives). By some estimates, about 10 million bee hives, valued at about $200 each, have been lost, costing beekeepers a total of $2 billion.
“The bee industry has had to absorb an unreasonable amount of damage in the last decade. Projected losses for our industry this year alone are over $337 million,” said Randy Verhoek, president of the board of the American Honey Producers Association. “While not all of the losses are due solely to pesticides, there are strong correlations between pesticide misuse killing bees and impairing colony performance.”
Represented by Earthjustice, Verhoek’s group, joined by several others, is seeking relief in U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The lawsuit requests changes in the labeling of Sulfoxaflor, and challenges the EPA’s risk assessment process used in the review of the pesticide.
“Our country is facing widespread bee colony collapse, and scientists are pointing to pesticides like sulfoxaflar as the cause,” said Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer. “The effects will be devastating to our nation’s food supply and also to the beekeeping industry, which is struggling because of toxic pesticides,” Brimmer said.
“This lawsuit against the EPA is attempt by the beekeepers to save their suffering industry. The EPA has failed them. And the EPA’s failure to adequately consider impacts to pollinators from these new pesticides is wreaking havoc on an important agricultural industry and gives short shrift to the requirements of the law.”
Along with challenging the specific approval of Sulfoxaflor, the case could result in new ground rules for pesticide reviews that acknowledge the critical role of pollinators in the U.S. food supply, and ensure that decisions regarding new pesticides comply with applicable laws.
The EPA says its testing and review show that sulfoxaflor is safe when used in accordance with the labeling terms and restrictions, basing its conclusion on data evaluation and assessments in collaboration with its counterpart agencies in Canada and Australia. Scientists from the three authorities reviewed over 400 studies and peer reviewed each other’s work, the EPA said when it announced the approval.
But that assertion was challenged by beekeepers like Jeff Anderson, who said the EPA’s claim on labeling is “a bold-faced lie.”
There is absolutely no mandatory language on the label that protects pollinators,” Anderson said. “Further, the label’s advisory language leads spray applicators to believe that notifying a beekeeper of a planned application, absolves them of their legal responsibility in FIFRA to not kill pollinators. EPA’s approval of Sulfoxaflor with no enforceable label protections for bees will speed our industry’s demise,” he said.
Beekeepers said that, based on the EPA’s approval, honey bees could potentially be exposed to the pesticide repeatedly as they’re moved across the country to pollinate crops.
“The EPA is charged with preventing unreasonable risk to our livestock, our livelihoods, and most importantly, the nation’s food supply,” said Bret Adee, president of the board of the National Pollinator Defense Fund. “This situation requires an immediate correction from the EPA to ensure the survival of commercial pollinators, native pollinators, and the plentiful supply of seed, fruits, vegetables, and nuts that pollinators make possible.”
“The honey bee industry is very concerned since the EPA has failed to adequately address our comments about realistic risk to pollinators posed by sulfoxaflor,” said George Hansen, president of the board of the American Beekeeping Federation. “The EPA continues to use flawed and outdated assessments of long term and sub-lethal damage to honey bees.”
Other beekeepers said their comments were ignored during the EPA review. The decision to approve sulfoxaflor was made without knowing sub-lethal and delayed effects, which are cornerstones in the protection of pollinators.
“The sun is now rising on a day where pollinators are no longer plentiful,” said beekeeper and farmer Rick Smith. “They require protection 365 days a year in order to be abundant at the critical moment their pollination service is required by the plant,” Smith said.
According to the National Pollinator Defense Fund, Sulfoxaflor has the same constellation of properties as many other systemic insecticides that have been shown to cause acute and sub-lethal effects, including:
- High acute toxicity to bees
- Sufficient water solubility to permit systemic uptake by the plant, and be expressed in pollen and nectar, as indicated by some of the studies the EPA evaluated
- Sufficient persistence in the environment that would permit pollinator exposures from ingestion of nectar and pollen from treated plants.
The beekeeper groups said the EPA’s testing did not adequately examine the impact of acute and sub-lethal poisoning of adult honey bees, brood, bee life span, in light the dynamics of the colony organism. The agency did not have data on how Sulfoxaflor remains systemically absorbed in the crop tissue, and how that may harm bees and bee colonies long term subjected to levels below the lethal toxicity level to adult bees; and the EPA failed entirely to look at how differing amounts of pesticides affect pollinators over time.