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Neonics and Bees — Political Inaction Persists Despite Mounting Evidence

October 27, 2013

Over the course of the last year, the issue of bees and the neonicotinoid pesticides has finally begun to appear in the popular press in this country.  A campaign by Friends of the Earth in the UK resulted in major garden center chains removing the neonics from their shelves in February of last year.  Early spring found US beekeepers with another year of severe winter losses, with thousands of colonies dead on arrival into the California almond orchards.  Then in April, the European Union made the decision to ban three of the most troublesome chemicals throughout the EU.  Relying on the precautionary principle and the mounting evidence implicating these chemicals, science and politics came together in Brussels and put these poisons on hold — but not without dissent.  The major chemical manufacturers, Bayer and Syngenta, predict dire consequences for European agriculture.  The UK representatives voted no to the ban being imposed upon them by the rest of Europe, despite the groundswell of popular support for a ban on the chemicals.  Meanwhile, in the US, after the disastrous bee losses during almond pollination, the EPA held a  “Pollinators Summit” to address the plight of the bees.  But the “summit” was just a love fest for the chemical companies.  The day of testimony, there were four times as many presentations justifying pesticide technology than there were talks on the plight of the bees.  Indifference at the EPA has meant that the only way to get their attention was to sue them, so that is what happened in July over the approval of yet another systemic pesticide, Suflaxofour, that was granted approval without adequate testing.

Here in Eugene, Oregon, we started our early spring fair weather with a noticeable dearth of honeybees.  I lost all of my bees over the winter, and, coming into spring, it appeared that bee numbers were down all around town.  With the handwriting on the wall in Europe, activists began to step up pressure on local retailers and the city to get rid of the neonics.  The City of Eugene has been responsive, and has ceased using neonicotinoids to maintain city plantings.  Petition campaigns and several rallies for the bees eventually persuaded two local retail establishments to include warning literature and reduce their sales efforts for the worst neonics, a small but significant victory.  During the summer, a major bumblebee kill in Wilsonville, Oregon was caused by spraying of the neonic dinotefuran on blooming linden trees.  With tens of thousands of dead bees littering the parking lot, the bee kill generated national attention and refocused local efforts to restrict use of these potent chemicals.  The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) issued a six-month moratorium on the use of dinotefuran pending further investigation.

Dead bumblebees in Willsonville this summer – Xerces photo

Summer comes, the bees do better in the nice weather, and everyone gets complacent.  Last week, Mike Odenthal , pesticide investigator for the ODA was trying to make excuses for the pesticide applicator that killed the bumblebees because the spraying was done at 6 AM before bees were flying.  This begs the question of why the ODA could allow such lax rules in the first place.   Then, Beyond Toxics, having collected more than 12,000 signatures from Oregonians on a petition asking the ODA to consider further restrictions  on the neonics, received the cold shoulder from ODA.  Nothing has come from the EPA except statements that they are due to consider review of some of the neonics in 2018.

Fortunately, the bee researchers have still been at work.  The real problem with the neonicotinoids became apparent to me after reading a 2009 paper by Francisco Sanchez-Bayo which looked at the effect of toxic chemicals over time.  The lesson was simply that some compounds could have delayed toxic effects, and at least for some organisms, the neonicotinoid imidacloprid demonstrated a strong time dependence.  Earlier this year Sanchez-Bayo and Tennekes expanded on the earlier results and showed that strongly binding toxins, such as imidacloprid and other neonics, are likely to have a larger delayed toxic effect.  I looked at a compendium of published papers on imidacloprid toxicity to honeybees and found that you needed less insecticide if you wait longer for the insects to die and the lethal concentrate will vary as 1/ t2 as you wait longer for the effects to accumulate.  A very good study on bumblebees by Gill et al. showed that indeed, field realistic exposure levels (<10 ppb) of imidacloprid did effect bumblebee colony development.  Significant effects did not show up until two weeks into the experiment, which goes along with the argument the that time dependent nature of the imidacloprid toxicity is a crucial variable.

From Nigel Raine talk 8/13 - Gill et al. paper.

From Nigel Raine talk 8/13 – Gill et al. paper.

Most recently, a paper by Prisco et al. out of Italy demonstrated a mechanism for immune suppression by the neonicotinoids clothianidin and imidacloprid in honeybees.  They went on to show that for one of the common known bee viruses, deformed wing virus (DWV), bees exposed to the neonicotinoids had further replication of the virus in their bodies, while in unexposed insects the virus did not replicate in the adult bees.  This mechanism for downgrading the immune system by the neonics goes a long way to explaining the observed general bee malaise and problems with multiple pathogens that are ultimately killing colonies.

From Di Prisco et al., PNAS Oct. 2013.

From Di Prisco et al., PNAS Oct. 2013.

Despite the growing evidence against these chemicals, we face an uphill fight to get them banned.  The pesticide industry is a $45 billion giant with lobbyists in every state house and marketers filling the airwaves with greenwash.  Bayer and Syngenta have programs promoting “bee health” while churning out tons of the offending chemicals.  University Ag schools receive industry funding, which colors their decisions regarding what research is suitable if they wish to stay on the gravy train.  Politicians get campaign contributions from corporations, and are expected to fall in line.  In many places, including Oregon, government agriculture departments emphasize chemical farming.  In Oregon, the ODA is also supposed to protect us from misuse of pesticides — it’s not our department of environmental quality (DEQ) that has that role.  This inherent conflict of interest is currently showing its horns in Oregon.  How can the ODA, an agency that is part of the part of the American experiment in corporate mono-culture, manage to look itself in the mirror and question the chemicals that it normally promotes?

Next spring we will undoubtedly have another crisis in the almond orchards.  The science will increasingly point the finger at the neonicotinoids, and the popular press and the public will continue to raise the alarm.  The responsibility for the insect genocide rests with all of those that have the ability to do something about it.  Let’s start at the top with the EPA, and then our state equivalent the ODA.  But don’t stop there.  Our state legislature can mandate action, so all of our representatives are on the hook, as are all of the retail establishments that sell these products and all of the pesticide applicators who use them.  But as is often the case when power and money are involved, it will only be grass roots activism that eventually gets the job done.

Select Recent papers:

Gennaro Di Prisco, Valeria Cavaliere, Desiderato Annoscia, Paola Varricchio, Emilio Caprio, Francesco Nazzi, Giuseppe Gargiulo, and Francesco Pennacchio,  Neonicotinoid clothianidin adversely affects insect immunity and promotes replication of a viral pathogen in honey beesPNAS 2013 ; published ahead of print October 21, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1314923110

Gill RJ, Ramos-Rodriguez O, Raine NE (2012) Combined pesticide exposure severely affects
individual- and colony-level traits in bees. Nature 491: 105-108.

Tennekes HA, Sánchez-Bayo F. 2013. The molecular basis of simple relationships between exposure concentration and toxic effects with time. Toxicology 309:39-51.

Tomé HVV, Martins GF, Lima MAP, Campos LAO, Guedes RNC (2012) Imidacloprid-Induced Impairment of Mushroom Bodies and Behavior of the Native Stingless Bee Melipona quadrifasciata anthidioides. PLoS ONE 7(6): e38406. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038406

Pettis J, vanEngelsdorp D, Johnson J, Dively G. 2012. Pesticide exposure in honey bees results in increased levels of the gut pathogen Nosema. Naturwissenschaften 99:153-158.

Krupke CH, Hunt GJ, Eitzer BD, Andino G, Given K (2012) Multiple Routes of Pesticide Exposure for Honey Bees Living Near Agricultural Fields. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29268. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029268

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2013 7:25 pm

    In the light of such solid evidence against neonics, we only need to ask–and answer with our own actions– the question of why these products continue to be on the market.
    Thanks for this clear presentation on the immune suppressant function of neonics on honeybees. Goes a long way toward explaining why bees exposed to neonics also fall prey to so many diseases that are implicated in spreading colony collapse disorder.


  1. Bee Kill in Eugene | Our Free Bees

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