In 2013, the start of National Pollinator Week—a symbolic annual event intended to raise public awareness about the plight of bees—was an ironic one. It kicked off with the largest mass bumble bee death on record—on June 17, tens of thousands of bumble bees and other pollinators were found dead under European Linden trees at a Target store in Wilsonville, Oregon.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture confirmed that the deaths of more than 50,000 bumble bees, likely representing more than 300 wild colonies, were directly related to a pesticide application on the trees to control aphids, which secrete a sticky residue while feeding and can be a nuisance to parked cars. The pesticide product used was Safari, with the active ingredient dinotefuran, part of a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics), which are particularly harmful because they are systemic—absorbed and then spread throughout an entire plant. Bumble bees, honey bees and other pollinators are exposed to these insecticides through pollen and nectar when visiting plants.
The tragedy, though, did more than just raise awareness; it became a catalyst for new precedents for protecting bees at the federal level. Better yet, communities and individuals have begun taking matters into their own hands to ensure the health of pollinators.
A year after the incident, in June 2014, the White House ordered the creation of a Pollinator Health Task Force to study ways of preserving bee populations and other pollinators amid mounting concerns over the insects’ decline. According to the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Food Safety, one out of every three bites of food we eat is from a crop pollinated by honey bees, yet over the past decade, there has been an alarming decline in honey bee populations around the world. Commercial beekeepers lost an average of 36 percent of their hives in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More recently, beekeepers have reported average annual losses of 40 to 50 percent, with some as high as 100 percent.
Larissa Walker, who heads the CFS’ pollinator campaign BEE Protective, a joint effort with Beyond Pesticides, explains that in addition to being used ornamentally by homeowners, nurseries and landscapers in products like 12-Month Tree and Shrub Insect Control, All-in-One Rose & Flower Care, Ortho Bug B Gone and Ortho Rose & Flower Insect Killer, neonics are used in a way that insecticides were never used before, as seed coating to reduce farmers’ exposure to pesticide sprays. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, neonicotinoid seed coatings are used on more than 23 million acres of soybeans in the United States, and more than 1 million pounds of the insecticides were applied to soybean seeds from 2008 to 2012.
“What was not thought through by our regulatory process when we were approving all of these chemicals was the cumulative persistent aspect and wider contamination threats these chemicals pose,” Walker said. “They stick around in soil; they are being picked up by other plants whose roots are grabbing the chemicals. They are water soluble so they are running off into rivers and streams contaminating groundwater. They are wiping out all the aquatic invertebrates and starving bird populations. They are wiping out the beneficial insects that would normally be predatory species for pests that harm crops like slugs, so now we are seeing slug damage escalate in areas where neonics are used heavily as a seed coating.”
Adding to Walker’s frustration is that studies are showing that neonic seed treatments do not provide significant yield benefits. “There is a reason that scientists are calling neonics the second Silent Spring; it’s because it’s following along the same lines of the issues with DDT,” Walker said, referring to Rachel Carlson’s book that led to the banning of DDT.
She says the Obama administration’s task force is a step in the right direction, but is adamant that assessment and habitat building won’t save pollinators. Decisive action on neonics will, Walker says.
“We have been trying to put pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency and USDA who are leading that task force to make sure that whatever they are recommending to the White House actually involves action on reducing, restricting or suspending use of neonics,” Walker said. “We don’t want the task force to recommend another report, or more habitat planted. That won’t address the problem of bee kills associated with pesticide use.”
Walker said the EPA keeps rubberstamping neonics despite not having the safety data they should. EPA granted conditional registration to the neonic clothianidin in 2003, without a required field study for honey bees. EPA continues to allow its use, while trying to mitigate hazards with product label amendments. A regulatory review of neonics is slated to conclude by 2018, but Walker insists this timeframe is completely unacceptable given the severity of the current situation. That’s why in March 2013, CFS and other groups filed a lawsuit against the EPA for its failure to protect pollinators from clothianidin and thiamethoxam, shown to be highly toxic to bees, citing regulatory failures and label deficiencies. “EPA’s fundamental purpose is to protect the environment and so far they’ve been protecting the bottom line of chemical companies who have sold farmers a bill of goods,” Walker said. “Our regulators are arguing that there isn’t enough science, when there are many other countries who feel the science is strong enough to take action. How come the European Union has enacted a two-year moratorium on three of the worst neonics to protect pollinators?”
While frustrated by lack of progress at the federal level, Walker is moved by individuals and communities who are taking action. “People don’t want to wait for the federal government, and I think that is where we’ve seen local action be so inspiring,” she said.
For instance, Eugene, Oregon, became the first city in the nation to ban neonics on city property at the request of and with the help of Beyond Toxics, an Oregon-based group. Eugene’s City Council unanimously passed the resolution. “Educating the public about the harm of those pesticides, not just to bees but to people, and making the case that there are organic alternatives to those so you are not condemning the community to being invaded by pests they can’t deal with, was really important,” said Eugene City Council member Claire Syrett. “And having an organization like Beyond Toxics, that could give a voice to those health concerns, was important to the political leadership so they could be able to say, ‘We see this neonic ban as a value and we can support it because it’s going to protect public health.’”
CFS and Beyond Pesticides’ Bee Protective Campaign offers a model resolution that people could use in their own communities, or, in the case of Vermont Law School, on campus.
Vermont Law School partnered with the BEE Protective Campaign, making it the first higher-education campus to sign a resolution to ban neonics. CFS and Beyond Pesticides worked with grounds crew to identify which products they were using contained neonics and suggested alternatives.
“Cutting out neonics is an excellent step but then you want to make sure pollinators have the habitat they need to start to thrive in your area,” said Rebecca Valentine, program officer, Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School.
Valentine is thrilled to see the banning of neonics gaining so much momentum. “Especially at the home care level. People feel this is something they can do themselves that will actually have an impact and I think that is really exciting.”
The best example of that, according to Walker, is the Melody-Catalpa neighborhood of Boulder, Colorado. At least 200 households there signed a pledge not to use neonics because they wanted to take action immediately. Organizers also created Bee Safe Boulder to inspire all of Boulder to become bee-safe.
She said people are surprised that when they stop using neonics their flowers look the same as they did before they started using it. “People just think, why not buy Bayer 2 and 1 Rose and Flower Care? They think it might make their roses prettier,” Walker said. “But they might not even have an aphid problem to begin with. It’s marketing—you are sold this product thinking it’s going to do so some good so why not use it. They don’t know all the problems associated with this.”
Editor’s note: In January, the EPA released its first assessment of one of the neonics, imidacloprid, finding that it posed a risk to bees when applied to certain crops. On the same day, the CFS and beekeepers filed another lawsuit against the agency for inadequately regulating neonics.