Last week three major home store chains in the UK took insecticides with troublesome neonicotinoid systemics off their shelves. The chains, Wicks, B&Q, and HomeBase no longer have insecticides containing clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, the three neonicotinoids deemed most toxic and problematic to honeybees in a recent announcement from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA recommends, among other things, that for the three most toxic neonics, “only uses on crops not attractive to honey bees were considered acceptable.” The voluntary ban by the major store chains is the latest development in the deliberative effort going on in Europe concerning bee losses and systemic insecticides. The body of evidence for the problems with neonicotinoid insecticides is growing larger. In December 2012, the European Parliament issued a report, Existing Scientific Evidence of the Effects of Neonicotinoid Pesticides on Bees, as they struggle to decide what to do about increasing bee losses in Europe. The authors recommend banning or severely restricting use of the worst offenders. This is on the heels of a very complete, 265 page report issued by the EFSA in May 2012, Scientific Opinion on the science behind the development of a risk assessment of Plant Protection Products on bees (Apis mellifera, Bombus spp. and solitary bees) which goes into detail about hazards of the neonics. The process in Europe is deliberative. The consensus-building necessary for new Europe-wide regulations began with the compilation of all the scientific evidence, pro and con, concerning the safety of these chemicals. The scientific reports document the known problems and also raise the issue that there are no adequate studies of long-term sub-lethal effects of these very toxic chemicals that focus on whole-colony dynamics with honey bees or consider other native species. The next step in the process would be for the EU to write language to actually institute a Europe-wide ban the use of the insecticides where they are harmful to bees. This is likely to happen in the coming months. In the meantime, reaction to the recent announcement has been mixed. Bayer and other manufacturers of the chemicals have denounced the recommendation, predicting dire consequences to the corn crop if the chemicals are banned. However, in the UK, the home center stores have voluntarily removed products containing the troubling insecticides from their shelves. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been slower to act. Despite the concerns of beekeepers and environmentalists that resulted in EPA consideration of a petition in 2012, the agency refused to make any changes in the regulatory status of clothianidin. The threat in the US is not only with chemicals marketed to industrial agriculture. Increasingly, Bayer is including neonics in their home garden insecticides aimed at individual home owners and gardeners. This is especially troubling in our communities where urban beekeeping must coexist with urban gardeners. Colony losses continue to mount. Early reports for colony health coming through this winter are discouraging. It is likely that for the first time there will not be sufficient bees available in the US for the California almond pollination event. Beekeepers my have difficulty finding package bees this spring, as demand to replace dead colonies exceeds the capabilities of the southern producers. In our community, the Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers have begun circulating a letter requesting local garden centers to stop selling neonicotinoid insecticides. Although our EPA may not be protecting us from these chemicals, we think that especially with the evidence and recommendations coming from Europe, there is very good reason to get these chemicals out of our communities. Local activism is our only choice.
When it comes to environmental synthetic chemicals, the strategy in the US is usually to approve something unless it is known to be harmful when it should require companies demonstrate that a chemical is safe. Once on the market a pesticide becomes part of the companies product line and it becomes all the harder to remove it from the market. If we marketed drugs like this there would be many more thalidomides to deal with. I believe that neonicotinouds will ultimately be taken off the market, the question is how much damage will they do before they are no longer used. No bees, no food.