Federal Forums Reveal Deep Divisions On Causes of, Solutions to Pollinator Decline

By David Schultz

Nov. 18 — As federal agencies develop a nationwide strategy to reverse a dramatic decline in the number of pollinator insects, a pair of recent public forums revealed deep disagreements among the issue's stakeholders: beekeepers, farmers, environmental activists and chemical companies.

The forums were held in the Washington area by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

The dozens of participants in the forums disagree not only about what should be done to solve this problem, but also about what is causing the problem.

The comments submitted also demonstrated how farmers are caught in the middle of the debate. They need a healthy pollinator population for their crops, but they also don't want to stop using a type of insecticide that may be causing the population to decline.

Chemicals: The Problem …

If you ask environmental activists, such as Jennifer Sass, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the primary cause of the pollinator crisis is a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids.

These insecticides are frequently used as seed coatings. Sass said they can persist in the environment, both in plants and in soil, for long periods of time.

She told federal officials at the forums that there is a mounting body of scientific evidence that neonicotinoids inhibit pollinators' ability to “fight off disease, breed and survive through the winter.”

The EPA is in the process of re-examining the registrations of insecticides that contain neonicotinoids as part of the White House's pollinator protection task force. It is not expected to complete this process before 2016.

However, the NRDC is petitioning the agency to expedite its reexamination amid what it describes as urgent conditions.

… or the Solution?

That isn't the way the companies that make these insecticides see it.

They cite competing evidence that indicates the biggest problem for the health of American pollinators is not the use of neonicotinoids but rather the infestation of the disease-carrying Varroa mite.

“I have three issues,” Jay Vroom, president of the pesticide industry trade group CropLife America, said at the forums. “Varroa, Varroa, Varroa.”

Vroom cited the situation in Australia, where neonicotinoids are used but where the mite has not been introduced. The pollinator population there is strong, he said.

It follows that, under this scenario, the solution to the pollinator crisis is for EPA to quickly approve new miticidal products. “There's a resistance to some miticides,” Vroom said, “and a need for more tools.”

Beekeepers Worried

Though the causes of the problem are in dispute, its effects are clear.

Honeybee hives have declined nationally by 30 percent in the past decade, Roger Williams, president of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, said. David Hackenberg, a longtime beekeeper in Pennsylvania, said cold-weather losses are already beginning to mount this fall.

Hackenberg disputes the theory that the Varroa mite is the primary cause of bee deaths. He said the Varroa first appeared in beehives in the 1980s, but that widespread bee deaths didn't begin until 20 years later.

“Mites will always be a problem, but mites aren't what's causing this,” Hackenberg said.

Beth Conrey, a beekeeper in Colorado, said it's unfortunate that this crisis has pitted beekeepers against farmers, who don't want to see neonicotinoids banned.

“When did the idea [of] ensuring the health of bees become unsound agricultural practice?” she said. “We do not have to give up crop protection to have bee health. We can have both.”

Farmers Also Worried

Many farmers aren't so sure having both is, in fact, possible.

Without neonicotinoids, several said, they would be forced to go back to using insecticides that are both more expensive and more environmentally damaging. They include insecticides such as those in the organophosphate or carbamate families that were largely phased out after the introduction of neonicotinoids.

In recent weeks, the rationale behind coating seeds with neonicotinoids has come into question. An EPA study released Oct. 15 found that coating soybean seeds with neonicotinoid insecticides provides farmers with no significant benefits, neither in yields nor in net revenues.

Ray Gasser, a farmer in southwestern Iowa, said this study's aggregate data overlook the many individual farmers who rely on the chemicals. “It would be very unfortunate to look at averages and say, ‘We should ban [neonicotinoids],' ” he said.

However, with more evidence coming in about the effects these chemicals have—not only on bees but also on other pollinators such as the monarch butterfly, as well as on birds that rely on these insects for food—the drumbeat calling on EPA to remove neonicotinoids from the market seems likely to continue, if not grow louder.

Taskforce Timeline

The pollinator protection task force, led by EPA and USDA, has a deadline of Dec. 20 to complete its work.

Contrary to earlier reports, the task force will not be releasing its strategy on that date. Instead, it will submit the strategy on Dec. 20 to the White House, which will then release the strategy publicly in “late winter or early spring,” Rick Keigwin, director of the EPA's Pesticide Re-Evaluation Division, said.

The task force has already released two documents: the seed-coating study and a memorandum from the White House's Council on Environmental Quality containing guidance on making federal facilities more “bee friendly”.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com