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By Maryam Henein, HoneyColony Original

“In an ongoing effort to protect bees and other pollinators,” the Environmental Protection Agency recently developed a new pesticide label that will (supposedly) prohibit use of some pesticide products where bees are present.

Specifically, the new label applies to ‘systemic’ pesticides known as neonicotinoids, such as imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Neonicotinoids are a relatively newfangled class of insecticides (and the most widely used in the world) that affect the central nervous system and navigational capabilities of insects, as well as suppress their immune system, causing paralysis followed by a slow death. Several peer-reviewed studies have identified these poisons as being highly toxic to honey bees and other pollinators. Neonics have been targeted as the main culprit behind Colony Collapse Disorder. For more about the effects on neonics on pollinator health, check out Beyond Pesticides’ “What the Science Shows.”

“Multiple factors play a role in bee colony declines, including pesticides,” says Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “The Environmental Protection Agency is taking action to protect bees from pesticide exposure and these label changes will further our efforts.” The EPA says it will work with pesticide makers to modify labels so that they will meet the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) safety standard.

“While it’s great to see movement from the EPA,” says Paul Towers, spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network, “the new labels do little to address the problem of bee declines.”

Why? Because these new labels, which were drafted by members of the pesticide lobby like Bayer and Syngenta, fail to acknowledge the unique properties of systemic and persistent neonicotinoid pesticides. Meaning, with systemics the poison are taken up by the roots where it becomes part of the plant. Honeybees then take the poison back to the hive in the form of nectar and pollen.

This label addresses foliar applications but most of the time neonics are enrobed around the seeds like in the case of the 88.3 million plus acres of corn in this country. Similarly, when seeds are planted, much of the dust drift off can also kill bees.Neonics are also applied to drench soil in the case of turf.

“What struck me as strange is that the EPA seems to intentionally ignore the widest application of these systemic pesticides, which are seed treatments,” says beekeeper and activist Tom Theobald who appears in the film Vanishing of the Bees. In the case of seed coatings, application restrictions don’t even apply. Therefore a label doesn’t make a difference.

So in fact the labels do the opposite of their purported intention by giving a false sense of safety, since systemics are cumulative and can stay in the soil for nearly two decades, adds Theobald.

The “new and strengthened” pesticide labels to protect pollinators come with a Bee “Advisory” Box and icon with information on routes of exposure and spray drift precautions. Therefore this is akin to friendly advice and a likely tap on the wrist since it’s not law.

“The current label has no mandatory or enforceable language, failing to include definitions,” says Towers. “Without clear definitions around simple concepts, including “bees” or “foraging,” beekeepers are unable to protect themselves or their operations from the use of bee-harming pesticides,” explains Towers.

They should have made it “mandatory” instead of “advisory,” adds Theobald. “This is rhetoric instead of substance; inaction passed off as action, because if EPA takes any accountability the entire house of cards falls down.” Meanwhile, the label comes with several crazy provisos.

Under “Directions For Use,” it says that these products should not be applied when bees are foraging. And only once pollination is complete and petals have fallen. Sounds good, right? Until you read the conditions:

“If an application must be made when managed bees are at the treatment site, the beekeeper providing the pollination services must be notified no less than 48-hours prior to the time of the planned application so that the bees can be removed.”  

The problem with that says Theobald is that it shifts the responsibility onto the beekeepers. It’s like a disclaimer that takes the applicator off the hook. Activists and beekeepers have been asking for accountability not disclaimers.

Secondly, when it comes to food crops and commercially grown ornamentals not under contract for pollination services (which are still attractive to pollinators), the applicator again cannot apply the product while bees are foraging. Unless (unless??) several conditions have been met: i.e the application is made to the target site after sunset or when temperatures are below 55 degrees.

Can I have a WTF?

“Is spraying after sunset with something that can stay in the soil for 19 years good for bees?” says Jeff Anderson a beekeeper with the National Pollinator Defense Fund. “I don’t think so! If this label was used for non-systemics foliar applications, we would have something. But as is, this label is targeted to only protect managed honeybees not wild bees and other pollinators. They need to throw away all these conditions.”

As many beekeepers and environmentalists point out, there are no mitigation measures possible when it comes to these long-lasting systemic poisons. It doesn’t make a difference if you use these poisons when it’s cold or when it’s dark. “As it stands, this is simply more pollution of ink on paper and plastic,” says Anderson.

U.S. agriculture faces one of the worst years on record for honey bee declines, and the EPA’s efforts will only make matters worse by giving a false sense of acceptability for the use of these bee-harming products. Instead, the EPA should act on the growing body of scientific evidence and further restrict the use of neonicotinoids, especially as seed treatments, adds Towers. “This is a masterful performance by a great magician; it’s a sleight of hand,” says Theobald. “Lies that go unchallenged become fact in the minds of the uninformed,” say Theobald.

It’s our job to set the record straight.

Bee the change and make a difference:

  • Buy a Bee the Change teeshirt and part of the proceeds go to Pesticide Action Network (PANNA) and Beyond Pesticides
  • Join us in asking Lowe’s and Home Depot and other leading garden centers to take action and stop the sale of neonicotinoids and plants treated with these chemicals.
  • Tell your member of Congress to support the Save America’s Pollinators Act.

More on the EPA’s label changes and pollinator protection efforts

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