Mysterious Honey Bee Disorder Buzzes into Court

WASHINGTON, DC, August 19, 2008 (ENS) - The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in Washington DC to force the federal government to disclose studies on the effect of a new pesticide on honey bees.

Studies on the pesticide, clothianidin, were ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from the pesticide's manufacturer, Bayer CropScience, in 2003 when the federal agency granted the company a registration for the chemical.

An NRDC bee researcher and the organization's attorneys believe that the EPA has evidence of connections between pesticides and the mysterious honey bee die-offs reported across the country called "colony collapse disorder," or CCD, that it has not made public.

The connection is important because commercial honey bees pollinate about 90 of the country's crops, valued at $15 billion. Apples, peaches, pears, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, cherries, berries, peppers, squash, soybeans, almonds, cashews, and sunflowers all require or benefit from honey bee pollination.

The EPA has failed to respond to the NRDC's Freedom of Information Act request for agency records concerning the toxicity of pesticides to bees, prompting Monday's legal action.

"Recently approved pesticides have been implicated in massive bee die-offs and are the focus of increasing scientific scrutiny," said NRDC attorney Aaron Colangelo. "EPA should be evaluating the risks to bees before approving new pesticides, but now refuses to tell the public what it knows."

"Pesticide restrictions might be at the heart of the solution to this growing crisis, so why hide the information they should be using to make those decisions?" Calangelo asked.

The EPA has issued a fact sheet on clothianidin, one of a relatively new class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids that impact the central nervous system of insects.

Maryann Frazier, who works with Pennsylvania State University as an extension associate in entomology, says in a paper on neonicotinoids and bees that, "There is conflicting information about the affects of neonicotinoids on honey bees, and different chemicals in this class are known to vary in their toxicity to bees, however the EPA identifies both imidacloprid and clothianidin as highly toxic to honey bees."

The use of clothianidin and other insecticides of this class has "increased dramatically" over the past few years and they are now the most widely used group of insecticides in the United States, Frazier says.

"Their uses include: seed treatments for corn, cotton, canola and sunflowers; foliar sprays of fruit, nut and coffee crops; granular, and liquid drench applications in turf, ornamentals, fruit crops and in forests," she explains.

The EPA fact sheet says of clothianidin, "It has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other non-target pollinators through the translocation of clothianidin resides in nectar and pollen. In honey bees, the affects of this toxic chronic exposure may include lethal and/or sub-lethal effects in the larvae and reproductive effects on the queen."

In addition, says Frazier, "there is concern about the practice of combining certain insecticides and fungicides." She cites a North Carolina University study found that some neonicotinoids in combination with certain fungicides, synergized to increase the toxicity of the neonicotinoid to honey bees over 1,000 fold in lab studies.

Colony collapse disorder has claimed more than one-third of honey bees in the United States since it was first identified in 2006. A survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America published in May found that losses of honey bees nationwide topped 36 percent of managed hives between September 2007 and March 2008, compared to a 31 percent loss during the same period a year earlier.

The chemical is sold under the brand name "Poncho" by Bayer AG in Germany, where it was banned in May after an unauthorized release that Bayer blames on an "extremely rare" "application error." In fact, Germany banned the entire class of neonicotinoids.

Another Bayer neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, has been blamed in France and South Dakota for colony collapse disorder. In South Dakota, farmers are suing, and the French government has banned the chemical for use on sunflower seeds.

Scientists have not yet pinned down the cause of colony collapse disorder but they believe it is linked in part to pesticides.

Penn State research has documented more than 70 pesticides in pollen and bees, information that was presented Monday at a national American Chemical Society meeting in Philadelphia.

"We do not know that these chemicals have anything to do with Colony Collapse Disorder, but they are definitely stressors in the home and in the food sources," says the Penn State scientist who conducted this research, Dr. James Frazier. "Pesticides alone have not shown they are the cause of CCD. We believe that it is a combination of a variety of factors, possibly including mites, viruses and pesticides."

"This is a real mystery right now," said Dr. Gabriela Chavarria, director of NRDC's Science Center. "EPA needs to help shed some light so that researchers can get to work on this problem. This isn't just an issue for farmers - this is an issue that concerns us all."

In documents to be filed next month, NRDC attorneys will ask for a court order directing the EPA to disclose its information about pesticides and bee toxicity.

{Photo: At an apiary by the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, bees fill the air as beekeepers examine hives for disease. Courtesy Penn State University}

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