[Marxism] Pesticides killed bees, a big surprise?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 18 08:21:28 MDT 2009

Pesticides indicted in bee deaths
Agriculture officials have renewed their scrutiny of the world's 
best-selling pest-killer as they try to solve the mysterious collapse of 
the nation's hives.

By Julia Scott

May. 18, 2009

Gene Brandi will always rue the summer of 2007. That's when the 
California beekeeper rented half his honeybees, or 1,000 hives, to a 
watermelon farmer in the San Joaquin Valley at pollination time. The 
following winter, 50 percent of Brandi's bees were dead. "They pretty 
much disappeared," says Brandi, who's been keeping bees for 35 years.

Since the advent in 2006 of colony collapse disorder, the mysterious 
ailment that continues to decimate hives across the country, Brandi has 
grown accustomed to seeing up to 40 percent of his bees vanish each 
year, simply leave the hive in search of food and never come back. But 
this was different. Instead of losing bees from all his colonies, Brandi 
watched the ones that skipped watermelon duty continue to thrive.

Brandi discovered the watermelon farmer had irrigated his plants with 
imidacloprid, the world's best-selling insecticide created by Bayer 
CropScience Inc., one of the world's leading producers of pesticides and 
genetically modified vegetable seeds, with annual sales of $8.6 billion. 
Blended with water and applied to the soil, imidacloprid creates a moist 
mixture the bees likely drank from on a hot day.

Stories like Brandi's have become so common that the National Honeybee 
Advisory Board, which represents the two biggest beekeeper associations 
in the U.S., recently asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to 
ban the product. "We believe imidacloprid kills bees -- specifically, 
that it causes bee colonies to collapse," says Clint Walker, co-chairman 
of the board.

Beekeepers have singled out imidacloprid and its chemical cousin 
clothianidin, also produced by Bayer CropScience, as a cause of bee 
die-offs around the world for over a decade. More recently, the same 
products have been blamed by American beekeepers, who claim the product 
is a cause of colony collapse disorder, which has cost many commercial 
U.S. beekeepers at least a third of their bees since 2006, and threatens 
the reliability of the world's food supply.

Scientists have started to turn their attention to both products, which 
are receiving new scrutiny in the U.S., due to a disclosure in December 
2007 by Bayer CropScience itself. Bayer scientists found imidacloprid in 
the nectar and pollen of flowering trees and shrubs at concentrations 
high enough to kill a honeybee in minutes. The disclosure recently set 
in motion product reviews by the California Department of Pesticide 
Regulation and the EPA. The tests are scheduled to wrap up in 2014, 
though environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, are petitioning the 
EPA to speed up the work.

For over a decade, Bayer CropScience has been forced to defend the 
family of insecticides against calls for a ban by beekeepers and 
environmentalists. French beekeepers succeeded in having imidacloprid 
banned for use on several crops after a third of the country's bees died 
following its use in 1999 -- although the French bee population never 
quite rebounded, as Bayer is quick to point out. Germany banned the use 
of clothianidin and seven other insecticides in 2008 after tests 
implicated them in killing up to 60 percent of honeybees in southwest 

Imidacloprid and clothianidin are chloronicotinoids, a synthetic 
compound that combines nicotine, a powerful toxin, with chlorine to 
attack an insect's nervous system. The chemical is applied to the seed 
of a plant, added to soil, or sprayed on a crop and spreads to every 
corner of the plant's tissue, killing the pests that feed on it.

Pennsylvania beekeeper John Macdonald has been keeping bees for over 30 
years and recently became convinced that imidacloprid is linked to 
colony collapse disorder. It's the only explanation he can find for why 
his bees, whose hives border farmland that uses the pesticide, started 
dropping dead a few years ago.

"There's the pernicious toxic effect -- it does everything nicotine does 
to our nervous system," says Macdonald. "There's the pathological 
effect, the interference with basic functions. They get lost, they get 
disoriented. They fall to the ground. They get paralyzed and their wings 
stick out. I can't think of anything in the environment that's changed 
other than farming, and virtually every farmer is using treated seeds now."

Bayer CropScience spokesman Jack Boyne says his company's pesticides are 
not to blame. "We do a lot of research on our products and we feel like 
we have a very good body of evidence to suggest that pesticides, 
including insecticides, are not the cause of colony collapse disorder," 
he says. "Pesticides have been around for a lot of years now and 
honeybee collapse has only been a factor for the last few years." 
(Imidacloprid has been approved for use in the U.S. since 1994 and 
clothianidin has been used since 2003.)

Scientists continue to investigate the causes of colony collapse 
disorder. Leading theories suggest a combination of factors that include 
parasitic mites, disease, malnutrition and environmental contaminants 
like pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. The current EPA review 
will provide further insight into the role of pesticides, as it will 
uncover whether honeybees sickened by exposure to imidacloprid spread it 
around by bringing contaminated nectar and pollen back to the hive.

EPA critics suggest that the agency allowed economic considerations to 
take precedence over the well-being of honeybees when it approved 
imidacloprid for sale in the U.S. 15 years ago. "I think the EPA and 
USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] have been covering up for Bayer, 
and now they're scrambling to do something about it," says Neil Carman, 
a plant biologist who advises the Sierra Club on pesticides and other 
issues. "This review should have been done 10 years ago. It's been found 
to be more persistent in the environment than was reported by Bayer."

Imidacloprid was approved with knowledge that the product, marketed as 
Gaucho, Confidor, Admire and others, was lethal to honeybees under 
certain circumstances. Today the EPA's own literature calls it "very 
highly toxic" to honeybees and other beneficial insects. Its workaround 
was to slap a label on the product, warning farmers not to spray it on a 
plant when bees were foraging in the neighborhood.

In its 2007 studies, Bayer applied standard doses of imidacloprid to 
test trees, including apple, lime and dogwood. Its scientists found 
imidacloprid in nectar at concentrations of up to 4,000 parts per 
billion, a dose high enough to kill several bees at once. (Honeybees can 
withstand a dose of up to 185 ppb, the standard amount it would take to 
kill 50 percent of a test population.) What caught the attention of 
California agricultural officials was that the test trees contained the 
same amount of deadly imidacloprid as the citrus and almond groves 
regularly sprayed by farmers, and pollinated by bees. (California's 
almond industry has increased its use of imidacloprid by a factor of 300 
in the past five years.) Agricultural officials were also surprised to 
learn that the imidacloprid can persist in the leaves and blossoms of a 
plant for more than a year.

The Bayer results don't surprise University of California at Davis 
professor Eric Mussen, a well-known entomologist and one of the 
country's leading experts on colony collapse disorder. Mussen has seen a 
variety of unpublished studies with similar results, including one at 
U.C. Riverside that found imidacloprid in the nectar of a eucalyptus 
tree bloom at concentrations of 550 ppb a full year after it was applied.

"From some of the data on the trees, it appears as though there are 
situations where honeybees can get into truly toxic doses of the 
material," says Mussen, who avoids spraying imidacloprid on his own 
demonstration fields at U.C. Davis. "This the first time that we've had 
something you put in a tree that could stay there for a long time."

But Mussen isn't convinced imidacloprid is a primary cause of the 
honeybee die-off. He explains that some bees settle on fields of 
sunflowers and canola treated with the chemical and then "fly right 
through to next year." So imidacloprid is not the only story. "Could it 
be part of the story?" he asks. "I'm sure. I think any of the pesticides 
the bees bring back to the beehive is hurting the bees."

Mussen adds that ongoing research into chronic exposure to insecticides 
will be crucial. It's likely, he says, that exposure to even low doses 
acts like a one-two punch: It can weaken the bees until a parasite or 
pathogen moves in to finish them off.

As the EPA begins its pesticide studies this year, skeptics wonder 
whether the agency can conduct an unbiased review. Back in 2003, they 
point out, the EPA reported that clothianidin was "highly toxic to 
honeybees on an acute contact basis," and suggested that chronic 
exposure could lead to effects on the larvae and reproductive effects on 
the queen. Although the EPA asked Bayer for further studies of its 
effects on honeybees, it nevertheless authorized the chemical for market.

"If the EPA had sufficient concern about harm to bees that they would 
insist on other studies, it seemed unwise to approve it anyway and ask 
for research after the fact," says Aaron Colangelo, an attorney with the 
Natural Resources Defense Council. "The EPA's job is to make a decision 
about whether a chemical is safe or not."

Colangelo envisions a similar scenario in coming years. The EPA has 
announced it will review clothianidin and other chemicals in the same 
family, but not until 2012. In the meantime, there's nothing stopping 
the agency from approving the insecticides for use on new crops based on 
existing policies. In the end, Colangelo has little confidence the 
federal agency will bring a hammer down on the agribusiness giant. The 
EPA, he explains, often keeps its test results confidential for 
proprietary reasons at a company's request. As a consequence, it's 
unclear where gaps or discrepancies occur until a company makes a 
disclosure similar to Bayer's.

"They're not making decisions about whether the pesticide can be put on 
the market based on impacts to bees, no matter how much evidence of harm 
there is," Colangelo says. "The EPA will just approve it anyway and put 
a warning label on the product."

Halting the sale of pesticides, though, would be no mean task. Over 120 
countries use imidacloprid under the Bayer label on more than 140 crop 
varieties, as well as on termites, flea collars and home garden 
landscaping. And the product's patent expired a few years ago, paving 
the way for it to be sold as a generic insecticide by dozens of smaller 
corporations. In California alone, imidacloprid is the central 
ingredient in 247 separate products sold by 50 different companies.

In a statement, the EPA says that before banning a pesticide, it "must 
find that an 'imminent hazard' exists. The federal courts have ruled 
that to make this finding, EPA must conclude, among other things, that 
there is a substantial likelihood that imminent, serious harm will be 
experienced from use of the pesticide." The EPA did not clarify what is 
meant by "imminent hazard" and why the death of honeybees does not qualify.

As Mussen points out, though, a few million dead honeybees may be the 
cost of doing business. "If they didn't register products that were 
toxic to honeybees, there wouldn't be a lot of products on the market 
that were available for pest control."

All the more reason to start taking the world's most ubiquitous 
insecticide off the market and invent a safer one, argues Walker, of the 
National Honeybee Advisory Board. "It's on every golf course, it's on 
every lawn. It's not just an agricultural product. There's really not 
one part of our lives it's not touching."

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