EPA Proposes Pesticide Labeling Requirement to Protect Working Bees

The EPA has proposed a pesticide labeling change that would prohibit the spraying of pesticides during the bloom period. Bloom is a critical phase for many growing operations. In order to boost future yields, many farmers and growers enlist the help of a local beekeeper’s hives to ensure their plants receive sufficient pollination. The beekeeper brings a prearranged number of hives to the farmer’s property and leaves them there during the bloom period. Application of certain pesticides during this period can be disastrous for the bees.

“Although the likely outcomes are counter-productive for both the beekeeper (loss of honey bee stock) and the grower (diminished pollination services), many beekeepers and growers seem not to have found ways to avoid such outcomes,” the agency noted in the proposal.

The EPA’s proposal notes one exception to the proposed rule. Toxic pesticides may be applied during bloom “in accordance with a government-declared public health response.” The agency also noted that many local pollinator protection plans have proven successful in reducing the death of bees and plans to evaluate these plans as alternatives to its proposal during the comment review process.

The EPA’s announcement comes on the heels of President Obama’s multi-agency task force charged with protecting pollinators throughout the country. “Last year, beekeepers reported losing about 40 percent of honey bee colonies, threatening the viability of their livelihoods and the essential pollination services their bees provide to agriculture,” the White House said. “The continued loss of commercial honey bee colonies poses a threat to the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States, which could have profound implications for agriculture and food.”

In 2013, a joint report issued by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that many factors besides pesticide use have contributed to the bee colony decline over the years, including parasitic mites and a virus associated with Colony Collapse Disorder. Genetic diversification and an insufficient variety of foraging options to provide bees with sufficient nutrition were also cited as culprits.

Despite pointing fingers elsewhere, however, the EPA has acknowledged that many pesticides are “acutely toxic” to bees and other pollinators. According to the agency, acutely toxic pesticides include “those pesticides with an acutely lethal dose to 50% of the bees tested on less than 11 micrograms per bee, based on acute contact toxicity testing.”

A number of environmental groups submitted responses to the proposal, including the CEnter for Biological Diversity. “EPA is taking an important first step to protect commercial honeybees from toxic pesticide spraying,” Lori Ann Burd, Environmental Health director at the Center for Biological Diversity was quoted as saying in the group’s response to the proposal. “This is a good start but there is much more to be done to protect our pollinators from the millions of pounds of insecticides used in this country every year.”

According to the group, the EPA’s proposed measure would only establish temporary pesticide-free zones. Many pesticides have a long half-life ratio, meaning they break down slowly over time and can build up in the very plants and foliage that bees visit. At certain levels, pesticide build up can cause the entire plant to become toxic to bees and other pollinators.

The group also notes that the regulation only provides limited protections to bees that are under contract during bloom, leaving wild bees exposed during other key periods. Butterflies and bats, for example, are also diligent pollinators that suffer similar effects from pesticide exposures.

“More than 100 million U.S. acres are planted with seeds drenched in bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides,” Burd said. “Countless studies have linked these toxic seeds to declines in honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bee populations, and the EPA has found that they don’t even provide any benefits to farmers. To save America’s pollinators, the EPA needs to take the next step and immediately ban neonicotinoids, especially these poison seeds.”

The EPA is currently accepting comments on the labeling proposal and has requested comments on an additional proposal to study the development and effect of local pollinator protection plans before making a final determination regarding the labeling restriction. Comments must be received by June 29, 2015.

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