INSIGHT: Crop protection chemicals at issue in bee crisis

15 August 2013 17:05  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

Crop protection chemicals under new scrutinyWASHINGTON (ICIS)--Crop protection chemicals are coming under increasing scrutiny and blame for the on-going crisis in US honey bee populations, with environmentalists and a contingent in Congress calling for a broad-based halt to use of some agrochemicals.

Leaders in the crop protection chemicals industry say that mounting criticism on a variety of insecticides and fungicides is misplaced because there are multiple natural, environmental and stress factors that could be influencing the bee pollinator crisis.

A new study issued last month by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has helped raise the buzz about fungicides as a possible causal factor, if only indirectly, in what is known as bee colony collapse disorder (CCD).

The new analysis by the department’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found that pollen collected by bees from crops were found to contain traces of commonly used fungicides.

The level of fungicides in the collected pollen samples was too low to cause a bee’s death, the study said, “but it still may leave them more susceptible to infection by a gut parasite”.

Although traces of multiple insecticides, herbicides, miticides and fungicides were found in pollen collected by bees, said the study, “fungicides were the most frequently found chemical substance in the pollen samples”.

“The most common was the fungicide chlorothalonil, which is widely used on apples and other crops,” ARS researchers said.

US agricultural research scientists have struggled for years to find the cause of the worrying colony collapse disorder.

CCD is an epidemic characterised by a sudden disappearance of a colony’s bees with few, if any, dead bees left behind.  For reasons unknown, a colony’s bees will fly off and never return.

Although the disorder may have been building for several years, it first came to crisis-level attention after the 2006-2007 North American winter season, when 32% of the nation’s cultivated bee colonies disappeared.

Since its onset in 2006-2007, colony collapse disorder has been blamed for an annual loss of about 30% of the US bee population.

That rate of year-by-year loss is not sustainable, according to ARS, and the continuing impact of the disorder puts a major part of US agriculture at risk.

ARS officials say that about one-third of the US diet - including most fruits, vegetables and vine crops - depend on bee pollination. Major staple crops, such as corn, wheat and rice, are wind pollinated and have not been affected by the disorder.

In a comprehensive study issued in May this year, the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that CCD involved many potential factors, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and possibly pesticide exposure.  

In the most recent study, ARS researchers used the bee-gathered pollen that contained trace elements of fungicides to feed a fresh bee colony.

“Honey bees that were fed pollen that contained the fungicide chlorothalonil and was collected at the hive entrance were almost three times more likely to become infected when exposed to the parasite Nosema, compared with control bees,” said ARS researcher Jeff Pettis.

“Our study highlights the need to closely look at fungicides and bee safety,” said study co-author Dennis van Englesdorp, “as fungicides currently are considered safe and can be sprayed during the bloom on many crops.”

The new ARS study appears to shift the focus from pesticides - which cannot be applied to crops when pollination is under way - to fungicides, at least as a potential contributing factor.

But that focus on fungicides does not necessarily limit the scope of congressional concern.

A House bill sponsored by Representative John Conyers (Democrat-Michigan) would require EPA to suspend current use of a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids until field studies and scientific research can determine that they and other crop protection chemicals are not the cause of bee colony collapse disorder.

If passed, HR-2692 “Saving America’s Pollinators Act” (SAP Act) also would require the Department of the Interior (DOI) to coordinate with EPA “to regularly monitor the health and population status of native bees and identify the scope and likely causes of unusual native bee mortality”.

The bill-mandated studies by EPA and a separate joint undertaking between DOI and EPA would be on top of the already extensive bee pollinator research that has been under way at the Agriculture Department for about seven years.

Conyers, who so far has picked up 17 cosponsors for the SAP Act, said that swift action on use suspensions is necessary because of the escalating crisis.

“For over a decade now, honey bees have been suffering rapid population losses,” Conyers said. 

“Another decade of these mass die-offs will severely threaten our agricultural community and food supply system,” he said, adding that unless soon checked, CCD could cause the disappearance of many food groups from US grocery shelves, or at least drive prices for those products sky-high.

The Friends of the Earth (FOE) also has called for immediate action by Congress to force suspension of various approved crop protection chemicals, noting that the EU already has imposed a two-year ban on some agrochemicals.

Saying that the CCD crisis “is escalating at an alarming rate”, FOE food and technology director Lisa Archer warned that “the bees can’t wait, and neither can we”.

FOE is mounting a public relations programme to build support for the Conyers bill.

But Barb Glenn, senior vice president for science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, cautioned that legislation to restrict the use of crop protection chemicals would be “unlikely to contribute to any improvement in pollinator health and would ignore many of the complex factors believed to influence pollinator health”.

Among those other factors, she said, are parasitic varroa mites, various diseases, improper nutrition and cultural practices.

CropLife America, the 80-year-old trade group representing formulators, producers and distributors of crop protection chemicals, said that it fully supports “the strict science-based regulatory guidelines that ensure neonicotinoids are used responsibly and safely in the US”.

Glenn also noted that CropLife America “trusts the thoroughness of the EPA’s current regulatory process for neonicotinoids, which requires numerous tests to establish protection levels for pollinators and wildlife”.

Ironically, the thorough vetting and regulatory requirements for agrochemicals may be one reason why crop protection chemicals have become a focus in the CCD crisis.

Bo Greenwood, vice president for government relations and public affairs at CropLife, said that the increasing environmental, administration and congressional focus on crop protection chemicals for the CCD issue may be related to the availability of extensive agrochemical data.

“The reason for the increasing focus on crop protection chemicals is because ours is a data-rich industry, and we are so heavily regulated,” he said, adding: “So we have a lot of data available to test theories.”

Greenwood pointed out that while Congress has recently become interested in CCD, “we have been focused on this issue for many years”.

“CropLife America has worked closely with House and Senate committees to identify the root causes of these issues,” he said, “and we continue to work with other policy makers and stakeholders to reduce CCD and, more specifically, to protect pollinators.”

What happens if the multiple federal and private sector research projects fail to identify the root cause of bee colony collapse disorder? What if the US native bee population ultimately gets wiped out?

“We don’t know the answer to that,” Greenwood said.

“We’re not aware of any tests that keep track of that overall bee population number,” he said, adding: “But something is going on in the pollinator environment, and it is in all of our interests to protect pollinators and the role they play in American agriculture.”

By: Joe Kamalick
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