Limited EU Ban on Pesticides: But Will It Matter?

It is no secret that over the past fifteen years bee populations across the world have dramatically declined. Hive populations are at fifty year lows in North America alone.  Entomologists and beekeepers have taken to calling this decline, “Colony collapse disorder” (CCD). Everything from errant cell phone signals, pulsing power lines, and stress from factory farming has been investigated as a potential cause for the disorder.

EU beeNeonicotinoid pesticides, which have been commonly used against agricultural pests like aphids and whiteflies, in crops like maize, rapeseed, and sunflowers have also long been suspected to be involved in declining bee populations.

Recently the E.U Food and Safety Authority ruled that three of these neonicotinoid pesticides, clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, will be, after December 1, 2013 for 2 years, restricted from use as soil(granular) or foliar treatments on bee attractive plants and cereals.

The limited ban will still permit the use of these pesticides as a seed coating treatment where “the seed coating is performed in professional seed treatment facilities, which must apply the best available techniques in storage and transport, and where adequate drilling equipment is used to ensure a high degree of incorporation in soil.”

The partial ban is in response to the probable connection between the use of these pesticides and CCD. EU regulators believe that these particular neonicotinoid pesticides are accumulating in dust, leaching into flower nectar, and generally being ingested in potentially lethal doses by pollinating insects like honey and bumble bees.

Because larvae, and future queens, feed on regurgitated nectar, colonies of bees may be collapsing due to starvation when pollinators, weakened by nicotine laced nectar, never return.

While fewer workers alone might not cause colonies to collapse, it is thought that the stress increases hive sensitivity to shocks from other pathogens, fungi, and climatic changes.

However, according an assessment from the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, excluding rare extreme neonicotinoid exposures, deleterious effects from neonicotinoid exposure do not occur under normal circumstances. Additionally the UK rebuttal asserts that laboratory based studies demonstrating sub-lethal effects from exposure to neonicotinoids, do not replicate normative or realistic conditions, rather the studies observe the effects of rare and extreme exposure scenarios.

On top of UK and German resistance, US Regulators at the EPA recently approved for use Sulfoxaflor, a “fourth generation neonicotinoid”, all of which puts competitive pressure on European farmers.

Rapeseed farmers have already begun to raise alarm bells at potential crop losses in the upcoming seasons as neonicotinoids are the preferred and most effective means for dealing with pests.

While all groups urged additional research into the causes of CCD and solutions to declining bee populations, beekeepers in Europe and here in Corvallis continue to lobby environmental protection agencies to limit pesticide use.

In an interview with Lana Jones, local Melanie Sorenson said of beekeeping, “To be able to support the pollinators’ role in our ecosystem is a way we can be good stewards,” Sorenson added. “A lot of places are having trouble with habitat loss and excessive chemicals.”

Environmental activists stress that any risk to pollinators is a risk that must be taken seriously, regardless of the economic consequences. Without the efficiency provided by insect pollinators, most of the world’s food supply is at risk of being made too expensive for the average person they argue.

By William Tatum