It’s been a very rough period for bees. Bee numbers have been dropping at alarming rates, and the growing consensus seem to be that only limiting pesticide use (especially for some pesticides) can save them. Now, a US court overturned federal approval for a new formulation called sulfoxaflor, basically banning the pesticide.

Pesticides killing bees

Image via Discover Magazine.

The main problem is with neonicotinoids – a class of neuro-active substances linked with a swarm of negative environmental effects, including honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD) and loss of birds due to a reduction in insect populations. Sulfoxaflor is a neonicotinoid; on May 6, 2013, the United States Environmental Protection Agency approved the first two commercial pesticide products that contain sulfoxaflor, marketed under the brand names “Transform” and “Closer”, to the Dow Chemical Corporation. However, the decision was appealed and now, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling overturning the EPA’s approval of sulfoxaflor, finding that the EPA had relied on “flawed and limited” data, and its green light was unjustified given the “precariousness of bee populations”.

Circuit judge Randy Smith said:

“I am inclined to believe the EPA… decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retrospectively with studies it had previously found inadequate.”

This decision can also be appealed.

Neonicotinoids have grown popular for protecting crops and orchards from unwanted pests, but in recent years, there has been increasing evidence that they also damage pollinators and disrupt their navigation systems, with major impacts worldwide.

Neonicotinoid pesticides can disrupt bee navigation (Image: Zhang Bo/Getty)

Striking contradictions

The strange thing about the legality of neonicotinoids is that the European Union banned most of them in 2013, as part of an effort to protect bees. An even larger investigation on banning more pesticides will be launched this autumn. However, last month, the EU approved the use of sulfoxaflor, while leaving final decisions on its use to national regulators, despite the European Food Standards Authority warning that “missing information” about sulfoxaflor meant that “a high risk to bees was not excluded”. Meanwhile, in the US, most neonicotinoids are still allowed for use, but sulfoxaflor has been banned. This creates a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.

“The public will be justifiably confused and concerned,” says Matt Shardlow, CEO of Buglife, a British group that campaigns against neonicotinoids.

Answering Questions

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The lead attorney on the above mentioned lawsuit challenging the EPA’s approval of the pesticide sulfoxaflor took the time to answer some questions on Reddit. Here are some of the most interesting insights:

Question: What can the average person do to help bees?

Answer: First off, when buying ornamental plants for your home garden, make sure that they don’t come pre-treated with neonics. Unfortunately, many big nurseries are still selling flowers that are sprayed with neonics.

Q: Why do you have to say in response the NPR article basically saying everything is fine and the numbers reported don’t really tell the story at all?

A: First, we cannot expect native pollinators to stand in for commercially kept honeybees. Native bees are great, but where are we going to find the 1.5 million colonies it takes just to pollinate California’s almond crop each January? Second, every indication is that native bees have been taking it in the ear as well, and that’s a huge environmental impact in its own right.

Q: Thanks a lot for fighting the good fight, my question is how much other stuff needs to be removed to save bees in your opinion?

A: The hope is that we will eventually find a way to get off the toxic treadmill of evermore reliance on pesticides. It’s a social change, and it’s not going to happen on its own. It’s going to take commitment and real action on the part of government, corporate America, and all of us.

Q: What is going to replace neonicotinoids? Is the alternative better or worse for bees and farmers?

The hope is that we will eventually find a way to get off the toxic treadmill of evermore reliance on pesticides. It’s a social change, and it’s not going to happen on its own. It’s going to take commitment and real action on the part of government, corporate America, and all of us.

Q: What do you think will really happen if bees go extinct?

A: The reality is that commercial beekeepers will go extinct (read, bankrupt) long before honeybees. But the impact on agriculture and our diet will be essentially the same, because many of our most important crops absolutely require commercially kept bees for pollination. Agriculture as we know it just wouldn’t be possible without commercial beekeepers.

 

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