As last winter approached, the number of bees in all their test hives steadily dropped, which is normal for that time of year. But while the control hives started to rebound in January, the pesticide-treated hives did not. Lu is now finalizing the study in hopes of publishing the results in a journal soon. One factor he is investigating is whether neonicotinoids do more harm to honeybees in colder temperatures.
YOU COULD SPEND A LIFETIME reading studies and counter-studies on pesticides and their effects on plant, insect, and animal life. Suffice it to say that debate rages over the chemicals we rely on and their true costs and benefits. But Europe, where honeybees have also suffered, has seen enough to act.
In May, despite opposition from the United Kingdom and some other member countries, the European Commission adopted a ban on the use of three neonicotinoids on crops that attract bees and other pollinators. The ban, based on a risk assessment by European scientists, takes effect December 1 and will be reevaluated after two years at the latest. (A few European Union countries had already imposed their own such restrictions, and there’s some evidence bee health has improved.) It’s a step Lu and other critics of neonicotinoids say the United States should be taking. “The EU’s ban is a slap in our face,” he says.
Europe and the United States, though, have different approaches to environmental regulation. Where Europe is willing to take products off the shelf until they can be proved safe, the United States often allows industry to sell products until they’ve been proved harmful, a process that can take years.
The EPA, in particular, has come under heavy criticism for allowing pesticide manufacturers to start selling new products after limited safety testing and then leaving it up to the companies themselves to provide further data down the road. “It’s a formula that is designed to fail, and it’s doing just that,” says Steve Ellis, a longtime commercial beekeeper in Barrett, Minnesota, who says he lost 65 percent of his hives in the 2012-2013 winter. “And the bee industry is failing because of it.” Ellis belongs to a group of beekeepers and environmental organizations that filed a lawsuit against the EPA in March alleging the agency has been negligent in pesticide regulation.
Chas Mraz, a third-generation beekeeper in Middlebury, Vermont, also thinks systemic pesticides might be to blame for bee losses, which he has experienced himself, but he’s pessimistic anything will be done about it. “It’s just like nobody gives a damn about the beekeepers or a lot of other small enterprises in this country,” he says.
The USDA and the EPA have been working jointly on honeybee health, trying to balance the importance of pest control to agriculture with the risks to pollinators. Kim Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says pesticides are critical to food production and that crop yields would be substantially lower without them. “We have a lot of people to feed,” she says. “So who goes without?”
The government, Kaplan says, can’t hastily take neonicotinoids off the shelf unless the science is clear, an argument echoed by EPA officials. Kaplan insists the government is looking hard at pesticides, including the scenario that chronic exposure is a catalyst that makes bees more susceptible to other problems.
What does the government make of Lu’s work on pesticides and honeybees? When I ask Kaplan about it, one of the first things she says is “Have you read some of the critiques of his studies?” In 2012, after he released the results of his first study, Lu says, he was disinvited from a meeting of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Panel. It was the kind of gathering he had participated in many times, and his research was certainly germane — much of the meeting, the agenda suggests, dwelled on bees’ exposure to pesticides. But Lu says he was told his work was too controversial. (The EPA denies that Lu was disinvited, saying there were simply more candidates than available slots at the meeting.)
The pesticide industry, meanwhile, downplays any risks posed by neonicotinoids, seeking to shift attention to other potential causes of dwindling bee colonies. Industry representatives make their case in detailed responses to news articles, through millions of dollars of lobbying in Washington, D.C., at government conferences, and on social media. Bayer, one of the biggest manufacturers, maintains a golden-hued Web page and Twitter account under the name Bayer Bee Care, where it promotes alternative explanations for why honeybees are disappearing. Continued...