Pollinators are struggling, but policy is tricky.

Estimated read time: ~5 to 7 min

TL;DR Bees and other pollinators are vital to keeping ecosystems and the economy running, but current regulations on neonic pesticides in the U.S. do not sufficiently protect pollinators. Although neonics are temporarily banned under FIFRA, neonic seed treatments (NSTs) are not included in this ban. NSTs should be banned (at least temporarily) to avoid further environmental damage and negative effects on pollinators. Integrated pest management should be promoted as an alternative to preventative pesticide applications, like NSTs.

In the last year, I’ve heard a lot about “saving the bees”, and I’m all about it.

Last month, the BBC wrote an article highlighting two new studies in the June 30th release of Science that reaffirm the conclusion that the neonicitinoid class of pesticides (aka neonics) are damaging to bee health and survival.

Early this year, Cheerios partnered with the Xerces Society to #BringBacktheBees. Cheerios sent out millions of wildflower seeds to people across the U.S. to promote habitats for bees and other pollinators. Although well intended, it’s noted this campaign wasn’t very well planned since the seed packs sent out included wildflowers that are invasive species in certain areas of the U.S. (meaning they could potentially do more harm than good).

Planet Money even did a podcast episode on commercial bee keeping in the U.S., explaining how bees are driven cross-country on large trucks to pollinate various crops throughout the year. To someone unaware of the business of beekeeping, it may sound ridiculous to drive bees around the country, but pollinators play an important role in our economy. Managed and wild pollinators and their services contribute an estimated 24 billion USD to the U.S. economy.

Although I was terrified of bees when I was younger (like, sprinting at the sight of a bee terrified), I’ve grown to appreciate them as a vital part of our ecosystems and find them absolutely fascinating (I still run away from wasps though!). My love for bees is in large part due to a bee biology and beekeeping class I took for fun during my undergraduate at Purdue. We learned about everything from the social structure of honey bees and the importance of pheromones in regulating hive activity to the basics of managing a hive and harvesting honey. If you’re at Purdue, I would highly recommend the course to anyone interested in the environment, entomology, or beekeeping.

And yes, you get to wear one of those super flattering, giant white beekeeping suits and see (and taste) beautiful things like this:


It was also during this course that I first really considered the negative impacts human activities have on bees and other pollinators, including the thousands of species of solitary bees in the U.S. (yes, that’s right: not every bee lives in a hive!)

Although it’s hard to quantify the number of bee species that have been significantly harmed by human activities, a recent study from the UN concluded 40% of invertebrate pollinator species (including bees) are “facing extinction”.

We don’t know the full impact of human actions on native bee species, but we do know that managed honeybees are suffering. Although it’s natural for some hives to die each season, U.S. beekeepers experienced an extraordinary 45% mortality rate in 2012.

To be clear, honeybees aren’t near extinction, but their wellbeing may help point to factors that are damaging native bee species and other pollinators whose populations are less visible. There is not a single identifiable cause of the widespread collapse of pollinators, but several contributing factors have been identified, including habitat destruction, varroa mites and other pests, and the widespread use of neonicotinoids (aka neonics).

I will now focus on neonics and their use and regulation in the U.S.

Neonics are the most widely used class of insecticide in the U.S. However, due to their potentially harmful effects on ecosystems and the environment (e.g. soil and water contamination and lethal and sub-lethal effects on pollinators), the U.S. temporarily banned their use under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) in the 2015 Saving America’s Pollinators Act.

This may sound like the neonic problem has been fixed (for now), but this is far from the case.

FIFRA does not include regulations of seed coatings, so seeds with neonicotinoid coatings (aka neonic seed treatments, or NSTs) are excluded from regulation. Approximately 60 million hectares in the U.S. are planted with NSTs, representing nearly 40% of total U.S. cropland. Corn and soybeans account for a majority of NST use.

This is a problem.

NSTs are considered a prophylactic application of neonics. This violates the sustainability approach of integrated pest management (IPM) promoted by the EPA and others that recommends the management of pests “by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment”. Further, there has been little support of positive benefits of this method of application. In fact, the EPA even noted the “negligible overall benefits” of NSTs on soybean application in a cost/benefit review of soybean NSTs.

Borrowing from an assignment I wrote at Cambridge, “In many cases where NSTs are used, there is no need for neonics. Surveys have shown 39% of corn growers and 65% of soybean growers using NSTs were not targeting specific pests. However, it is up to the manufacturers to select which pesticides to include in seed treatments, and it has become increasingly difficult for farmers to buy seeds without neonics as part of the coating. Thus, it is clear the incentives for NST use are not aligned with the sustainability principles of IPM, leading to inefficiencies. … Further, in cases where pesticides could benefit yields, targeted applications of pesticides that manage the same pests as neonics are more effective in increasing yields and are up to 3 times cheaper”

So, despite well supported negative effects of neonics on pollinators and the environment and little proof of any economic benefits in terms of yield, NSTs are not regulated as part of the FIFRA moratorium on neonics.

In 2016, this was challenged by a group of beekeepers, farmers, and NGOs in California’s Northern District court. U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled in favour of the EPA,  upholding the exclusion of NSTs from FIFRA, but noted “The court is most sympathetic to the plight of our bee population and beekeepers. Perhaps the EPA should have done more to protect them, but such policy decisions are for the agency to make.

So, despite seemingly no clear scientific evidence to support NSTs, large agricultural manufacturers will continue to profit from their production and pollinators will continue to suffer unless some other policy is put in place.

Policy making is tricky (as Donald Trump is also apparently learning).

So what can you do about all of this?

Unless you’re in policy or have some other lever to challenge the NST exclusion from FIFRA, I’m not sure how to go about challenging the regulations (any suggestions are welcome!).

But, you can plant wildflowers and swear off pesticides in your lawns/gardens to help support habitats.


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