A story featured on NPR tonight led off with “[e]nvironmentalists and beekeepers are calling on the government to ban some of the country’s most widely used insect-killing chemicals.” These pesticides, called neonicotinoids or neonics, for short, coat the seeds of many agricultural crops, including corn. When a seed sprouts and grows, the sticky, chemical coating spreads through the whole plant and poisons insects, like aphids, when they eat the plant.
Christian Krupke, a professor of entomology at Purdue University in Indiana, has investigated reports of bees dying in large numbers in the Midwest. Neonics have been detected on them. He wondered how these bees came into contact with chemicals on seeds buried under dirt? Professor Krupke points to the machines that plant corn by using air pressure to push the neonic covered seeds from storage bin to soil along with a talc or graphite to permit smooth movement. The air, along with some of the powder, then blows out through a vent in the machine. Professor Krupke tested this planter exhaust and found neonic pesticide levels 700,000 times more than what it takes to kill a honeybee. This dust lands on nearby flowers, which bees feed on. Notably, the documented bee die-offs have all occurred during planting season.
Last week, a coalition of environmental groups and beekeepers sued the EPA, demanding rescission of its earlier approval of the two most prominent neonicotinoids, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Plaintiffs include four beekeepers, Steve Ellis of Old Mill Honey (MN, CA), Jim Doan of Doan Family Farms (NY), Tom Theobald of Niwot Honey Farm (CO) and Bill Rhodes of Bill Rhodes Honey (FL), along with Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network North America, Sierra Club, and the Center for Environmental Health. Paul Towers of the Pesticide Action Network argues that low-level exposure to neonics from millions of acres of seed-treated crops may weaken honeybee hives: rather than killing them outright, disorientation, reduced ability to gather food, impaired memory and learning, and lack of ability to communicate with other bees instead kills them slowly. Bayer CropScience, the biggest seller of these pesticides, insists that most studies show that neonics are safe. Yet the company is developing a waxy substitute for powder, which could reduce the amount of neonics released from corn planters by 50 percent. France, Germany and Italy have limited or banned the use of neonicotinoids to protect honeybees after the European Food Safety Authority found that they pose an unacceptably high risk to bees and that industry science may be flawed.