WASHINGTON, Oct. 1, 2014 – Varroa mites and neonicotinoid pesticides are being targeted by opposing groups of legislators and industry stakeholders in the search for the culprit behind pollinator population losses, particularly the honey bee, which the government says adds more than $15 billion in value to agriculture each year.

During the winter of 2006-2007, some beekeepers began to report losses of 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives. Honey bee colony losses for 2014 were recorded at 23.2 percent, down from 30.5 percent in 2013, but above “acceptable” losses in the 12 to 15 percent range. About 10 to 15 percent of bees normally die each winter.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and John Conyers, D-Mich., and 58 other House members sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy Tuesday asking her to suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, one of the most widely used insecticides.

“I’m going to keep hammering away on this issue until we can ensure that the products we are using in our backyards and on our farms are not killing pollinators.” Blumenauer said.

Blumenauer and Conyers last year introduced a bill last year that would ban the use of most neonicotinoid chemicals until the EPA can conduct a more intensive review. Although the bill has not advanced, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that it would ban the use of neonicotinoids in the National Wildlife Refuge System by 2016.

Meanwhile, agricultural companies that produce these pesticides are working to dispel the criticism of “neonics.” During a Bayer CropScience press conference in Monheim, Germany, earlier this month, the company’s bee task force leaders said media focus on neonicotinoids is misleading.

“No study shows systematic correlation between honey bee colony mortality and the use of neonicotinoids,” said Global Pollinator Safety Manager Christian Maus. “Pesticides cause damage to bees when applied in an incorrect way. This is a fact, but doesn’t seem to be a key factor [in systematic colony losses].”

The European Commission adopted restrictions on the use of three pesticides belonging to the neonicotinoid family last year. While environmental groups praised the decision, Maus said he is “surprised at the EU’s precautionary principle… because science does not point to pesticides as the core bee mortality issue.”

Bayer recently opened its second Bee Care Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, to focus on pollinator health and products.

Earlier this month, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., introduced H.R. 5447, which would amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which regulates the crop protection industry.

Beau Greenwood, the executive vice president of government relations and public affairs at CropLife America (CLA), said Scott's bill would allow EPA to grant an expedited review for products intended to improve pollinator health by focusing on the varroa mite pest that kills honey bees. H.R. 5447 also mandates reports from the USDA and EPA on the impacts of varroa mites and agency actions to address them.

However, the Pollinator Stewardship Council said H.R. 5447 “misses the mark.”  Although the industry needs new ways to control varroa mites, the Council said before a new mite control product can be fast-tracked through the regulatory system, “it must be carefully developed and tested for unintended consequences.” The Council primarily wants Congress to increase funding for varroa mite control research through USDA and the National Science Foundation.

In 2013, the “Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health,” issued by USDA and EPA, recognized a “complex set of stressors and pathogens” associated with bee health and bee losses. Stakeholders focused on four main issues affecting bee health: nutrition, pesticides, parasites/pathogens and genetics/biology/breeding. However, the report identified the varroa mite as the “single most detrimental pest of honey bees” in the U.S.

Although conflicting legislation and proposals are being debated regarding bee health, the Pollinator Partnership is pushing a bill that would encourage state transportation departments (DOTs) to develop bee-friendly vegetation on highway right-of-ways. 

The bill introduced this summer and sponsored by Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., and Jeff Denham, R-Calif., is H.R.4790, the Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment Pollinator Protection Act (Highways BEE Act).  The Pollinator Partnership says right-of-ways managed by state DOTs represent about 17 million acres that could provide habitat and forage for monarch butterflies and honey bees.

In June, a memorandum from President Barack Obama called for immediate action against the threats to honey bees and other pollinators. The President's Pollinator Health Task Force is expected to publish an action plan at the end of the year.

“A key part [of the action plant] is what sort of public-private partnerships will come out of this,” said Pollinator Partnership spokesman Tom Van Arsdall, noting that the private sector manages and influences a lot of landscape that could be valuable to pollinators. 

In response to the White House initiative, Van Arsdall said a number of companies including some not necessarily involved in agriculture — like Boeing and Toyota North America — are forming a group called “Business for Bees” and agreeing to maintain landscapes healthy for pollinators. 

As they await movement on varying pollinator legislation and the White House task force plan, stakeholders can continue to debate solutions to pollinator losses at USDA’s meeting of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) Oct. 22-23, as well as a Bee Nutrition and Forage Summit.


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