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Buzzzzzzzz kill

The loss of billions of bees raises questions about our pesticide controls.

July 30, 2008|Al Meyerhoff | Al Meyerhoff, an environmental attorney in Los Angeles, is a former director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's public health program.
  • FARM WORKER: A honeybee rests on an almond blossom. The insects are crucial to California?s $2-billion-a-year almond crop.
FARM WORKER: A honeybee rests on an almond blossom. The insects are crucial… (Robert Durell / Los Angeles…)

It's likely that most people have never heard of Gaucho. And no, it's not a South American cowboy. I'm talking about a pesticide.

There is increasing reason to believe that Gaucho and other members of a family of highly toxic chemicals -- neonicotinoids -- may be responsible for the deaths of billions of honeybees worldwide. Some scientists believe that these pesticides, which are applied to seeds, travel systemically through the plant and leave residues that contaminate the pollen, resulting in bee death or paralysis. The French refer to the effect as "mad bee disease" and in 1999 were the first to ban the use of these chemicals, which are currently only marketed by Bayer (the aspirin people) under the trade names Gaucho and Poncho. Germany followed suit this year, and its agricultural research institute said it concluded that the poisoning of the bees was because of the rub-off of the pesticide clothianidin (that's Pancho) from corn seeds.

So why did the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 grant an "emergency" exemption allowing increased use of Gaucho -- typically invoked during a major infestation -- when only a few beetles were found in blueberries? Why did the agency also grant a "conditional" registration for its close relative, Pancho, allowing the chemical on the market with only partial testing? And why is the agency, hiding behind a curtain of "trade secrets," still refusing to disclose whether the additional tests required of companies in such cases were conducted and, if so, with what results?

Therein lies a tale. Most pesticides, we're told, are safe. So we add about 5 billion pounds a year of these deadly chemicals to our world, enough to encircle the planet if it were packaged in 100-pound sacks. Sure, they are regulated -- but badly -- under the antiquated Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. This law allows a chemical on the market unless it's proved to pose "an unreasonable risk," far too weak a standard.

Gerard Eyries, a Bayer marketing manager, said in connection with the French action that "imidacloprid [that's Gaucho] left a small residue in nectar and pollen, but there was no evidence of a link with the drop in the bee population." Bayer also blamed seed makers and suggested that there may be "nonchemical causes" for this massive bee kill. But Bayer may not be entirely objective here. In 2006, Gaucho sales topped $746 million.

Something is killing the bees, though. Some scientists suspect a virus; others mites, even cellphones. (Bees are not known to use phones, though, having their own communications system -- a dance called the "waggle.")

Here in the U.S., the bee kill is a big problem. Domesticated bees were brought to the U.S. on the Mayflower. Today, they contribute at least $15 billion to the nation's agricultural economy. For example, California's $2-billion-a-year almond crop is completely dependent on honeybees from about 1.5 million hives for pollination. This year, more than 2.4 million bee colonies -- 36% of the total -- were lost in the U.S., according to the Apiary Inspectors of America. Some colonies collapsed in two days.

Part of the problem is how we farm. Rather than rotating crops, farmers grow the same one each year. This "monoculture" creates a breeding ground for pests. Farmers then use chemicals that kill not only the target organism but other life forms as well -- like honeybees. That this approach may now be coming back to bite big-production agriculture is not without some irony. For decades the agriculture industry has been its beneficiary -- with farmworkers, consumers and local communities the victims. But, actually, we're all in trouble.

No independent government testing is required before a pesticide is registered for use. Large gaps in basic scientific knowledge about pesticides remain, including their environmental "fate" (where they end up) and their toxicity to humans and to wildlife. A problem pesticide may be removed from the market only after a long process and full trial -- something that should be done before. The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 improved control of residues in our food. That didn't help the bees.

Rachel Carson was vilified by an industry smear nearly 50 years ago, after the release of her book, "Silent Spring." "If we were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson," said American Cyanamid, the maker of DDT, "we would return to the Dark Ages ... insects, vermin and disease would once again inherit the Earth." But, as Carson so eloquently put it in a CBS documentary in 1964: "Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we now have acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is part of nature, and his war is inevitably a war against himself."

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