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Federal agricultural officials swat down Europe's pesticide ban to aid bees

| Friday, May 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Bees inside of one of Stephen Repasky's hives on Thursday, May 2, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Master Beekeeper Stephen Repasky of Dormont says he lost 68% of his hives over the winter.

Federal officials are rejecting steps the European Union took to ban three pesticides that beekeepers associate with sharp declines in the honeybee population.

A report on honeybee health, issued on Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, said factors beyond pesticide exposure weaken honeybee colonies crucial to American agriculture, including parasites, disease, genetics and poor nutrition.

“As in most things biological, there is no smoking gun,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“The decline in honeybee health is a complex problem caused by a combination of stressors,” acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said, during a conference call with reporters to discuss the report.

The European Commission, governing body of the 27-country EU, announced on Monday a two-year ban will begin in December on the use of pesticides clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam.

“Bee decline cannot be unambiguously linked to one factor. There are bees with over 100 different pesticides in them, and not all pesticides are neonicotinoids. It is not just a simple matter of removing pesticides,” said May Berenbaum, professor and entomology department head at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

Bayer CropScience developed the three banned pesticides, known as neonicotinoids. Farmers use them to treat corn and soybean seeds prior to planting.

Bayer did not return phone calls on Thursday.

A statement on the Bayer CropScience website says the company does not think the commission's plan will help bee health and considers the restriction “a setback for technology, innovation and sustainability.”

“The company is concerned that the restriction of these neonicotinoids will result in crop yield losses, reduced food quality and loss of competitiveness for European agriculture,” the website says.

Some environmental groups, however, complained that U.S. officials refused to implement a similar ban.

“Bees and pollinators are so critical. If we can't use these pesticides without killing off pollinators, then we should look at what Europe is doing,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist in the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

Scientific evidence against using neonicotinoids is mounting, Sass said.

Four commercial beekeepers and several environmental groups last month sued the EPA. They want clothianidin and thiamethoxam taken off the market and say the EPA should not have given conditional approval to the pesticides.

Pollination from honeybees adds $20 billion to $30 billion a year to the value of agricultural production in the United States, Ramaswamy said.

“It is imperative that we take action. The survival rate of honeybees is too low to meet the demand. Honeybee health is critical to American agriculture,” he said.

Crops that depend on bees include asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash, citrus fruits, peaches, blueberries, strawberries and melons.

Next week, the USDA and two industry groups, the Bee Informed Partnership and Apiary Inspectors of America, plan to release a winter survey of beekeepers' losses. Many beekeepers reported losing 50 percent to 70 percent of their bees this winter.

Since 2006, the year scientists identified Colony Collapse Disorder, commercial beekeepers have lost bees at a rate of at least 30 percent each winter. Even before scientists identified Colony Collapse Disorder, varroa mites and pathogens were killing bees at alarming rates.

Beekeeper Zac Browning, co-owner of Browning Honey Co. Inc., which manages more than 20,000 hives for honey production and pollination in Idaho, North Dakota and California, said his losses were twice as high last winter as the winter before.

“There are certain periods where there is very high demand, specifically relating to almond pollination in winter. We are on the brink of not meeting demand. There is concern about availability of bees for blueberries in Maine,” Browning said.

Browning attributed his losses to drought, pesticides and poor nutrition.

Smaller, backyard beekeepers such as Steve Repasky of Dormont also experienced steep losses.

“I had 35 hives and ended the winter with 12,” he said.

Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or

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