WASHINGTON, DC, August 16, 2013 (ENS) – To protect bees and other pollinators, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed new pesticide labels that prohibit use of some neonicotinoid pesticide products where bees are present. Environmentalists want the agency to take these pesticides off the market.

“Multiple factors play a role in bee colony declines, including pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency is taking action to protect bees from pesticide exposure and these label changes will further our efforts,” said Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

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This new bee hazard icon will appear on neonicotinoid pesticides (Image courtesy EPA)

The new labels will have a bee advisory box and bee hazard icon with information on routes of exposure and spray drift precautions.

The announcement Thursday affects products containing three neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Neonicotinoids are extremely toxic to bees, even in very small amounts. The pesticides are water-soluble and persist in the environment for years.

In April, the European Commission adopted a proposal to restrict the use of these same three pesticides for a period of two years. The restriction came in response to a report by the European Food Safety Authority that identified “high acute risks” for bees from exposure to pesticide dust in corn, cereals and sunflowers and to residues in pollen and nectar in crops like oilseed rape and sunflower.

The EPA will work with pesticide manufacturers to change their labels so that they will meet the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act safety standard.

In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and EPA released a report on honey bee health, showing scientific consensus that there are a complex set of stressors associated with honey bee declines that have lasted for years, including loss of habitat, parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure.

The agency works with beekeepers, growers, pesticide applicators, pesticide and seed companies, and federal and state agencies to reduce pesticide drift dust and advance best management practices.

The EPA recently released new enforcement guidance to federal, state and tribal enforcement officials to enhance investigations of beekill incidents.

But environmental groups say while these efforts are good as far as they go, much more is needed to truly protect bees.

Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute released a report Thursday showing that some “bee friendly” home garden plants sold at Home Depot, Lowe’s and other garden centers have been pre-treated with pesticides shown to harm and kill bees.

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Honey bee and milkweed flowers in Maine (Photo by Ron Gay)

The pilot study found that seven of 13 samples of garden plants purchased at top retailers in Washington, DC, the San Francisco Bay Area and Minneapolis contain neurotoxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world.

“Our investigation is the first to show that so called ‘bee-friendly’ garden plants contain pesticides that can poison bees, with no warning to gardeners,” said Lisa Archer, director of the Food and Technology Program at Friends of the Earth. “Bees are essential to our food system and they are dying at alarming rates. Neonic pesticides are a key part of the problem we can start to fix right now in our own backyards.”

Friends of the Earth, Sum of Us and allies sent letters Wednesday, along with petitions signed by more than 175,000 people, to Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target and other garden retailers asking the stores to stop selling neonicotinoids and plants pre-treated with the pesticides.

The groups point out that a majority of the UK’s largest garden retailers, including Homebase, B&Q and Wickes, have already stopped selling neonicotinoids.

“The pilot study confirms that many of the plants sold in nurseries and garden stores across the U.S. have been pre-treated with systemic neonicotinoid insecticides, making them potentially toxic to pollinators,” said Timothy Brown, PhD, of the Pesticide Research Institute.

“Unfortunately, these pesticides don’t break down quickly. They remain in the plants and the soil and can continue to affect pollinators for months to years after the treatment,” said Brown.

The high percentage of contaminated plants and their neonicotinoid concentrations suggest that this problem is widespread, and that many home gardens have likely become a source of harm for bees.

“Bees have enough troubles; there’s no need for home gardens to add to the problem,” said Emily Marquez, staff scientist at Pesticide Action Network. “Studies indicate that widespread use of systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids is contributing to major bee kills around the globe. And even at doses that don’t kill bees, neonics weaken bee immune systems and impair critical brain functions, making it hard for bees to find their food sources and return to the hive.”

“We must take immediate action to address this crisis. Europe has banned bee-harming pesticides, retailers in the UK are refusing to sell them, and stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s have a moral obligation to make the same commitment here in the U.S.,” said Archer. “In the meantime, gardeners should start their plants from untreated seeds or choose organic plants for their gardens.”

Bee advocates are calling for the U.S. EPA to suspend the use of neonicotinoids as the European Union has done.

Larissa Walker, policy and campaign coordinator at the Center for Food Safety, said, “While neonics may not be the only factor in bee die offs, they are a significant factor, and one that we can do something about. It’s time for EPA to step in and suspend use of these pesticides on bee-attractive plants.”

Last month, House Democrats Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and John Conyers of Michigan introduced the Save American’s Pollinators Act, which would suspend the use of neonics on bee-attractive plants until EPA reviews all of the available data, including field studies.

Blumenauer introduced the bill after 50,000 bumblebees died in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon when the neonic pesticide dinotefuran was applied to nearby trees. The bee die-off prompted the Oregon Department of Agriculture to prohibit further cosmetic use of pesticides containing dinotefuran until the end of the year.

Canadian bees are affected too. In July, 37 million honeybees were reported dead across a single farm in Ontario from the dust associated with planting neonic-treated corn seeds.

Canadian beekeeper Dave Schuit estimates that 1.3 million bees have died in his yard north of Hanover, Ontario in the past 24 hours, reports CTV. Schuit says he has seen this before, and it looks like the bees have been poisoned.

“I believe it’s in the soil, the neonicotinoids,” says Schuit of Saugeen Country Honey. “I believe it’s in the water and it’s in the pollen.”

According to the Ontario Bee Keepers Association, the number of acute poisonings like this is mounting this summer, and the total number of incidents is expected to surpassĀ  the 2012 season, when 240 were reported. Laboratory testing confirmed the presence of neonicotinoids in 80 percent of those cases.

“The weight of accumulated evidence from scientists across Europe and North America shows that neonicotinoids harm honey bees, bumble bees, and other important pollinators,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.

“Swift action is needed by all sectors of society to reduce the prevalence of these insecticides in our environment,” said Black. “By phasing out their use, nurseries can play a leadership role in this change.”

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