Bee Aware

Why should we care about the plight of honeybees? Because the entire food chain is at risk. One in three bites of food we eat is directly dependent on insect pollination.
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There have been numerous reports, including on our program, Dan Rather Reports, about the decline of the honeybee. They've been dying off in huge numbers. The cause has been lumped under a title called "Colony Collapse Disorder" or CCD. But now scientists are telling us the danger is worse than they feared.

We were researching an update on how honey bees were faring after years of unexplained colony deaths. Beekeepers are now losing an average of 30-50% of their hives each year from all kinds of symptoms. But our investigations found evidence that has led all the way back to the people who regulate our country's pesticide program at the Environmental Protection Agency.

OK, so we all like honey, but why should we care exactly? To paraphrase scientists: the entire food chain is at risk. One in three bites of food we eat is directly dependent on insect pollination: apples, cucumbers, pumpkins, avocado, almonds, zucchini and blueberries to name a few. And it's not just here in the United States. With losses being reported from all over Europe, the Middle East and some parts of Asia, the worldwide economic value of pollinators to agriculture, estimated to be over $200 billion dollars, is in the balance.

So what's going on? One of the suspects, according to beekeepers and scientists, is relatively new on the market. Remember these words: systemic pesticides. Systemics work differently than any other pesticide. These chemicals, derived from nicotine, are called neonicotinoids. How they got onto the market illustrates, according to several scientists we spoke to both inside and outside the EPA, the real deficiencies of pesticide regulation in this country, and the questionable role of industry in these decisions.

Systemic pesticides have changed the game of insect control since they were introduced in the mid-90s. They have since become the fastest growing class of any insecticide in history, and among the most widely used in the world, now approved for use on three quarters of all U.S. farmland.

Systemic pesticides have become popular because they're so effective. Since they are absorbed by the plant, either through seed treatment or spray, the whole plant becomes toxic to insects. That means they don't need to be reapplied like traditional pesticides, saving time, money and exposure to humans. But it also means that the chemicals get into the pollen and nectar. Before farmers started using systemic pesticides, beekeepers were always on the front line of the chemical warfare in agriculture, and farmers agreed not to spray when plants were in bloom to prevent exposure to bees. Now, with systemic pesticides, the chemical is in the bloom. So bees searching for nectar now can come into contact with pesticides too.

Chemical companies and the EPA maintain that it's about dosage -- as long as chemical use is at safe levels there will be no problem. But there are concerns. Number one -- beekeepers are worried because the chemical companies are the ones testing their products for safety. Not the EPA. As one beekeeper told us, it's like the fox designing the best chicken coop. Also, independent scientists are now convinced no one really knows what that safe level is when it comes to long-term impacts on honey bees, not the EPA, not industry, and at this point, not even the independent scientific community. And it appears that the EPA hasn't made this a priority.

Chemical companies say neonicotinoids are safe for bees. But scientists say prove it. According to sources and our own investigations, the companies have yet to submit one acceptable field study of systemics on long-term impacts to honey bees since the new pesticides were allowed on the market in the mid-90's.

Sources within the EPA tell us that agency scientists have been voicing concern over the neonicotinoids since they first came up for registration over 15 years ago with special concern raised over impact to honey bees. Our sources also told us, however, that scientists can't even suggest a connection between pesticides and colony losses for fear of being ostracized and excluded from meetings. With decisions being made by administrators, who are not necessarily scientists, sources say they don't even know themselves what goes into these ultimate decisions of what to approve for sale. And sources report that EPA scientists feel demoralized, when they work so hard to get risk assessments out that decision makers ultimately ignore.

Critics of pesticide regulation point to how Congress has set up the program in the first place. Unlike in Europe where they have the option to use a precautionary principle to keep a pesticide off the market until science proves it to be safe. In the United States, the EPA is mandated to consider many options, and only one of those is the science. It must also consider a range of other factors, such as economic, political and social factors.

Currently there are more than 17,000 pesticide products on the market in the U.S., and scientists say there is much that remains unknown about their impact on the environment, including the effect of combinations of compounds. While many credit the EPA with doing a good job at making sure pesticides are safer and safer for humans, they have a lot to answer for when it comes to honey bees.

Ultimately, when it comes to the systemics, even our sources inside the EPA acknowledge, a complete redesign of how the EPA determines safety risks of pesticides may be the best bet for bees.

Dan Rather Reports airs Tuesdays on HDNet at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. This program is now available on iTunes. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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