Beekeepers struggling with massive colony collapse petitioned a court Friday to block a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency allowing wider use of a controversial insecticide particularly lethal to honeybees.
The EPA decided in July to drop restrictions on sulfoxaflor for use on about 190 million acres of U.S. cropland. The decision was made despite studies that the insecticide is “highly toxic to honeybees at all life stages” and harms wild pollinators like bumblebees even at low doses.
The Department of Agriculture just days earlier had ended its annual survey of bee colonies, so less data will be available to expose the toxin’s effect on surviving bees.
“Honeybees and other pollinators are dying in droves because of insecticides like sulfoxaflor, yet the Trump administration removes restrictions just to please the chemical industry,” charged Greg Loarie, attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the petition before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on behalf of the American Beekeeping Federation.
The court action argues that the EPA decision is “contrary to federal law and unsupported by substantial evidence.” It accuses the agency of relying too heavily on industry-funded studies when it expanded use of the pesticide.
“It is inappropriate for EPA to solely rely on industry studies to justify bringing sulfoxaflor back into our farm fields,” said Michele Colopy of the Pollinator Stewardship Council, which is also a plaintiff in the suit. “Die-offs of tens of thousands of bee colonies continue to occur and sulfoxaflor plays a huge role in this problem.”
The number of honeybee hives, critical to pollinating crops for the agricultural industry and other plants for wildlife, plummeted from 6 million in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2008.
A recent survey found that American beekeepers lost about 35% of their honeybee colonies over the 2018-19 winter — the highest level recorded since the tracking began in 2006.
Bees help pollinate a third of all the crops Americans eat. The insects’ value to the U.S. agricultural industry is estimated to be $200 billion a year.
The controversial insecticide, manufactured by DowDupont’s Corteva agricultural division, can now be used on a wide range of crops, including corn, soybeans, strawberries, citrus, pumpkins and pineapples.
Alexandra Dunn, head of the EPA office that oversees pesticides, said in July that she was “thrilled” that sulfoxaflor restrictions were lifted, despite the evidence of harm to bees and concerns about threats to human health.
“Even for Trump’s EPA, which seems to measure success by pesticide-company profits, it’s stupefying to OK spraying a bee-killing poison across millions of acres of crops frequented by bees,” Lori Ann Burd of the Center for Biological Diversity said at the time.
“While leading scientists and countries across the globe are calling for eliminating harmful bee-killing pesticides like sulfoxaflor, Team Trump is cheerfully promoting its use like a corporate PR firm.”
The EPA initially approved sulfoxaflor in 2013, but the 9th Circuit blocked the chemical, largely out of concern for pollinators, ruling that the agency had failed to obtain reliable studies on the insecticide. The EPA approved sulfoxaflor again in 2016 but with significant restrictions.
The latest EPA decision eliminates those restrictions and allows sulfoxaflor to be used on many new crops.