The Disappearance of the Buzz: is Chlothianidin the Culprit?

Chlothianidin, a neonicotinoid, may be one of the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder.     Why is it still on the market?

“Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”  Rachel Carson’s call to arms is as current today as it was in 1962.  The use of pesticides in America’s farmlands today continues to create concern regarding the ease of legalization and laxness of regulation.

Clothianidin and CCD (Photo courtesy of Timw_brap)

The disappearance of bees across the globe remains an open question, although clear attention is being paid to pesticides as potentially contributing factors.   The connection of pesticides to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is an example of both the lack of regulation and of supervision at the federal level when it comes to marketing and distributing highly noxious chemicals.  The story of one pesticide in particular, however, highlights the recognition that, as Paul Brooks, Carlson’s editor, says: in our “overorganized and overmechanized age, individual initiative and courage still count.”

While scientists agree that CCD is “a syndrome caused by many different factors, working in combination or synergistically,” research continues to focus on pesticides.  One pesticide in particular is raising a buzz in the bee community as well as on the federal level.  The case of chlothianidin, a neonicotinoid (considered a “green” pesticide because it is derived from nicotine), underscores the difficulties encountered in challenging large manufacturing companies and the EPA.

This nicotine-derived pesticide, that the EPA registered conditionally in 2003, is a systemic pesticide.  It is, as Tom Theobald, a Colorado beekeeper, points out, “incorporated into the system of the plant when the seed germinates.”  It is thus more appealing to the farmer.  Spraying cycles are less frequent and the pesticide kills all unwanted pests: “any insect which chews or sucks on the plant ingests the pesticide and dies.”  The problem here of course lies in selectivity: how does one save the good bugs from the bad bugs?  How does a bee keeper keep his bees from pollinating pesticide-treated corn in the hundreds of acres surrounding their beehive?

The answer is quite simple.  He cannot.  We cannot.  As Dave Hackenberg,  Pennsylvania’s largest bee keeper explains in a phone interview on October 17, 2011:  “you can’t build a fence around [the bees]  like you would with a cow […] The honeybees are going to fly for miles in each direction.  The colonies are going to bring [neonicotinoids] home.”  The problem with neonicotinoids is a complex one, as Hackenberg suggests in his interview with me:

In researching the effects of one of the neonicotionoids, chlothianidin, Theobald points out that two thirds of the bee colonies of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, died in May 2008, 99% of them showing high levels of chlothianidin.  It took Germany only two weeks to ban the chemical.  Soon Italy and Slovenia followed suit.

So why is the United States lagging in its response to banning it?  In researching the history of chlothianidin Theobald revealed the EPA scientists’ comments of February 2003: “This compound is toxic to honey bees.  The persistence of residues and the expression of chlothianidin in nectar and pollen suggest the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual stability of the hive.”

And yet the pesticide was approved by the EPA for use.  In April 2003, the EPA gave a registration to Bayer, the manufacturing company, that was conditional on its completion of a chronic honey bee study recommended by EPA scientists that would evaluate and confirm the possibility of toxicity.

In 2008, the results of the Bayer study, held under wraps since 2006, were made public.  They showed bees had been unaffected by the use of chlothianidin.  As Tom Theobald points out in “Pesticide Blowout,” “four colonies of bees were set in the middle of one hectare [..] of canola planted from treated seed, with the bees free to forage over thousands of surrounding acres in bloom with untreated canola, which they surely did.  What do you think the results were? They were exactly what Bayer wanted, of course.”

On December 8, 2010, representatives from several beekeeping associations wrote a letter to the EPA highlighting the “imminent hazard” posed by chlothianidin and requesting that the EPA issue a “stop use order.”   The EPA responded in February 2011 that the “imminent hazard” was not supported by data, evidence, or explanation: there was no case for issuing a “stop use order.”

The outcome: the pesticide is still on the market, waiting until 2012 for the EPA to assess the hazard it poses to honey bees. In Europe, the ban seems to have been rapid and efficient.  In the United States, the battle to ban chlothianidin remains an uphill one.