Better bee health begins and ends with science, not soundbites

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Honey bees are crucial to agriculture because they pollinate the many fruits, nuts and vegetables required for a healthy diet. In fact, bees are so vital to U.S. agriculture, commercial beekeepers transport them back and forth across the country to pollinate various crops. For example, over 1.5 million hives are trucked to California each spring to pollinate the $3 billion almond crop.
 
To address the bee health challenge, the federal government initiated an inter-agency bee health research program through a USDA grant. The recent meeting on honey bee health was a part of that effort.
 
There are numerous factors that can negatively impact honey bee health – including viral and fungal diseases, parasitic mites, habitat loss, plant and bee protection products, nutritional problems and inadequate cultural practices. Most scientists believe that colony losses are the result of multiple causes, with no single factor being solely responsible. Some critics, however, contend that neonicotinoids — a particular class of chemicals — are a principle cause.
 
Neonicotinoids can be applied directly on a seed and have become an important part of modern agriculture. Seed treatments allow farmers to manage destructive pests and represent one of the most efficient and environmentally friendly delivery systems for crop protection products. Only a small amount of a pesticide is applied to the seed, which provides for an unusually high level of precision – less than 1 percent of a given area is treated when compared to an equivalent spray application.
 
Earlier this year, several groups petitioned the EPA to suspend the registration of a neonicotinoid pesticide, contending its legal use represents an “imminent hazard” to honey bees. The petitioners’ “supporting evidence” statements have been widely publicized, but cannot be substantiated. The EPA responded by saying the Agency is not aware of any data showing that honey bee colony losses in the U.S. are correlated with the use of pesticides in general, or neonicotinoids in particular.
 
Although the EPA did not identify any evidence of imminent hazard, the Agency is engaged in reviewing neonicotinoids in the context of its normal review process. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) met last month to consider potential changes to the Agency’s pollinator risk assessment framework. Recommendations from the SAP will be published in due course and the Agency will consider these recommendations as it moves forward with its overall assessment of neonicotinoids.
 
Because the EPA has determined there is no imminent hazard, and is already working on its scientific review of the entire class of neonicotinoid chemicals (including soliciting public comment), one might expect that the public criticism of the Agency would be negligible. Instead, those groups which petitioned the EPA earlier this year to suspend the pesticide’s registration are now threatening legal action against the Agency.
 
CropLife America (CLA), the national trade association representing the developers, manufacturers and distributors of crop protection products, supports the efforts of the EPA and the USDA to increase the scientific basis for assessing any potential impacts of pesticides on honey bees and other pollinators. Our members understand that honey bees are the sparkplugs of agriculture, with one-third of all foods and beverages made possible by pollinators and accounting for nearly $20 billion in agricultural production each year.
 
Any threats to the health of managed honey bee colonies puts tremendous pressure on our nation’s agricultural industry and makes commercial beekeeping vastly more difficult. The farmers served by our member companies know the value of pollinators and recognize the challenges that beekeepers face. Sustainable agriculture relies both on pollinators and on crop protection products. To feed a hungry planet, pollinators and agriculture must coexist.
 
Our members know that it is the industry’s responsibility to manage products so that they will safely interact with the environment. This is why they have been devoting resources to support bee health for more than 25 years. They have built bee research facilities, developed education programs for growers to promote seed treatment product stewardship, and held forums for engagement with stakeholders.

The answers to improving and maintaining bee health will not be found in the media or the courtroom, but instead through ongoing scientific collaboration and through forums such as this month’s National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health. We fully support such efforts and remain committed to do our part to improve the health of pollinators and ensure our agricultural sustainability.

Glenn is the senior vice president of science & regulatory affairs with CropLife America.

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