Bees Neonicotinoid Pesticides
Photo: NPR

The Environmental Protection Agency has found that the controversial class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids harm honeybees when used on cotton and citrus, but not on other crops like corn, berries and tobacco.

The “neonics” are a class of pesticide that has previously been linked to declines in bee populations. Neonics were developed in 1991 and commercial use began in the mid-1990s. Around 2006, commercial beekeepers began reporting what is now known as colony collapse disorder— where entire colonies of bees die off with no obvious cause. The disorder has been reported in commercial colonies all over the world. Several studies have implicated neonics, which are used to kill insects harmful to crops.

Due to the controversy around these studies, the EPA decided to conduct four scientific risk assessments to examine the neonics and how they affect bees on a chronic long-term basis. The first report, released on Wednesday, was conducted by the EPA and California’s environmental agency and only studied the effects on the honeybee population. Nearly one-third of the human diet depends on insect-pollinated plants, with honeybees pollinating 80% of those crops.

The EPA analysis found a “clear line of harm or no harm” when examining the effects of the pesticide imidacloprid, the most popular neonicotinoid. When bees bring nectar back to the hive with levels of concentration of imidacloprid that are above 5 parts per billion there are fewer bees, less honey, and according to Jim Jones, EPA’s assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, “a less robust hive.” However, if the nectar concentration level was under 25 parts per billion there were no negative effects.

Jones told the AP that the levels of harm depended on the crop. While cotton and citrus fruits were found to be above the harmful concentrations, the levels were not harmful for corn and other vegetables, berries, and tobacco plants. Jones also said the first assessment found that treating seeds with the pesticides did not seem to harm the honeybees.

“I am not convinced that neonics are a major driver of colony loss,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, University of Maryland entomologist, told the AP.  vanEngelsdorp did tell the AP he believes farmers are relying too heavily on the pesticides “against pests that are simply very scarce or not found in the landscape. There are studies (including EPA’s) that show no benefit to production when these products are used.”

However, Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director of the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, called the report “weak” and said the EPA ignored wild bees, such as bumblebees, which studies have indicated are more sensitive to neonicotinoids.

Once the EPA conducts the four assessments and accepts public comment, the agency may decide to act on the findings.

Neonicotinoids have also been the subject of a recent whistleblower complaint filed by a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

United States Department of Agriculture researcher Dr. Jonathan Lundgren filed an internal complaint in September 2014 accusing the USDA of retaliating against him in response to his neonicotinoids research. The complaint was dismissed by the USDA and Lundgren was suspended in October 2014. The West Field Times reports that the USDA said Lungren was suspended for three days after USDA investigators found emails among his research staff that included indecent jokes.

On October 28 2015, Lundgren filed a complaint with the federal Merit Systems Protection Board after his supervisors allegedly began to “impede or deter his research and resultant publications.” Lundgren’s complaint alleges that his supervisors suspended him in retaliation for his research on neonicotinoid pesticides and also calls for an investigation of both the USDA and the EPA.

This is the not the first time the USDA has been called out for putting politics before science. In early May of this year, Truth In Media reported that 25 organizations representing farm workers, food safety organizations, and the environment sent a letter to officials with the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency. They called for an investigation into claims that scientists are facing pressure and retaliation for research that presents the controversial neonicotinoid insecticide in a negative light.

The groups said they were concerned about a report from Reuters that detailed threats to scientists who speak out about the dangers of the pesticide. These threats included suspension without pay and threats of damage to careers. The scientists filed a petition in March asking for more protection.

PEER executive director Jeff Ruch told Common Dreams the petition was “based on the experiences of 10 USDA scientists.” The scientists allegedly faced backlash for research on neonicotinoid insecticides and glyphosate — an ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup Herbicide — as well as their investigation of other topics, including genetically modified crops.