How big is the problem?

Bees are dying, whole hives of them, by the millions. These mass die-offs have been happening since about 2006. During the 12-month period ending in April, 2015, beekeepers reported losing 42.1 percent of their colonies. The normal rate of yearly loss is only 10-15 percent.

All those bee deaths have devastated beekeepers, many of whom have been in the business for generations. According to the USDA, abnormal numbers of bee deaths have cost beekeepers more than $2 billion since 2006.

But it’s not just beekeepers who pay for bee losses. Every year in the US,  $20-30 billion of agricultural business depends on bee pollination. That represents one in every three bites of food that Americans eat.

And the problem could get much, much worse. According to Jeff Pettis, the USDA’s leading expert on bees, “We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss from a pollination disaster.”

How can bee deaths cost you money?

A “pollination disaster” on the scale the USDA is warning about could hit not only US agriculture, but the entire US economy. And that would affect all Americans.

On a more personal level, if you ever eat fruits or vegetables, you will likely have to pay more for them if the bee die-off isn’t turned around soon.

Restaurants will have to pay more, too, and they will almost certainly have to pass those costs on to their customers. So if you ever go to restaurants, you’ll also be paying for bee losses there.

Why is this happening?

Researchers commonly cite several possible factors for bee die-offs, including diseases, mites, and loss of habitat. But the factor that has drawn the most attention is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are the most widely used pesticides in America. The seeds of virtually all US corn crops, and about a third of US soy crops, are coated with them before planting.

According to numerous studies, neonicotinoids harm bees in a number of ways:

  • Sometimes they just kill them outright. Researchers have found fields carpeted with dead honeybees around the areas where seed planting machines are at work.
  • Sometimes, researchers say, neonicotinoids weaken bees’ immune systems, so that they get diseases they wouldn’t normally get.
  • Sometimes they make bees disoriented, so that they can’t find their way back to their hives. The bees fly around in the wrong direction for a while, then they die.

The largest producers of neonicotinoids, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta AG, dispute these studies’ findings. These two companies have spent millions to lobby Congress on this issue.

In 2014, after a number of US agencies sounded the alarm about bee losses, the White House created a special Pollinator Health Task Force to address the problem. Meanwhile, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced in July that it was banning the use of neonicotinoids anywhere on the 150 million acres of land it manages across the country. The State of Oregon has also banned neonicotinoids, as have several major home and garden store chains, including Lowe’s.

For the most part, the US Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates neonicotinoids, has said it needs more information about these pesticides before pulling any of them from the market.

But on September 10, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a sharp rebuke to the EPA, when it vacated the agency’s 2013 registration of a new neonicotinoid called sulfoxaflor. In its decision, the court noted “the precariousness of bee populations,” and wrote that the EPA’s argument for registering sulfoxaflor “just does not fly.” In a concurring opinion, Judge N.R. Smith wrote “I am inclined to believe the EPA…decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate. Such action seems capricious.”

What are the major legal actions on this issue?

Since 2013, several lawsuits have been filed by beekeepers, beekeeping organizations, and non-profit groups. In the US, these suits have been filed against the EPA, and claimed that the agency has failed to regulate neonicotinoids in a way that protects bees. In Canada, beekeepers have filed a class action suit  against Bayer CropScience and Syngenta AG.

The following is a brief description of the three highest-profile legal actions in the US on this issue:

  • Ellis v. Bradbury was filed March, 2013 in the US District Court for the Northern District of California. The suit was brought against the EPA on behalf of Beyond Pesticides, the Center for Food Safety, beekeepers, as well as other environmental and consumer groups. The suit challenges the continued use of two neonicotinoids – clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Intervenors into the suit include Bayer CropScience LP; Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC; Valent U.S.A. Corporation; and CropLife America. Among the claims asserted in the suit are:
  • the EPA has failed to fulfill its own requirements as a regulating agency;
  • the EPA has “not been heeding the warnings of its own toxicologists” regarding neonicotinoids;
  • and, the EPA, after “conditionally registering” neonicotinoids pending further studies 12 years ago, allowed the pesticides to continue to be sold in this conditional regulatory state, while the agency ignored research about the harm they did to bees and other pollinators.

A Case Management Order issued this past July indicates that expert discovery will close in the case this coming December, after which it appears motion practice should be begin.

  • Another action of note is Pollinator Stewardship Council v. EPA. The action was filed in July, 2013 seeking to reverse a decision by the EPA regarding the registration of sulfoxaflor – another neonicotinoid. Petitioners include the Pollinator Stewardship Council, the American Honey Producers Association, the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, the American Beekeeping Federation, and several beekeepers. The beekeeper groups are represented by Earthjustice. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard argument in the action in April, 2015. And, on September 10, 2015, the appellate court issued a decision vacating the EPA’s registration of sulfoxaflor and remanding the matter to the EPA for further studies and data regarding the effects of sulfoxaflor on bees.
  • Finally, on March 16, 2015, the Center for Biological Diversity sent the EPA a formal notice of intent to sue regarding the agency’s registration of the neonicotinoid flupyradifurone.

Author: Bessie Antin Daschbach