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Hands off bee-harming pesticides: N.C. board to consider restrictions

Bee hive at American Tobacco Campus, Durham

A healthy honeybee hive at American Tobacco Campus, Durham   Photo by Lisa Sorg

When a honeybee gets dosed with a neonic, a common pesticide used on millions of acres of farmland and on home lawns, it may not get sick right away. Instead the bee’s immune system can take a hit, making this important insect vulnerable to mites and diseases. It’s similar to what happens how elderly people can succumb to the smallest infraction: Weakened by a simple cold or broken bone, they can develop pneumonia, which can ultimately kill them.

Neonics also can disrupt the bee’s memory and sense of smell; the bee then can forget where to forage or how to talk to its hivemates. And the pesticide can deplete the bee’s energy, leaving it too weak to find food or to survive a long winter.

With annual honeybee die-offs exceeding 40 percent of hives nationwide — 41.5 percent in North Carolina — scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency are growing concerned about neonics’ toxic effects on all pollinators, including butterflies. Now Toxic Free NC, a Raleigh-based nonprofit, has asked the state Pesticide Board to consider banning consumers from buying or using neonics — short for neonicotinoids. These pesticides are found in dozens of over-the-counter products available at garden centers and home improvement stores. If the board approves the rule, only certified pesticide applicators could buy and use these products.

“It is within the authority and the moral and legal responsibility of the board,” to regulate neonics, Preston Peck, policy advocate for Toxic Free NC, told the board.

However, the board has delayed approving the rule, opting to convene a panel of scientists to advise its members on the hazards of neonics on bees. The panel is scheduled to be confirmed by September.

“Certainly the board is not qualified,” to assess the issue, said board vice-chairman Thomas Allen Scarborough. For 30 years, he has worked for Bayer CropScience, a major manufacturer of neonics, in regulatory affairs and trade. “There are a number of opinions and the board should hear from experts. We need to have an objective scientific review.”

Toxic Free NC has suggested several scientists to the board. This could help balance potential panelists from the chemical industry or special interest groups, which are unlikely to want to further regulate these pesticides. (Scarborough also belongs to the Crop Protection Association of North Carolina. Its charge is to “communicate the value and safe use of crop protection chemicals to the agricultural industry of North Carolina.” The organization was named the Pesticide Association until 1995, when it change its name to “better reflect its role of protecting this state’s agribusiness interest.”)

For example, last year, the NC Farm Bureau opposed parts of a proposed rule to tighten the use of pesticides near beehives. The board eventually adopted a weakened rule, over the objections of beekeepers, that required crop dusters to notify registered beekeepers within one mile of treated fields and within 48 hours of spraying.

Beekeepers wanted to be notified within 72 hours, so they could move their hives; they also asked for a larger range of notification — 2.5 to 5 miles within treated fields, to account for bees’ foraging.

The NC Farm Bureau supported some of the changes, but opposed “to any attempts to expand the scope of the rule beyond aerial application,” such as spraying from trucks, “notification areas, or prior notification timeframes,” according to an email from Mitch Peele, the farm bureau’s senior director of public policy. The email was submitted as part of public comment.

As for the proposed rule currently before the pesticide board,  Toxic Free NC based the restrictions on legislation passed this year in Maryland, where 61 percent of hives were lost last year.

The Maryland Pollinator Protection Act goes into effect in 2018; it allows only certified pesticide applicators to use neonics. Ruth Berlin, executive director of the Maryland Pesticide Education Network, was instrumental in getting the law passed, although it took two years. A coalition of nearly 80 organizations and businesses supported the law; scientists provided research from more than 1,000 studies showing the harmful effects of neonics on pollinators.

Opponents of the regulation “will say the science is still out,” Berlin explained. “But 1,121 studies are hard to argue with.”

However, in its final version, the bill didn’t require the labeling of plants and seeds that contain neonics. When seeds are treated neonics, the pesticide can infiltrate the entire plant. Even some seeds and plants labeled “bee-friendly,” contain neonics, Berlin said, adding, “The label doesn’t tell the whole truth.”

Scott’s Miracle-Gro recently announced it would voluntarily stop including neonics in its Ortho brand of pesticides nationwide in 2017.

The EPA‘s reassessing the risk of neonics and could restrict their use; a report is due next year. Peck of Toxic Free NC said that so far, the EPA’s thresholds of toxicity are too high to adequately determine the extent of the harm to bees. Neonics have largely been tested on insects that are largely resistant to the pesticides’ effects. “We don’t gain a full understanding of the situation,” Peck said. “We need to be looking for and asking the right things.”

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