The Environmental Protection Agency, CropLife America, National Cotton Council and others are urging the use of sound science as solutions are sought on what to do about declines in the health of honey bees, the world’s most prolific pollinator.

The pollinator health issue has become a big concern for the global crop protection industry as of late due to recent claims that agrochemicals are primarily responsible for declining honeybee health and for a malady known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). Several incidents and studies involving neonicotinoid seed treatments has also focused more attention on the impact of pesticides on bee health.

Beekeepers and environmental groups have subsequently called for fungicides, insecticides and herbicides to have stricter labeling, which could severely limit a producer’s ability to control several key pests.

Speaking at a joint summer meeting of the American Cotton Producers of the NCC and the Cotton Foundation, Tom Steeger, senior scientist at EPA, said studies that point exclusively to pesticides as the cause of pollinator health declines do not tell the entire story. He said pollinator health involves a very complex interaction of variables including cultural practices, monocultures, diseases and parasites, habitat loss, nutrition, management practices of beekeepers, moving bees large distances and large numbers of bees being kept in a particular area and overwhelming that particular habitat.

Pesticides are a factor, and do show up in the pollinator environment, however. “In 2010, a two year survey of 23 states and one province in Canada, across several agricultural cropping systems using pesticides, reported 121 different pesticides and metabolites within 87 samples in wax, pollen, bees and associated hives,” Steeger said.

A Federal, Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act scientific advisory panel is meeting Sept. 11-14, in Arlington, Va., to start developing a pollinator risk assessment framework, Steeger noted. EPA has posted a white paper in support of the Proposed Risk Assessment Process for Bees on the public docket at http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2012-0543-0004. The white paper discloses how EPA plans to redefine its risk assessment on pollinators. There are opportunities to comment on the site.

Iain Kelley, with Bayer CropScience and a member of CropLife Pollination Issues Management Team, says too many flawed studies on pesticides and pollinators are ending up as sound bites in news stories. “And that seems to be a very well-organized anti-pesticide campaign. It is certainly delaying the registration of new products as well as the re-registration of older products.

Kelley cited an article in Science magazine “which was a well-conducted study. The bees were given a daily dose of neonicotinoid in one trip out in the field, and there were significant number that didn’t find their way back to the hive. But the dose was the equivalent of chugging a bottle of wine in 10 minutes, and then finding your way back to the hive. It’s not the way things happen out there.”

An incident in Germany involving a planter and a dust cloud containing neonicotinoid residue didn’t help pesticide’s side of the story. Apparently, wind carried the dust cloud, which had sloughed off a poorly applied seed treatment, to nearby hives, killing bees and raising news headlines across Europe.

In France, the agricultural use of neonicotinoids was banned after they were blamed for pollinator health declines. However, the decline continued after the ban, and now France is trying to bring back the product.

Undoubtedly, the pollinator industry and U.S. farmers have a reason to work together on the issue, Kelley noted. About 70 of the top 100 U.S. crops, including 750,000 acres of almonds in California, rely on pollination, to some extent. The U.S. pollinator industry comprises about 1.6 million of the 2.6 million hives in the nation.

“All colonies in the United States are showing health issues, and certainly colonies would not survive without beekeepers,” Kelley said. “It’s not as much of a problem in other parts of the world presently. In Australia, which has a very similar type of agriculture as the United States, you’re not seeing that type of problem.”

Kelley noted that this past winter, there was much lower percentage of bees lost than in previous years. “Certainly it’s not a trend yet, but hopefully will see that continue.”

Kelley says the varroa mite, a parasitic insect, could emerge as a bigger factor in the pollinator decline. “Researchers have seen a huge change in the virus population in hives when the varroa mite moves into an isolated area.”

Don Parker, manager of integrated pest management for the NCC, says the goal of the crop protection industry and other ag organizations, including a task force formed to study the issue, “is to understand how to improve colony health. USDA and ARS have pointed out in studies that stress and nutritional factors are contributing factors. We want to make sure that we understand the big picture, and not just point a finger at pesticides.”

Doing so could head off the potential for some onerous label changes or restrictions currently being considered or in actual use.

For example, wording on the current label for Bidrin reads, “This product is toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment or residues on blooming crops or weeds. Do not apply this product if bees are visiting the treatment area.”

Another label contained this advisory language, “In order to minimize impact on honey bees when treating cotton, consider making applications in the early morning or early evening when bees are less likely to be visiting the treatment area. To protect bees and other pollinators outside of the treatment area, this product should not be applied under conditions that could result in excessive drift to neighboring areas where bees are expected to be actively foraging.”

Beekeepers are also urging label language to be more specific, such as restricting applications to nighttime only, when bees are not in a field, or not spraying fields when flowers or nectar are present.

“Think about what that means about our ability to protect against plant bugs,” Parker said. “Depending on how this risk assessment is developed, this could have a major impact on any products we use to protect our yields.”

 “There is a need for producers and beekeepers to work together to identify what works best for both,” Steeger said. “Pollinator protection is not an issue that we should ignore. It’s not going away. We need to be engaged and work for the common solutions at local levels, rather than through national mandates that do not consider the different regional and state needs.

“Our regulatory efforts are going to be based on science that enables us to defend the actions that we take in terms of mitigating the potential effects that pesticides may be having on pollinators, amphibians or any type of taxa that are potentially affected.”

Here’s an article in the American Bee Journal which argues for the use of sound science in this process. http://www.americanbeejournal.com/site/epage/79414_828.htm