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Down to Earth Feeling the Sting: Toxic Pesticide Threatens Honeybees

Episode Summary

Earthjustice Attorney Greg Loarie discusses his work to get a toxic pesticide known as sulfoxaflor off the market, due to threats it poses to honeybees.

Over the last few years, honeybees, which pollinate billions of dollars of U.S. crops annually, have been dying at unprecedented rates. Studies suggest that toxic pesticides like sulfoxaflor may be partly to blame.

Greg works in the California regional office and spoke with Associate Editor Jessica Knoblauch in August of 2013.

Interview Highlights

Jessica Knoblauch: Greg Loarie , welcome to Down to Earth .

Greg Loarie: Thank you.

Jessica: In July, Earthjustice sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approving a pesticide known as sulfoxaflor [pronounced sul-fox-a-floor] , which has shown to be highly toxic to bees.

Given that there are so many pesticides on the market, why did Earthjustice decide to target this specific pesticide? What's so bad about it?

Greg: Well, Jessica, the fact is that we're at a point of genuine crisis as far as honeybees are concerned. All across America, honeybee colonies are collapsing.

Unless things change fast, we won't have enough bees soon to pollinate many important crops, including almonds, apples, squash, melons, blueberries, plums and peaches.

And in the midst of this crisis, EPA approved a new pesticide called sulfoxaflor. Now, sulfoxaflor belongs to a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, and like most neonicotinoids, sulfoxaflor is extremely toxic to bees. Sulfoxaflor is also a systemic pesticide, which means it's absorbed into the growing plant and makes the whole plant, including the pollen and the nectar, poisonous to bees.

EPA's decision to approve sulfoxaflor could be the proverbial last straw for our bees and we've challenged EPA's decision on behalf of a coalition of beekeeping organizations and individuals.

Jessica: What's at stake for these clients and what are their main concerns?

What's at stake? Is it just a few honeybees?

Greg: The beekeepers are really at the front lines of this crisis. Many of the folks we're representing have reported losses of up to 90 percent of their hives in a single winter. And many of them are ready to throw in the towel entirely.

But as beekeeping goes, so goes the farming. To give an example, about 80 percent of the world's almonds are grown in California, which translates to a $4.3 billion economy. But you just can't grow an almond without a bee, and so every year about a million and a half bee colonies are trucked into California, mostly from the Midwest, many by our clients, to pollinate the almond orchards here. So the honeybee crisis poses a direct threat to the California almond industry, not just the beekeeping industry.

Several of our clients are third and fourth generation beekeepers… They've always assumed they might pass the business down to their kids, and now they really see the entire profession, their whole livelihood, unraveling before their eyes at a speed that I think no one ever thought could possibly come to pass.

Jessica: In addition to these national organizations, we also have a few independent beekeepers that we're representing in this case. Do they have the same concerns?

Greg: It's actually really sad. Several of our clients are third and fourth generation beekeepers. They learned this business from their parents or grandparents, and they've always assumed they might pass the business down to their kids.

And now they really see the entire profession, their whole livelihood, unraveling before their eyes at a speed that I think no one ever thought could possibly come to pass. So it's really heartbreaking.

Jessica: Tell me about the people who want to use sulfoxaflor. Why are they so adamant about using it?

Greg: When you're a farmer and pests are threatening your crop, you can't just sit idly by. And most farmers want to do the right thing, but like all of us, they ultimately rely on the government to make sure that pesticides are safe. And the problem is that the government, and the Environmental Protection Agency in particular, has not been doing its job as far as bees are concerned.

To date, EPA hasn't taken a hard look at the unintended impact that exposure to systemic pesticides like sulfoxaflor has on honeybee colonies. And that's really what we're aiming to fix through this lawsuit.

Jessica: If we can't use this pesticide, are there alternatives? Or would it be difficult for farmers to switch to a less toxic pesticide?

Are there alternatives to sulfoxaflor?

Greg: There are alternatives. And the bottom line is that if we're going to use pesticides, we need to make sure that they are safe. And it's certainly within our power as a nation to grow food without sacrificing honeybees

Jessica: You mentioned earlier that this pesticide is highly toxic to bees. What kinds of effects does the pesticide have on the bees?

How does sulfoxaflor affect bees?

Greg: Sulfoxaflor is super strong stuff. Exposure to as little as a tenth of a microgram of sulfoxaflor is enough to kill a bee. But more troubling is the impact that chronic exposure to sulfoxaflor has on the entire bee colony. And over time, there's a lot of evidence that exposing bees to sulfoxaflor results in hives that are less productive overall, more susceptible to parasites and disease, and less able to withstand the normal sort of wear and tear of being a bee.

The problem is that EPA really doesn't factor bees into the equation—hardly at all—when registering pesticides.

To a large extent, the EPA has just had its head in the sand and our goal is to pull its head out.

Jessica: When you mentioned earlier that the EPA needs to take a hard look at this pesticide, is that what you're referring to, this chronic exposure? Have they not looked at that?

Greg: The problem is that EPA really doesn't factor bees into the equation—hardly at all—when registering pesticides. To a large extent, the EPA has just had its head in the sand and our goal is to pull its head out.

Jessica: Basically we're asking the EPA to reconsider its decision to approve sulfoxaflor. What's the next step in this case?

Greg: Our case is before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and we're doing everything we can to ensure that the case is heard as soon as possible. In the meantime, we're keeping the pressure on EPA to take immediate action to protect bees from pesticides.

Jessica: And is sulfoxaflor currently being used?

Greg: It is legal to use sulfoxaflor in some states, not in California at this point and not across the board. And again, we're doing everything we can to keep it out of the bees' backyard.

Jessica: A lot of people are concerned about this issue. Is there anything that consumers can do to help?

Are there things we can all do to help bees?

Greg: Bees absolutely need our help right now. You might visit The Xerces Society website for tips on how to plant a bee garden or even start your own backyard hive. But really, most important, is for everybody to help spread the word about the role that honeybees have in agriculture and the way in which we really depend upon them. As we've talked about, they do a lot more than just make honey.

Jessica: I've seen articles that say that big box stores are actually selling flowers that have pesticides sprayed on them. Do you have any recommendations on how to ensure gardens are bee-friendly?

Greg: Sure. When you go to the nursery in the first place, insist on plants that haven't been sprayed with systemic pesticides. That's the first step. Annual plants that you grow from seed like sunflowers, zinnias and cosmos, are also great options.

Jessica: This is not the only pesticide case that Earthjustice has taken on. We recently had a victory on methyl iodide and we've also done a lot of pesticide work over many decades. How does the current sulfoxaflor case fit into our larger pesticides' work?

How does this case fit into Earthjustice's overall body of work on pesticides?

Greg: In the United States of America, in the 21st century, we can grow healthy food without putting people's lives or environmental integrity at risk. And Earthjustice is committed to ensuring that pesticides are regulated appropriately and in accordance with laws that were enacted to keep us safe.

Our clients, as you mentioned, include farmworkers, children's groups, rural communities and organizations dedicated to food safety, among others. And it's not always an easy fight because the corporations that manufacture these pesticides have a lot of money on the line. But problems associated with rampant pesticide use have become too big to ignore and we just really need to step up to the plate.

Jessica: Can we remain hopeful that bees will make a comeback?

Earthjustice is committed to ensuring that pesticides are regulated appropriately and in accordance with laws that were enacted to keep us safe.

It's not always an easy fight because the corporations that manufacture these pesticides have a lot of money on the line. But problems associated with rampant pesticide use have become too big to ignore...

Greg: We can. Whenever you're confronted with a difficult problem there's always a temptation to either lose heart entirely or point the finger elsewhere, and there's no question that bees are taking the hit on a lot of different fronts. But we know that pesticides are a big part of the problem and we can address that issue now and that's what we're doing.

Jessica: And is there anything else you'd like to add?

Greg: No, but I really appreciate all of the attention to this [issue].

Jessica: Greg, thank you so much for your time.

Greg: Not at all.

Jessica: Greg Loarie is an attorney in Earthjustice's California office . A California native, Greg's docket focuses on endangered species, forestry issues in the Sierra Nevada and toxic pesticides.

For more interviews with environmental experts, please be sure to check out other Down to Earth episodes at earthjustice.org/DownToEarth.

About Down to Earth

Down to Earth is an audio podcast series about the news, events and personalities that make up Earthjustice. Hear from attorneys, clients, scientists, and more on Earthjustice litigation.

New episodes are released monthly. Subscribe on Soundcloud and iTunes.

Listen to more episodes.

By the Numbers: Honeybees

  • 1 in 3: Mouthfuls of food you'll eat today is thanks to the western honeybee
  • $15 billion: Agricultural value to farming each year
  • 33: Percent of U.S. honeybee colonies that died or disappeared during the 2012 winter season
  • $4 billion: Worth of the California almond, a crop reliant on honeybee pollination
  • 2006: The year Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) hit mainstream beekeepers and their colonies
  • 140: Number of different crops that are treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, a type of pesticide harmful to bees
  • 3–7 years: Lifespan of a queen bee,
    versus 20–30 days of a worker bee
  • 5 miles: Distance a honeybee can fly in a day to forage for food
  • 1/12: Teaspoon amount of honey a worker bee will produce during its short lifetime
  • $10 million: Amount of grant money Harvard's School of Engineering has received to begin crafting robotic bees
  • 50,000: The largest known mass-poisoning of honeybees after an insecticide was sprayed on trees in Oregon
  • 1,200: Number of pesticides currently registered for use in the United States

Source: Walsh, Bryan. "The Plight of the Honeybee." Time Magazine. August 19, 2013.
Photo Credit: Eva Ekeblad

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