The agency said it would continue its “comprehensive scientific evaluation of all the neonicotinoid pesticides” to “determine if any restrictions are necessary to protect people, the environment, or pollinators,” and opened a 60-day comment period on the issue.

Recently, the European Commission recommended that use of neonicotinoid pesticides should be suspended for two years by European Union member nations. The action was based on research by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that indicated three neonicotinoid materials posed “unacceptable hazards” to honeybees.

The Jan. 16 EFSA report said treated crops, dust from neonicotinoid seed treatments, and contaminated nectar and pollen were factors in honeybee losses and weakening of hives.

“The European Commission recommendation was immediately picked up by U.S. media and public pressure was intense,” says Don Parker, IPM manager for the National Cotton Council, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association at Mississippi State University.

“An EPA official said they got over 3,000 phone calls that day asking that these materials be taken off the market in the U.S. Activist and public pressure on this is very organized.”

CropLife America, a pesticide industry organization, said the EFSA studies “fail to account for the many real world factors that impact bee and colony health,” and further, that the “researchers used unrealistic pesticide dose levels not commonly found in practical field conditions in agriculture.”

The pollinators/pesticides issue, Parker says, “has consumed more of my time in the past year or two than boll weevils — and we still have issues with boll weevils. If you had told me five year’s ago, I’d be putting this much effort on pollinators, I would have laughed. But this has become a major issue for agriculture.”

In February 2009, when there was widespread media attention to colony collapse disorder, which was causing widespread unexplained losses in commercial bee operations, the EPA held a forum in Washington focusing on the decline in pollinators, their importance to agricultural crops, degradation of habitat, pesticide use, and other issues.

The National Cotton Council “started following the situation very closely,” Parker says. “I began visiting USDA Agricultural Research Service units doing research with bees, trying to better understand these issues. We began talking with industry allies, and before long we were seeing major pesticide companies hiring bee experts and forming bee teams — indicating that this was becoming a serious issue.”

An official advisory group to the EPA was formed, the Pesticide Policy Dialogue Committee. That group has several sub-groups, including the Pollinator Protection Work Group, to which Parker was named.

“The neonicotinoids are the big target for the beekeepers and environmental groups,” he says. “They’re going after these materials hard.”

Even after the EPA said it found no evidence of imminent hazard, Parker says, “That was just one step in the battle —these groups have continued to issue press releases and stir controversy about the issue.

“Their sole focus is on crop pesticides and bee decline. They don’t talk about other major factors — just pesticides. The public’s perception is that ag pesticides are killing all of our pollinators and threatening our fruits and vegetables.”

Yet, Parker says, a national survey of beekeepers themselves listed other causes as the leading factors in bee losses.

Starvation due to loss of habitat and habitat diversity was ranked as the leading problem, followed by weather-related issues that caused bee death. Mites, particularly varroa mites, and their control, ranked third, and poor quality of queens due to limited genetics was fourth.

“Another study,” Parker says, “sampled honey, comb, and bees, and reported the pesticides detected. A lot of pesticides were detected — science can now detect extremely low levels of these materials — but among their findings was that many of the materials detected were products beekeepers themselves were using to try and control varroa mites, and not all of those products were labeled for that use.”

Although cotton growers potentially face restrictions on the use of critical pesticides, Parker says research “going all the way back to the 1940s” has shown bees don’t prefer the pollen in cotton blooms.

“Breeders said many times they couldn’t get enough bees in cotton to move the pollen around. One study showed that spines on cotton pollen grains make it difficult for the bees to collect — that only 15 percent of the bees would even try to collect it. But cotton does have extra-floral nectaries, which the bees do like. This could probably be changed through breeding.”

A major concern in the pollinator issue, Parker says, is the potential for restrictive labeling on ag pesticides.

He is a member of the Pollinator Protection Work Group’s labeling committee and best management practices committee.