The next big battle — which could have a major impact on agricultural pesticides — is already under way.

It involves a tiny crop pollinating insect, the honeybee, and to a lesser extent its larger cousin, the bumblebee.

It could have a significant impact on pesticides available to agriculture and how those materials are used, including a potential requirement that pesticides be applied only at night when there is no bee activity.

Dead center in the initial skirmishes between beekeeper organizations, environmental groups, the EPA, pesticide manufacturers, and agriculture organizations are a number of ag pesticides, including the widely-used neonicotinoids.

Registration of a new pesticide anxiously awaited by cotton producers for plant bug control, Transform (sufloxaflor), has been slowed because the EPA, under pressure to suspend the use of neonicotinoids and other pesticides on crops with bee activity, continued to ask for additional documentation on Transform’s impact on pollinators. (It is expected that Transform will receive a full label for the 2013 crop season.)

It is estimated that bees pollinate as much as one-third of U.S. crops. They are heavily used in California, the nation’s No. 1 agricultural state; estimates are that more than half the bees in the nation are brought to California in the spring to pollinate the almond crop.

In recent years, commercial beekeepers have sustained major losses of honeybees, partly due to a disease, colony collapse disorder, the specific cause of which remains unknown. But beekeeper groups and other organizations have contended that ag pesticides are among the reasons for bee losses.

In March 2012, a group of beekeepers and honey producers, along with several anti-pesticide and food safety organizations, petitioned the EPA for an emergency suspension of the seed treatment clothianidin (trade name Poncho), claiming an “imminent hazard” to pollinators.

The agency investigated and in July 2012 said, “the EPA does not believe there is substantial likelihood of imminent serious harm from the use of clothianidin) and denied the request for suspension.

Further, it said, the petition did not demonstrate that the use of clothianidin “is causing or will cause a significant reduction in populations of domestic bees or native pollinators; significant decreases in honey production; serious effects on other agricultural systems as a result of decreases in pollination services, or a reduction in pollination of wild plants in a way that may alter ecosystems.”

Will continue evaluation

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.

Labeling issue a big concern

“The labeling issue is the one that concerns me the most,” he says. “There is pressure by the beekeepers and other groups to have labels changed to say that if a product has any activity on bees, it must be applied at night.

“I told them, ‘We can’t do that,’ and their response was, ‘Yes, you can — they’re doing it in Yuma, Ariz. Beekeepers and producers there got together and agreed they needed to save the bees, so they all spray at night.’

“I told them they may be able to do that in the wide open spaces of Arizona, but it’s another story in the hills of Mississippi, Alabama, and other states where there are fields with 50-foot pine trees on the edges and power lines running through the middle of them. No pilot is going to fly those fields at night.

“When growers needed to spray for plant bugs, for example, they need to do it right now. They can’t get over all that acreage with ground equipment at night; they have to have airplanes to apply these products, and nighttime application just won’t work.

“But they’re pushing this with the EPA as hard as they can. It comes up in every discussion. It’s their main focus. They also want pesticide labels to say that if flowers with nectars are present, these products can’t be used.”

While it’s commendable, Parker says, that the Arizona groups got together to work out a solution, “One size doesn’t fit all. What works in Yuma won’t work in the hills of Mississippi, or even in the Mississippi Delta.

“We need for local producers, consultants, beekeepers, and others to sit down at the table and figure out what will work in their area.

There has also been pressure by the beekeepers, Parker says, for the EPA to take over enforcement of bee-related issues and take it away from the states. They have also asked the EPA to create a national site for reporting bee kills.

 At a meeting with a beekeeper organization, he says, “I told them we will not support the spraying at night concept, that we need residual materials, neonicotinoids, and systemic insecticides to control our pests, and that we need to all sit down at the table and work it out among ourselves.

“We’ve talked with soybean, corn, rice, potato, and other agriculture segments, as well as the American Farm Bureau Federation, to develop a concept for addressing this issue.

“Basically, we want to find beekeepers and producers who are working together in various areas of the country to identify management practices on both sides that will insure that we protect these pollinators.

“Then, let’s use those findings to develop risk mitigation/management practices on a localized level. After we get those worked out, then turn them over to Extension and let them develop educational materials and programs for dissemination to those on both sides.”

The EPA “liked the general concept,” Parker says, “because it would include mitigation procedures that could be useful. I think this is the biggest breakthrough we’ve had in a while.

“There are huge differences in the pest complex across the cotton belt, and major differences in production practices. We believe pesticides are being overly emphasized relative to other factors related to bee decline. We encourage field-based science for risk assessment, and we encourage local best management practices to be identified by local interest groups who recognize that our crops need protecting.

“We’re still working on this, and we’ll be reaching out to producers, consultants, and others for input.”

hbrandon@farmpress.com