A recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) names the widely used insecticide imidacloprid a threat to already dwindling honeybee populations. Under reevaluation by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation since 2009, the chemical is one of four nicotine-related pesticides called neonicotinoids, frequently used on commercial and residential food crops, despite the cries of beekeepers and environmental activists.
Prompted by the Obama administration’s Pollinator Health Task Force, the EPA’s risk assessments are estimated to be complete this year and next. At the same time, Assemblymember Das Williams’ AB 1789, signed into law in 2014, requires the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation to complete its own research on the four neocotinoids — imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and dinotefuran — by July 1, 2018. These studies will guide the agency’s final decision on how to control such pesticide use.
“Imidacloprid potentially poses risks to hives when the pesticide comes into contact with certain crops that attract pollinators,” read the EPA’s January 6 statement announcing the study’s release. Citrus and cotton are among the crops most likely to retain harmful neonicotinoid residue in pollen and nectar, while leafy vegetables and corn reportedly do not. “These effects include decreases in pollinators as well as less honey produced,” said the EPA.
The EPA approved the insecticide for use on turf grass and ornamental landscape plants in 1994. Now the world’s widest used insect poison, it has been marketed as the safest chemical to rid seeds of pests by German-born pharmaceutical and chemical company Bayer.
According to Santa Barbara County’s most recent pesticide use report, approximately 7,758.88 pounds of imidacloprid were used on some 32,750.48 acres of broccoli in 2013. The second-highest contender, wine grapes, used approximately 5,055.97 pounds of the insecticide over 11,251.44 acres. None was used on cotton, not included in the county’s report, and one twentieth of a pound was used on 63 area citrus trees. Todd Bebb, a beekeeper and founding member of the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association, says honeybee-harming pesticides are also used in local neighborhoods. “Homeowners can go and buy these exact products,” and “[they] can overdose these products.”
Last year saw the “second highest annual [honeybee] loss recorded to date,” according to The Bee Informed Partnership of the USDA and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. From April 2014 to April 2015, “42.1 percent of the total number of colonies managed over the last year” was lost.
Citing peer review and a public comment period, which officials say will lead to a revised pollinator assessment and a preliminary ecology risk report for the insecticide, the EPA told The Independent, “EPA could potentially take action as early as the end of 2016. It would be premature for EPA to speculate on possible mitigation measures based on the preliminary pollinator-only risk assessment released today.” The agency does not recommend alternatives to agricultural use of the insecticide, “Many alternatives to imidacloprid are almost as risky for bees as imidacloprid, but are more risky for humans and wildlife.”