European Food Safety Authority: Neonics Pose Acute Risk To Honeybees

Beehives in Mankato, Minnesota. Photo by Jonathunder via Wikimedia.

Last week the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the body of scientists that provides scientific risk assessment to the European Union regarding food and feed safety, issued a report that acknowledges a number of serious risks associated with the use of systemic pesticides–clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam–on bee health.

These pesticides of the neonicotinoid family paralyze insects by blocking a specific pathway that transmits nerve impulses in the insects nervous system.

Evidence demonstrating a strong association between these pesticides and a significant decline in bee health and bee colony collapse has been growing. Beekeepers in the United States, facing on average 40% over-wintering losses, greater if summer losses are factored in, have been urging the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend the registration of clothianidin to no avail. This past summer, the French health and safety agency, ANSES, announced a ban on the use of Syngenta’s pesticide, Cruiser OSR, which contains thiamethoxam used to coat rapeseed plants, citing bee collapses concerns.

In April 2012, the European Commission requested that EFSA analyze the risk posed by neonicotinoids to bees when used as seed treatment or granules. EFSA’s analysis focused on the acute and chronic effects on colony survival and development, bee larvae and bee behavior and the effects of sublethal doses.

For each of the systemic pesticides the EFSA found that for some of the authorized uses, “[a] high risk was indicated or could not be excluded.”

In the case of maize treated with thiamethoxam, EFSA found that field studies show an acute effect on honey bees exposed to the substance through guttation.

As a result, the EFSA recommended:

a much more comprehensive risk assessment for bees and also introduced a higher level of scrutiny for interpretation of field studies. The proposed changes are aimed at improving the level of protection afforded to bees when assessing risks from pesticides.

Specifically, the EFSA recommended that these systemic pesticides should only be used on crops not attractive to honey bees.

Even with EFSA’s statement that for some “exposure routes it was possible to identify a low risk for some of the authorised uses,” for these pesticides and an admitted shortcomings in certain of the data, the companies making these pesticides (Bayer CropScience and Syngenta) are scrambling to find ways to discredit the findings.

Following the release of EFSA report, Bayer released a press statement challenging the EFSA’s  conclusions and stating that “any political decision relating to registrations of neonicotinoid-containing products, …, should be based on clear scientific evidence … and should not be made ad-hoc or on the basis of an over-interpretation of the precautionary principle.” The company went on to blame poor bee health and colony collapses on “multiple factors,” with “the parasitic Varroa mite being the key issue.”

The accusation from an industry member of the EFSA’s over-interpretation of the precautionary principle is an ironic one especially since the agency has suffered from criticism over its close industry ties and conflict of interests.

The Guardian commented that the EFSA’s conclusion sounded the “death knell” for the insect nerve agent makers and the statement is right on the mark. The EU’s Commission’s health spokesman Frederic Vincent said, according to Thomson Reuters that:

As far as we’re concerned it’s quite clear. If the report and ensuing studies highlight that there is a problem with these products, then the Commission, together with member states, will take the necessary measures.

Will the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency respond?