[Tech Talk] Changing Insecticide Labeling in Regards to Pollinators

Author’s note: This column was written prior to the release of a recent report by USDA. In May, USDA’s annual survey reported a decline in honey bee deaths over the October-April winter season. Conjecture on this observation has included references to the impact of neonicotinoid insecticides, but most leading entomologists and scientists disagree.

When Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the sudden, widespread disappearance of honey bees from colonies, emerged in 2006, it was thought to be influenced by multiple factors including viruses, mites, bacterial diseases, nutrition and possibly acute and sub-lethal effects of insecticides. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was first to conclude neonicotinoid pesticides pose “a number of risks” to bees based on an examination of the effects of three neonicotinoid insecticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) on bee colonies and placed a moratorium on their use earlier this year. Subsequently, EPA and USDA reported finding multiple factors contributing to the declining honey bee population, but insufficient evidence to warrant a ban on neonicotinoid insecticides.

These recent events support a historical trend of loosely connecting bee health to agricultural applications of insecticide. However, the use of a neonicotinoid insecticide (dinotefuran) by an Oregon pest applicator to treat linden trees in a shopping center parking lot for black vine weevils and aphids, killing up to 59,000 bumblebees and other pollinators in the process, brought this assumption to a public head in June 2013. The incident caused immediate action to suspend use of dinotefuron in Oregon and has stimulated a chain reaction of concern across the U.S. for all neonicotinoid insecticides.

America’s Bee Obsession.

For many, bees are fascinating insects — in Florida alone, there are 10,000 to 12,000 beekeepers managing 350,000 to 400,000 colonies of honey bees. Honey bee health is a topic of special interest because of the surrounding CCD “mystery.”

Yet this disorder, though well publicized, is not all together well understood. Diseases, pest pressure, genetics, nutrition and toxins in the environment — including pesticides — are all thought to play a part. Fueled by recent incidents linking pesticide applications (mostly neonicotinoid insecticides) to bee and pollinator deaths, bees have become a hot topic for the general public, government, and the agricultural and pest management industries. What’s the true risk for honey bees? How can all pollinators be protected from unintended application consequences?

Effects of Pesticides.

While anything that is put on a potential bee food source can easily end up back in the hive via transport by field bees, a recent study found, on average, 7.1 pesticides are in the pollen collected in an apiary and 2.5 pesticides can be found in its bees without apparent health impact (Mullin 2010). The exposure of pesticides to bees is commonplace, generally not enough to immediately or acutely kill the bees.

In 2012, USDA hosted a meeting of bee health stakeholders to assess current knowledge of bee health and consider future actions to promote health and mitigate risks to honey bees. The group identified four key areas affecting honey bee health: nutrition, pesticides, parasites/pathogens, and genetics/biology/breeding. In the pesticides area, they noted acute and sub-lethal effects on honey bees as increasing, but determined more research is needed to prove causation and gauge impact.

EPA and other Responses.

After the Oregon incident, EPA announced new label text was in development to minimize exposure to bees and other pollinators. Efficacy data and a “pollinator stewardship plan” was requested from each registrant of products containing neonicotinoids, along with a reminder that a Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) provision already requires incidents involving pollinators to be reported on an accelerated 10-day schedule.

Congress also reacted with the introduction of a bill, “Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2013,” directing EPA to suspend registration of products containing neonicotinoids for use in seed treatment, soil application or foliar treatment on bee-attractive plants, trees and cereals within 180 days of its signing until it can be proven that these pesticides do not cause unreasonable adverse effects on pollinators. Many other state government areas have also actively considered similar measures and legislation.

In addition, environmental groups have been aggressive in their efforts to have neonicotinoids banned, suing EPA in federal court for failure to adequately protect pollinators and urging retail stores to discontinue the sale of these pesticides.

The pest management industry immediately engaged in the issue of bee health after the first signs of CCD, consulting with EPA on developing protective label language that still allows for day-to-day PMP operations. Also encouraging is the response from manufacturers, specifically Bayer CropScience, with their investment of millions of dollars into honey bee research and finding new ways to protect pollinators.

After the Storm.

The first label change announced by EPA was the addition of a “Pollinator Protection Box” to the Environmental Hazards section. This box alerts the applicator to restrictions because of risks to bees and other insect pollinators, directing them to the directions for use for proper application.

A new bee icon with the same treatment as other hazard icons is included in this box, as well as the statement: “This product can kill bees and other pollinators,” making it clear that pesticides can kill bees and other pollinators.

Additionally, new wording was added to the “Directions for Use” for crops under contracted pollination services prohibiting the use of the product while bees are foraging and requiring that all flowering be complete before it can be used at all.

If an application has to be made when bees are near the treatment site, the beekeeper providing the pollination service must be notified 48 hours prior to the time of the planned application so that the bees can be removed, covered or otherwise protected prior to spraying.

For food crops and commercially grown ornamentals not under contract for pollination service (but attractive to pollinators) and non-agricultural products, the same requirements apply with the addition of specific times of day and temperatures.

Pest Management & Bee Health.

Safeguarding bees will take a multifaceted approach and involve many areas other than the safe application of pesticides. Uses that are affected by the new language will be too numerous to mention.

Of more concern to pest managemment professionals is EPA’s encouragement of citizens to report bee “incidents.” Many non-entomologists refer to a variety of black and yellow buzzing insects out there as “bees,” often inaccurately. The industry will be tasked with continuous education to assist the public to keep it all in perspective. And, of course, it’s critical that we adhere to our labels and make every effort to avoid exposing bees and pollinators to any pesticide applications, taking that piece of the CCD puzzle off the table as much as possible.


Mullin, C.A., M. Fraizier, J.L. Frazier, S. Ashcraft, R. Simonds, D. vanEngelsdorp, J.S. Pettis. 20100 High Levels of Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries: Implications for Honey Bee Health. PLoS. ONE.5 (3): e9754.

John Cooksey is chief operating officer of McCall Service, Jacksonville, Fla., and a member of the Copesan Technical Committee. He can be reached at jcooksey@giemedia.com.

Copesan is an alliance of pest management companies with locations throughout North America. To learn more about the organization, visit www.copesan.com.

June 2014
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