California Stung by Lawsuit to Protect Bees

Pesticide Action Network    By Paul Towers    July 8, 2014

They’re in our garden plants, sprayed on orchards throughout the state, and used as seed coatings on commodity crops in California and across the country. After five years of review, California officials have not only failed to complete an evaluation of neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics), they continue to allow more and more of these bee-harming chemicals into the market.

Fed up with the years of hand-sitting, PAN and our partners brought the state and pesticide manufacturers to court today.

PAN and partners at Beyond Pesticides and Center for Food Safety warned the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) in February that they were violating the law by approving new neonics. They ignored our concerns, despite a mounting body of evidence showing harms to bees. We reminded them again in June, only to have the agency approve more pollinator-toxic products.

Our attorney Greg Loarie at Earthjustice summed up our decision to bring DPR to court pretty well:

“It’s past time for DPR to fix its broken evaluation system and protect our bees and our agricultural economy. It obviously will take legal action to accomplish this.”

Despite five years of review, the agency has yet to finish an evaluation of any neonic product. And over the past couple of years, state officials have either allowed significantly expanded use of neonics or brought new products to market in at least fifteen separate instances.

As I recently noted, this lack of action persists even as independent scientists from around the globe concluded — after review of over 800 studies — that it’s time for international action to restrict neonics and protect bees.

Beekeepers are weighing in too, demanding accountability. Todd Bebb, vice president of the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association and sponsor of bee-protective legislation in California, said:

“Bees are in trouble unless California officials do their part. Our food system, including farms and backyard gardens, rests on bees and beekeepers for continued pollination and support.”

While beekeepers and food and farming groups duke it out with state officials and pesticide manufacturers in court, the California legislature continues to move ahead with a bill that would force DPR to complete its evaluation of neonics on a specific timeline. That bill will be taken up after the July recess.

Local governments in Oregon and Washington have stepped up with bee-protective policies in recent months. And news out of Canada just this week is that at least one province is considering a licensing system to better regulate widespread use of the products.

With legal pressure building on California policymakers and related legislation on the horizon, it's time for the Golden State to get serious about protecting bees from harmful pesticides too.

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Your (not so) "bee-friendly" Plants

Pesticide Action Network     By Paul Towers      June 27, 2014

Bee-harming pesticides in our lavender and daisies? In the same week that an international body of scientists released a comprehensive global assessment of the harms of pesticides to bees, a new report shows that these very same pesticides are found in many of our backyard plants — at levels of concern — that are meant to support pollinators.

The report shows that 51% of garden plant samples purchased at top garden retailers (Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart) in 18 cities in the United States and Canada contain neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides — a key driver of declining bee populations. Concerning levels of the pesticides were found in places like California’s San Francisco Bay Area and in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. In some cases, multiple neonics were found in the same plant, in the leaves, stalks or flowers.

Last year, we conducted a smaller version of the research project with Pesticide Research Institute and Friends of the Earth. And the good news is that some retailers are taking notice, including some home and garden stores like Bachman’s and BJ’s Wholesale Club, as well as grocers pledging to remove the pesticides from their shelves and supply chains.

The big players — Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart — have a lot more work to do as they shift industrial nursery growing practices to green, cutting-edge alternatives.

Impact of neonics

Neonics are a relatively new class of systemic pesticides that can be applied as seed coatings, as granules or sprayed on plants; they're taken up through the plant's vascular system and expressed in pollen and nectar. Even at sublethal doses they're toxic to bees and other pollinators.

But the science is clear: pesticides, particularly neonics, are playing a key role in bee declines.

That's the case for most of the levels found in nursery plants; they might not kill bees outright but they are increasingly linked to reproductive impairment, immune suppression, homing failure and impaired foraging — all factors that compound the other stressors bees face and contribute to their decline.

However, none of this is true if you ask neonic manufacturers like Bayer and Syngenta. They continue to spin and confuse the issue, downplaying the role their products play by obfuscating the science around pesticides and pollinators and attempting to re-focus public conversation on other bee stressors like mites. But the science is clear: pesticides, particularly neonics, are playing a key role in bee declines.

The “wake-up call” science report

Earlier this week, 29 independent scientists released the four-years-in the-making “Worldwide Integrated Assessment” on the impacts of neonics after reviewing hundreds of scientific papers. The report documents significant harms to honey bees and other pollinators, as well as entire ecosystems that serve as the underpinnings of our food system.

One of the report's lead authors summarized the situation as:

"Far from protecting food production the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperiling the pollinators, habitat engineer and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

Among the findings of the report:

  • Neonics are incredibly persistent, lingering in the soil up to several years,
  • The breakdown products or metabolites of neonics can be more toxic than their so-called “active” ingredients,
  • The current measures of the risks of neonics aren’t working and “conceal their true impact.”

My colleague and PAN’s staff scientist, Emily Marquez, PhD, says the findings should galvanize regulators in states and at the federal level:

“This report should be a final wake-up call for American regulators who have been slow to respond to the science. The weight of the evidence showing harm to bees and other pollinators should move EPA to restrict neonicotinoids sooner than later. And the same regulatory loopholes that allowed these pesticides to be brought to the market in the first place — and remain on the shelf — need to be closed.”

Communities creating bee havens

While President Obama announced the creation of a new federal task force to address bee declines last week, EPA and other federal agencies don’t have a good track record on the issues. Filling the void, states and local governments have been stepping up. My community — Sacramento — has used the opportunity to call for the city to become a pesticide-free "Honey Bee Haven." In a release today, the vice mayor even said protecting bees is essential to keep the city "prosperous." 

This follows similar actions by Eugene, OR earlier this year and Spokane, WA earlier this week to phase out bee-harming pesticides and prioritize bee health. And one neighborhood in Boulder, CO declared itself “bee-safe” earlier this month.

Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and other pesticide corporations have caught wind of these efforts and are continuing with aggressive public relations efforts. But no number of Bayer coloring books can color over the power of communities in action.

Learn more » Want to make your backyard or community a Honey Bee Haven? Visit for tips and tools — and to take the pledge to protect pollinators.

[For another view on the new Harvard Study and what's killing our bees see Randy Oliver's blog at:]

Bad for Bees, Bad for Kids

Pesticide Action Network   By Paul Towers   1/3/14
Like many, I was lucky enough to spend the holidays surrounded by family and food. So I was especially unnerved by new evidence, released just before the holidays, that bee-harming pesticides have been linked to impaired brain development and function in children.
The science showing that neonicotinoid pesticides (or neonics) harm bees is clear. New evidence highlighting impacts on children's health is also disturbing, especially as a father. And while other countries are stepping up to protect bees and kids from neonics, policymakers here in the U.S. are still seemingly stuck. My New Year’s resolution: This year we keep high heat on EPA and insist regulators take meaningful action on pesticides that harm bees and kids.

Will California Save the Bees?

Pesticide Action Network By Paul Towers, Media and Organizing Director   10/28/13

Last week I sat through a long hearing in the California legislature, all about bee declines. By the end, I was both excited and frustrated. As I noted in my closing comments at the hearing, California can and must take action to address the dramatic declines.

This is an important opportunity for the state to be a driver of good public policy nationally. And addressing the issue here in California will be good for our business — the benefits of bees to our agricultural economy are tremendous. While it was encouraging to see legislators taking the issue up at the hearing, it was frustrating to see the room filled with pesticide corporations and their allies trying to confuse the discussion and delay action.

California is a already a driver of what happens nationally on bees, just from the reality of how beekeeping works. Many beekeepers pollinate almonds in California, then move on to pollinate other crops — from apples to pumpkins and blueberries — across the country.

So fewer bees in California means fewer bees for the entire food and farming system.

Beekeepers call for action

Bret Adee, a commercial beekeeper who has been pollinating California almonds for over 23 years explained this to legislators last Wednesday:

There’s a great nervousness in the whole industry … The way to have bees for California is that they have to leave California healthier than they came in. Nationwide, we are at the edge of not being able to restock our bees. Beekeeper after beekeeper I’ve talked to this year has less bees than last year, no matter all his efforts to restock.

Legislators didn't seem to be getting the message, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. As Assemblymembers Susan Eggman, Luis Alejo and Mariko Yamada probed, the state officials at the hearing failed to share meaningful information.

There isn’t a safe place for bees to be in California without exposure to pesticides

“There isn’t a safe place for bees to be in California without exposure to pesticides,” Susan Kegley, PhD, CEO of Pesticide Research Institute and a consulting scientist for PAN told the legislators.

What seemed remarkable to me from state officials who testified was the lack of urgency and any clear plan of action on pesticides, especially given the scientific evidence on neonicotinoids. Just as Europe has done, California has an opportunity to immediately take steps to protect bees. Yet officials seem to be skirting the issue, passing the buck to an intransigent EPA.

Confusing the issue

Pesticide industry lobbyists and allies tried to divert attention to issues like the pesky Varroa mite and the lack of food or forage for bees. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a common industry tactic to redirect attention away from pesticides to issues that face less opposition. In doing so, they further confuse the problem and limit opportunities for action.

The confusion is largely driven by industrial agriculture lobbyists like Kahn, Soares and Conway (you might remember them from methyl iodide) and AMVAC, a pesticide company known for buying patents for some of the most hazardous pesticides.

Mites and large monocultures — lacking food — have indeed created stress on bees. “We had mites in the country for over 15 years, maybe 16 or 17 years, before we had abnormal failures in the winter time,” Adee explained to legislators at the hearing.

No doubt we can and should find all manner of ways to strengthen the resilience of bees, and we can’t ignore some of the most clear and effective ways to do that. And controls on bee-harming pesticides is the place to start.

What California can do

California has a long tradition of driving pesticide policy reforms — and the need and the opportunity are clear. 

In a letter penned by PAN, beekeepers from Santa Barbara and San Diego, as well partner groups like Beyond Pesticides and Center for Food Safety, we urged state officials to take three steps:

•   Accelerate the timeline for review of neonicotinoids, rather than wait several years for review.

•   Place a moratorium and restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid products until a thorough state review is completed.

•   Comprehensively track all use of bee-harming pesticides, including in homes and gardens and seed treatments used on agricultural crops.

Take action» Send a message to California leaders that they should step up to protect bees, for beekeepers, our food system and the state’s economy.