Can Pollinator Stewardship Council v. EPA Help Solve the Colony Collapse Disorder Crisis? – Pt. I
by Alexander Martone, Staff Contributor
The Environmental Protection Agency is in federal court again. What is the source of its troubles this time? Owners of coal-fueled power plants? Boosters of the spotted owl? Disposers of hazardous waste?
No. This time, it’s the honeybee.
In this three part series, the Georgetown International Environmental Law Review will explore an effort to defend bee populations threatened with Colony Collapse Disorder using a lawsuit, Pollinator Stewardship Council, et al. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Part I looks at the importance of bees, the crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder, and attempts to respond to it. Part II addresses the allegations of the Pollinator Stewardship Council in its lawsuit and the counter-arguments of the EPA. Part III considers the possible results of this still-pending case.
Part I: Busy Bees and a Deadly Disease
There’s a reason for saying that a hard worker is “as busy as a bee.”
The common honey bee, Apis mellifera, plays a crucial role in making beeswax, producing honey, and pollinating a wide range of fruit, vegetable, and nut crops. Ancient Egyptians inscribed images of beekeeping on the walls of their temples, and European colonists to the Americas brought buzzing hives with them across the Atlantic so that these yellow and black insects could help propagate the species of plants tucked away in the ships’ holds as well.
Today, the honey bee remains a crucial pillar of modern agriculture and the American economy. Fully one-third of the nation’s food supply comes from crops pollinated by bees, including produce like apples, oranges, blueberries, cherries, almonds, and squash. The federal government estimates that the domestic economic impact of bees is around $24 billion per year.
For all its usefulness, the busy honey bee is under attack by an unknown assailant. In recent years, a mysterious malady now known as Colony Collapse Disorder has struck honey bee populations in the United States and Europe.They leave behind a live queen bee and a brood of immature worker bees, who are unable to successfully work the hive and who, in situations of domestication, seem unwilling to take food from a human beekeeper.
Such behavior in bees is quite perplexing. Bees are very social creatures, and abandoning the hive would seem to go against their very nature. Even more perplexing to scientists has been the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.
While isolated incidents of Colony Collapse Disorder have been documented as far back as the early 20th century, the problem exploded in late 2006. The Apiary Inspectors of America, an organization for professional beekeepers, found that on average its members lost a staggering 38% of their bee colonies in the winter of 2006-2007 alone. Since then, the problem has only grown. By some estimates, the entire honey bee population of the United States has plummeted to less than half of what it was in 1945. This has left beekeepers, farmers, scientists, and policymakers scrambling for an answer.
“The honey bee population of the United States has plummeted to less than half of what it was in 1945, leaving beekeepers, farmers, scientists, and policymakers scrambling for an answer.”
Despite the fact that we have long understood the importance of bees, there is no scientific consensus on what causes Colony Collapse Disorder. In the past, parasites like Varroa mites and tracheal mites caused die-offs of bees in the 1980s, while pathogens like Paenibacillus larvae triggered colony losses in the 1940s. These prior cases have led some to look for a new parasite or pathogen to explain this new disease.
Others have pointed to environmental change. Some scientists theorize that global climate change could be altering the habitat of the honey bee, making it inhospitable to the creature. In climates that are drying out, for example, plants are dying and producing less nectar and pollen, leading to a reduction in bees’ food supply. On top of this, populations of domesticated bees may have a lack of genetic diversity from decades of breeding, resulting in a species ill-prepared to adapt to a changing world.
However, one of the most popular explanations for the sudden onset of Colony Collapse Disorder attributes the rise in bee deaths to the growing use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Neonicotinoids, which are chemically related to nicotine, are sprayed on and absorbed by seeds and plants. Insects that eat away at the plant tissue ingest the neonicotinoid which has remained in the plant. Once ingested, the neonicotinoid goes to work attacking and degrading the central nervous systems of insects, killing the crop predators.
“One of the most popular explanations for the sudden onset of Colony Collapse Disorder attributes the rise in bee deaths to the growing use of neonicotinoid insecticides.”
Though designed to ward off unwanted bugs that commonly eat away at growing crops, there is some scientific evidence to suggest that neonicotinoids can be fatal to the helpful honey bee as well. While some science shows that the small dose of neonicotinoid that a bee ingests through a plant’s nectar could hardly be enough to kill it, it is countered that prolonged exposure to this kind of insecticide can cause harm to a bee over the long term. For example, some studies demonstrate that neonicotinoids can weaken bees’ immune systems, making them susceptible to deadly viruses.
While neonicotinoids first came into use in the 1990s, they grew significantly more widespread in the mid-2000s. Opponents of neonicotinoids point out that this is the same time period during which Colony Collapse Disorder also emerged in force.
In both the United States and Europe, some beekeepers and environmental groups have pursued legislative and legal action to halt the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in an attempt to save bee colonies. Calls for a ban were successful in Europe, where the European Union banned the use of neonicotinoids in all member states after a pressure campaign by activists, and the scientific concerns of the EU’s own European Food Safety Authority. In the United States, however, neonicotinoid use has continued. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticides and insecticides, has approved some neonicotinoids for use on crops, much to the dismay of activists.
Some who see neonicotinoids as a threat to the vital honey bee have begun to lean on Congress and the White House to take action to ban them. Others have taken to the courts. One lawsuit in this vein is making its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The next post in this series will focus on the arguments of this lawsuit, Pollinator Stewardship Council, et al. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Part II will focus on one particular response to the disease: a lawsuit that aims to roll back the EPA’s approval of a certain neonicotinoid insecticide, which some say is causing the malady.