Since 2006, beekeepers throughout the country have suffered devastating losses, with 22 to 36 percent of the total number of honeybee colonies in the country dying each winter, according to the federal government's estimates. These unsustainably high mortality rates have raised alarms about the potential impact on crops that rely on honeybee pollination, including California's multibillion-dollar almond industry. Environmental groups and beekeepers have increasingly blamed the US Environmental Protection Agency for failing to restrict certain toxic pesticides that a growing body of research suggests are weakening and killing bees and other pollinators (see "What's Poisoning the Bees" 6/3).
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), according to a new lawsuit, has also been negligent in its approvals of pesticides that are harming bees. The Pesticide Action Network, the Center for Food Safety, and Beyond Pesticides — represented by Earthjustice — filed the suit last week, alleging that the state agency violated the law in its recent decision to expand the agricultural uses of two chemicals that pose a threat to bees.
Environmental groups concerned about the declining health of bees — which are indirectly responsible for roughly one-third of all food we eat — argue that state officials have a unique opportunity to proactively protect pollinators through stricter pesticide regulations. California is one of only four states that can adopt regulations and restrictions that go beyond federal standards. That means the DPR could follow in the footsteps of regulatory agencies in Europe, which, unlike their counterparts in the United States, have temporarily banned the use of certain pesticides due to concerns about bees.
"California can take very progressive steps to help protect bees and restrict hazardous pesticide use," said Paul Towers, organizing and media director of Pesticide Action Network, which is based in Oakland.
Beekeepers who operate in California lost a total of 45.4 percent of colonies between April 2012 and April 2013, according to a 2012-13 survey funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. Nationwide, bee pollination sustains more than $15 billion in crop value every year, according to the USDA.
But instead of restricting or limiting the use of dangerous pesticides, California has continued to expand applications, despite evidence suggesting substantial risks to pollinators. The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, specifically challenges the department's decision in June to expand the use of two neonicotinoids (neonics for short), a widely used class of pesticides that researchers believe is a key culprit in the bee crisis. The neonics in this case are insecticides sold under the trademarks Venom Insecticide and Dinotefuran 20SG. Both neonics are already being used in a limited capacity in California, including on leafy vegetables and small fruits. The state's recent decision allows farmers to spray larger amounts of these chemicals on those crops, in addition to using them on other vegetables and fruits including tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, onions, peaches, and nectarines.
The agency made this decision despite the fact that its own scientific review of neonics and their impacts on pollinators — a process initiated in 2009, due to concerns about honeybee deaths — is still pending after five years. Environmentalists argue that a robust review would reveal what independent research has increasingly demonstrated — that neonics can weaken and sicken bees and colonies. And at high-level exposures, the pesticides, which are manufactured to kill insects, can be fatal to bees as well.
The lawsuit alleges that the state's approval of the neonics violated a number of provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act. "DPR's actions are consistent with the agency's illegal pattern and practice of rubber-stamping applications to approve new pesticides without first complying with laws enacted to ensure that they are safe," the suit argues.
The groups filed the lawsuit after urging state officials earlier this year to examine a number of studies linking neonics to pollinator declines. But in a May 27 response, Ann Prichard, chief of the agency's pesticide registration branch, dismissed the academic research, contending that none of the studies "have been conducted with sufficient scientific rigor to support a regulatory measure," and that "DPR does not yet have sufficient scientifically robust data to support a regulatory action to implement additional mitigation measures."
California's agriculture industry used more than 325,000 pounds of neonics in 2012, according to state data compiled by the Pesticide Action Network. That's the most recent year for which data are available, and the total for that year doesn't include neonic use on crop seeds, which the state doesn't track, but is, according to a number of experts, a major source of exposure for bees.
Paul Verke, spokesperson with the department of pesticide regulation, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation and, as of last Friday, had not yet been served the lawsuit. A representative of Valent USA Corporation, the manufacturer of Venom Insecticide, said the company did not have a comment. Mitsui Chemicals Agro, Inc., manufacturer of Dinotefuran 20SG, did not respond to a request for comment.
The legal challenge also raises questions about why the state's review of these chemicals has taken so long — and whether there is any clear timeline for completing it. The environmental groups have supported legislation (AB 1789) that would require the department to finish the review of neonics and issue a determination by July 1, 2018. That bill passed the state Assembly in May and will likely be considered by the Senate in August.