Declining Bee Populations

Bees play a critical role in our food supply systems in North Carolina but in recent years bee populations have plunged drastically. 

We rely on bees to pollinate the majority of our crops, and this is not unique to North Carolina. In fact, 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food, rely on bees for pollination. This includes apples, strawberries, coffee, almonds and even the hay that is used to feed dairy cows. 

The value of bee pollination of food crops in the US alone is estimated at $16 billion per annum. 

In recent years, beekeepers have reported losing some 30% of their bees each winter, which is twice the amount considered economically tolerable. 

Scientists cite a number of causes for the declining bee populations, including habitat loss, parasites, global warming and a group of insecticides known as “neonics”.

Some governments have already taken steps to minimize the impact of neonics. The European Union banned neonics in 2013. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has committed to phasing out its use of them on the public lands that it manages, and Seattle, Oregon, and Minnesota have all indicated they will take some steps to reduce the use of neonics. 

But the flight of bees and the spread of insecticides are not influenced by jurisdictional and property boundaries. This leaves the possibility of complex legal disputes in future as beekeepers continue to suffer losses at the hands of neonics reliant businesses. 

One beekeeper in Elmwood, Canada reported the loss of some 37 million bees after a corn plantation (which uses neonics) went in next to his property in 2013. 

Beekeepers, as well as a number of bee-dependant businesses and environmental groups, have petitioned the White House and the EPA take drastic action against the use of neonics.  

In 2013, they went a step further by filing a lawsuit against the EPA in relation to its approval of a particular neonic formulation, sulfoxaflor “for its failure to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides”. 

In 2015, a federal appeals court in San Francisco made a determination in the case, overturning the EPA’s approval of sulfoxaflor in a ruling which applies nationally. 

The court found that when the EPA granted approval for sulfoxaflor, it did so in reliance on “flawed and limited” data and its approval was unjustified. 

The court said that in granting approval for sulfoxaflor in 2013, the EPA had violated its own rules on obtaining safety information, and should collect more data on its effects on bees before granting approval for its use.

The beekeepers and environmental groups who brought the action are hopeful that the ruling could mark the beginning of a transition away from neonicotinoids in general.

The same groups have noted that the criticisms leveled at the EPA’s research methods in this matter could equally apply to the research undertaken by the EPA in relation to a number of other neonic pesticides such as clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and imidacloprid.

But these advocates are up against some powerful opposition. Among the businesses that rely on neonics are large agrichemical companies such as Dow Chemical, Syngenta, and Bayer. A number of these companies are lobbying for an increase in the amounts of neonics they can use by up to 400 times the current permitted levels. 

This situation continues to develop and is sure to intensify as bee populations continue to decline and food suppliers continue to suffer.