EPA Approves Bee-Killing Pesticide After U.S. Quits Tracking Vanishing Hives

The Environmental Protection Agency has dropped restrictions on the use of a powerful pesticide known to be particularly lethal to honeybees for some 190 million acres of U.S. cropland.

The action Friday came just days after the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed it had stopped tracking rapidly vanishing honeybee colonies, which will make the impact of the EPA’s deregulatory move difficult to gauge. 

The controversial insecticide sulfoxaflor, manufactured by DowDupont’s Corteva agricultural division, can now be used on a wide range of crops, including corn, soybeans, strawberries, citrus, pumpkins and pineapples, the EPA said.

Sulfoxaflor has been found to be “highly toxic to honey bees at all life stages,” according to the EPA’s own studies — and harms wild pollinators like bumblebees even at low doses. Yet Alexandra Dunn, head of the EPA office that oversees pesticides, said the agency was “thrilled” to approve new uses and lift past restrictions on sulfoxaflor, which she called “highly effective.” 

Dow contributed $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee.

The EPA’s action could be catastrophic for honeybees, environmentalists said. Honeybee colonies, which pollinate a third of all the crops Americans consume, have plummeted from 6 million in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2008. But data tracking the already beleaguered colonies in an annual Honey Bee Colonies survey— and the future consequences from the EPA action — will no longer be collected by the USDA due to undisclosed budget restraints, the department announced this month. Meanwhile, the USDA is arranging some $27 billion for two years of extra subsidies to farmers to cushion the blow of Trump’s trade war with China. 

“The Trump EPA’s reckless approval of this bee-killing pesticide across 200 million acres of crops like strawberries and watermelon without any public process is a terrible blow to imperiled pollinators,” Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program, said in a statement.

Greg Loarie, an attorney for the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, called the EPA’s decision “reckless” at a time when “honey bees and other pollinators are dying in greater numbers than ever before. Scientists have long said pesticides like sulfoxaflor are the cause of the unprecedented colony collapse,” he added. “Letting sulfoxaflor back on the market is dangerous for our food system, economy and environment.”

An annual report by The Bee Informed Partnership, a group of university researchers, found that American beekeepers lost nearly more than 35% of their honeybee colonies over the 2018-2019 winter — the highest level recorded since the association started tracking losses in 2006. 

Sulfoxaflor was initially approved by the EPA in 2013, but beekeepers and others sued the agency to block its use. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in 2015 that federal regulators failed to show the pesticide did not pose serious risk to pollinators, and the court vacated the agency’s approval. The following year the EPA began granting emergency waivers and exemptions to use the pesticide.

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