Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald never expected to become embroiled in a controversy between the EPA and the pesticide industry. But that's exactly what happened when Theobald got hold of an EPA document revealing that the agency is allowing the widespread use of a bee-toxic pesticide, in spite of warnings from EPA scientists.
So how did Theobald (pictured above) end up with such a contentious document?
Bayer, the corporation behind clothianidin (the pesticide in question), published a life cycle study about it in 2006 at the EPA's request. The study was flawed—test and control fields were, for example, planted as close as 968 feet apart. But the EPA continued to allow the use of clothianidin, which has been on the market since 2003 for use on corn, canola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat (and which has been banned by Germany, France, Italy, and Slovenia for its toxic effects on bees, birds, and other species).
Fast forward to this year. Theobald wrote an article in the July issue of Bee Culture about clothianidin. Then an employee at the EPA called Theobald to tell him the article had led the EPA to review the pesticide's original life cycle study before approving clothianidin for use on cotton and mustard.
"They told me that EPA scientists had reviewed the original lifecycle study and determined it wasn't scientifically sound, and I asked if it had been documented, if there was a hard copy," he says, "The [employee] said yes, and I asked if I could get a copy." And just like that, he had the proof he needed that the EPA had overlooked something that could be killing America's bees.
"Everybody is keyed on the leaked memo, but basically it's a public document," adds Theobald. He just happened to be the first one to learn about it and ask for it. "The shock was that they did the study at all."
Theobald has been concerned about clothianidin since it was first released in 2003. The pesticide is a neonicotinoid—a type of insecticide that disrupts the central nervous system of insects. Imidacloprid, the first neonicotinoid to be released in the U.S., came on the market in 1994, and began raising red flags soon after. France banned imidacloprid in 2003 due to concerns of bee die-off triggered by the substance.
Now the stakes are higher than ever. Tom Theobald's honey crop this year is the smallest he's seen in 35 years of beekeeping. "This is the critical winter for the beekeeping industry. I don't think we can survive," he says. "If the beekeeping industry collapses, it jeopardizes a third of American agriculture."
That's because the giant agriculture industry couldn't produce nearly as much with native bee pollinators alone; instead, the industry relies on beekeepers, who rent out their bees to pollinate everything from strawberries and blueberries to squash and cucumbers.
As of today, the EPA has no plans to ban clothianidin in the U.S. Theobald hopes that all the press surrounding the issue will trigger the agency to change its mind. It has to, he says. "The EPA management needs to step forward, face the music, take its lumps and do things right. If they continue to try to bury this, they're going to look more pathetic than they do already."
Photo Credit: Tom Theobald