OVER the last five years, bee colony losses have averaged 35% as an industry.
Pesticides have been cited by some as one of the complex factors that may be contributing to the decline.
Although the government and industry continue to take steps to increase the understanding of what's going on and encouraging best management practices, environmental groups say it isn't enough.
The Center for Food Safety (CFS), Beyond Pesticides, Sierra Club, Pesticide Action Network North America and the Center for Environmental Health, along with four individual beekeepers, filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California alleging that EPA violated multiple U.S. laws in its actions related to the approval of two pesticide compounds for agricultural use.
The two pesticides involved -- clothianidin and thiamethoxam -- are neonicotinoids, a newer class of systemic insecticides that are absorbed by plants and transported throughout their vascular tissue, making the plants potentially toxic to insects. Neonicotinoids are commonly used in the agriculture industry to treat corn seeds and soybeans before planting.
Dr. Ray McAllister, senior director of regulatory affairs at CropLife America, explained that the neonicotinoid coating technology protects seeds in the soil during critical growth stages and has risen in popularity because of its effectiveness and the flexibility it affords to growers.
While the pesticide is coated on the seed, other lubricants, either a talc or graphite covering, are also used with the treated seeds to facilitate seed delivery in the planter. When the seeds are moved through planters during planting, it can create dust that could contain neonicotinoids. Dust also can be produced when seeds rub together, McAllister noted.
The dust has caused concern because of the possibility that bees could be exposed to higher levels of the pesticides or carry the dust back to their hives.
McAllister added that there are usually fewer bees near fields during planting because crops aren't blooming, which is what attracts the bees. An exception has been some winter wheat cover crops that attract bees, and he said best management practices are being evaluated to limit that exposure.
Bayer CropScience, for instance, has developed a new lubricant to reduce dust levels from treated seeds during planting so as to mitigate bees' potential exposure to pesticides. Research has found that it reduced dust levels 70-90%.
Dr. Barb Glenn, senior vice president of science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, said there are a few confirmed instances where bee kills occurred due to exposure to dust, but considering that more than 90 million acres of corn were planted with the technology, the low number of instances proves a "strong safety record."
Glenn said the bottom line is that "when pesticides are used according to their label, pollinators are not negatively impacted."
CropLife America and the American Seed Trade Assn. recently released "The Guide to Seed Treatment Stewardship," an industry-wide initiative to promote the safe handling and management of treated seed.
The issue of seed treatment also was the focus of an EPA Pollinator Summit last month that featured representatives of the crop protection industry, EPA and beekeepers.
The prevailing theory of EPA and others in the global scientific and regulatory community is that the declining health of honeybees in general is related to complex interactions among multiple stressors the bees encounter, including inadequate food sources (nutrition), diseases (bacteria, fungi and viruses), habitat loss and bee management practices, as well as pesticides.
"Relative to the potential role of pesticides in pollinator health declines, the science is still progressing as we seek to learn what regulatory changes, if any, may be effective," EPA said.
In March 2012, CFS and a coalition of major beekeepers, along with Pesticide Action Network and Beyond Pesticides, filed an emergency petition with EPA asking the agency to suspend the use of clothianidin.
CFS said EPA indicated that it will not finish its registration review for clothianidin and thiamethoxam, as well as other neonicotinoids, until 2018.
The recent lawsuit follows up on the petition. The complaint alleges that EPA violated the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act by approving clothianidin and thiamethoxam despite adverse effects to bees and other pollinators.
According to the plaintiffs, those products have repeatedly been "identified as highly toxic to honeybees, clear causes of major bee kills and significant contributors to the devastating ongoing mortality of bees known as colony collapse disorder."
The complaint also alleges that EPA violated the Administrative Procedures Act by ignoring environmentalists' public comments in 2012 that indicated that the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments, such as clothianidin and thiamethoxam, during spring corn planting killed bees.
EPA said it is accelerating the schedule for registration review of the neonicotinoids because of "uncertainties about these pesticides and their potential effects on bees."
The plaintiffs challenged the use of so-called "conditional registrations" for the pesticides. Since 2000, more than two-thirds of pesticide products, including clothianidin and thiamethoxam, have been brought to market on conditional registrations, CFS said.
Glenn noted that the crop protection industry is one of the most heavily regulated, with massive amounts of scientific data required before product approval, and the industry strongly supports EPA's science-based risk assessment. She said CropLife America will be engaged in and constantly monitoring the lawsuit.