Recent legal action has put neonicotinoids in the spotlight once again.
This week, Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture compensated two beekeepers after investigators found that neonicotinoid-filled dust from a neighboring cornfield damaged their hives last spring.
Although research linking neonicotinoids and declines in pollinator health has been growing, most studies have not been able to show such a direct cause-and-effect relationship between neonicotinoid seed treatments and bee deaths.
The Minnesota case comes after a law banning the sale of neonicotinoids for consumer use was passed by the Maryland state Senate and is now under review by the House. In another case, The Center for Food Safety and its attorneys are spearheading a case filed with other environmental groups and beekeepers from California, South Dakota and Pennsylvania, as well as farmers from Pennsylvania and Kansas. The groups, which filed the case in the Northern District of California in San Francisco, want the EPA to require neonicotinoid seed treatment registrations under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA.
Through it all, the EPA is continuing its registration review of all neonicotinoids on the market, with a special focus on their alleged role in the declining health of pollinators and colony collapse disorder.
Neonicotinoids are often used as seed treatments to control soil pests and sucking insects. USDA estimates that 150 million acres were planted annually with seeds coated by the chemicals.
Brand names of commonly used neonicotinoids include Poncho and Gaucho (Bayer/imidacloprid) and Cruiser (Syngenta/ thiamethoxam). The insecticides are often included in combination with fungicides such as in Valent’s Intego Suite Soybeans (clothianidin), Monsanto’s Acceleron or Pioneer’s Premium Seed Treatment. Corn seed generally comes pretreated with some level of neonicotinoid seed treatment, although growers have some choice in the rate of protection offered. Soybean growers have more flexibility in choosing whether to have seed treated since soybean seed treatments are generally treated down-stream from the seed supplier.
DUST DANGER REINFORCED
The Minnesota case was a prime example of the “dust-off” phenomenon that can occur with neonicotinoid-coated seeds used with talc seed lubricants. Small amounts of the insecticide can mix with the lubricant coating and contaminate the lubricant dust that blows out of the planter as it is dropping seeds. In this form, the chemicals can drift off target onto flowering plants and trees nearby, for example. When bees visit these flowers, they carry the contaminated pollen back to the hive.
Neonicotinoids, which are highly soluble, can also leach off seeds into groundwater and nearby streams, according to a 2014 USGS study.
One of the Minnesota beekeepers told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the contamination occurred very directly — the dust blew from her neighbor’s corn planter toward her hives. Two days later, MDA investigators documented “acute levels of the toxins” in the bodies of dead bees, according to the Tribune story.
The beekeepers were reimbursed under a state law established in 2014 to compensate beekeepers in the case of proven acute pesticide poisoning.
Maryland lawmakers have likewise targeted neonicotinoids with bees in mind, and the state may soon be the first to substantially restrict use of the chemicals. If the legislation passes, a partial ban would go into effect in 2018 forbidding the sale of neonicotinoids for consumer uses. (Neonicotinoids are widely used in gardening and pet products.)
The Maryland law makes an exemption for agricultural applicators, farmers and veterinarians, but neonicotinoid registrations are still under review by the EPA. The agency is scheduled to release pollinator health risk assessments for each of the chemicals this year, and has promised to enact “potential early pollinator mitigation in 2016,” according to its website.
Already the agency has released its initial pollinator risk assessment for imidacloprid, which suggested that while use of the chemical was acceptable in most field crops, its use in the cotton and citrus industry posed a high risk to pollinators.
WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW
In Canada, growers cannot plant neonicotinoid-coated seeds without using some type of fluency agent as a seed lubricant. No such restrictions exist in the U.S. yet, but growers still have some access to the product Canadian growers are using — Bayer’s Fluency Agent.
The Fluency Agent is a planter seed lubricant created by Bayer to limit the amount of dust off. The company says its study shows that Fluency Agent reduces total dust emissions by 90% and reduces the release of active ingredient by 65% compared to talc.
Approximately 5 million acres in the U.S. were planted with Fluency Agent last year, primarily in corn, according to Kerry Grossweiler, Bayer SeedGrowth equipment and coatings manager. This year, both Beck’s Hybrids and Burrus Hybrids are selling seed with the Fluency Agent applied, and John Deere retailers should have it available under part number A104580, Bayer communications manager Jeff Donald told DTN in an earlier story.
Growers can also ask their crop protection retailer for help procuring the Fluency Agent, Donald said.
If you do use a talc or graphite lubricant, use it sparingly and mix it thoroughly. To avoid endangering foraging bees, don’t blow out vacuum tubes at the end of the row, avoid planting when it’s extremely windy or dry, don’t clean out planters near pollinating plants or trees, and consider mowing ditches or field borders full of flowering weeds.