Beekeepers sting back at EPA after the repeal of a harmful pesticide

Master beekeeper and entomologist Jon Zawislak gives a presentation at the Long Island Beekeepers Club September meeting.

By Paige Cornicelli and Louis Pagillo

Environmental law organization Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the EPA last Thursday over the repeal of a ban on the insecticide sulfoxaflor, which is known to harm honey bees and other pollinators.

The Environmental Protection Agency repealed the ban in July, citing new evidence and studies that suggest sulfoxaflor is less harmful to honey bees than alternative chemicals.

“[Sulfoxaflor] is very useful for combating pests…,” Greg Loarier, a lawyer at Earthjustice representing the Beekeeping Association in the lawsuit, said. “The problem is that it’s having a catastrophic effect on pollinators and other beneficial insects.” 

Sulfoxaflor is described by GreenFacts, an environmental information website, as being a very specific type of insecticide, known as a neonicotinoid, that can have very negative effect on pollinators, like the honey bee. It’s a systemic pesticide that is absorbed into the plant after application, making the crops toxic to pests. It’s known that the un-absorbed chemical can harm honey bees, but there is also evidence that suggests it’s still dangerous to pollinators after it is absorbed into the plant. The EPA recognizes that the chemical can be harmful to pollinators, but maintains that it is significantly better than other neonicotinoids. 

The idea of this insecticide being reintroduced is unnerving to members of the Long Island Beekeepers Club. The club includes a total 296 paying members, with 700 unpaid members on a separate mailing list, consisting of entomologists, farmers and master beekeepers. The club hosted a meeting on Sunday, where many members gathered to hear updates about the club and several presentations.  At the meeting, master beekeeper Grace Mehl gave advice on how to prepare honey bees for the Fall and Winter seasons.

After the coming seasons, the Long Island beekeepers may have a new enemy in Transform, the most common pesticide that has sulfoxaflor as a key ingredient. The Transform label has several guidelines on how to properly apply the pesticide. The EPA claims that the product takes three hours to be absorbed, needs to be applied when pollinators are not active and farmers and beekeepers within one mile need to be notified at least 48 hours before.

“Bees fly up to four miles away from the hive,” master beekeeper Steve Chen said.  “I’d like to see five miles on labels.” By notifying the beekeepers that sulfoxaflor will be used within two days, it gives them a chance to relocate their bees. But because the bees are able to fly such a great distance, warning only the beekeepers within one mile will do very little to actually help the bees. 

Honey bees have a big job on Long Island, according to the Long Island Children’s Museum website. The Museum is home to a colony of over 20,000 bees that fly in and out of the museum. The display is encased in glass to show how the honey bees work, while the website gives information on how bees help the Island, like the plants they pollinate, including melons, pumpkins and treenuts. 

Some experts believe that while it does harm some insects, bees are relatively safe from the damaging and life threatening effects of the insecticide. As long as the neonicotinoids are being used properly, less harm than improper use will come. 

 “Like a lot of other pesticides, if it’s used responsibly, it can be very effective at dealing with pests,” Jon Zawislak, a master beekeeper and director of agriculture at the University of Arkansas said. “All insecticides can be harmful to honey bees.” 

Another entomologist, Dr. Dan Gilrein, agrees that the pesticide can be effective, but there are always other factors that can affect the environment.

“It does control aphids, and there’s no plant damage,” Gilrein said. “But there are a lot of different little things to consider with these things.”

The use of sufoflaxafor does not only have an impact on the farmers, the amateur beekeepers and the master beekeepers. It also impacts the hobbyist beekeepers, and consumers who use products that come from bees. 

“Eventually, pesticides make their way into your wax,” Nancy Voyles, a start-up beekeeper said. “And it starts to harm your bees.”

About Louis Pagillo 3 Articles
Journalism student at Stony Brook University. Interested in web and video journalism. Covered stories in esports and politics.