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E.U. abuzz over nicotine-derived insecticide

By From page A4 | March 15, 2013

The effect of nicotine-derived insecticides on the noble honey bee has been much in the news of late.

Beekeepers and environmentalists accuse the neonicotinoid class of insecticide compounds of contributing to bee colony collapse. They praised a recent European Union proposal to ban three specific compounds: Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam on crops that affect bees: sunflowers, rapeseed, corn and cotton.

They also criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for ignoring its own research and for failing to hold big pharma’s feet to the fire in the original approval process for the pesticide.

Foraging bees get exposed to neonicotinoids by ingesting nectar and pollen from treated crops, and also through drifting dust in treated fields, according research published by the European Food Safety Authority in January.

The doses are typically not lethal, but accumulate in the bee. Studies by the EPA and the E.U. have long shown that extended exposure to neonicotinoids makes bees sluggish and ineffectual, but few controls were ever placed on specific compounds.

Neonicotinoids are widely used as a seed treatment in commercial agriculture, and are also sold over the counter as an insect treatment for trees, vegetables, fruits, ornamentals and flowers.

Nicotine has been used as a natural insecticide for centuries. Neuro-active neonicotinoids were developed in the 1980s as a low-toxicity alternative to conventional insecticides, safe on humans, pets and plants, but toxic to adult insects on ingestion, and, importantly, to larval insects on contact.

The new compounds quickly became the most widely used insecticides in the world. They currently enjoy almost universal use on industrial corn, “which blankets 88 million acres of farmland nationwide and produces a bounty of protein-rich pollen on which honeybees love to feast,” according to the environmental Website grist.org in a December, 2011 post by writer Tom Philpott.

Applied properly, neonicotinoids are highly effective against a wide variety of pests and provide an important tool in the war against the Western Bark Beetle, according to local arborist and tree pest specialist Chad Dykstra.

He acknowledges that the compounds have the potential to harm bees if not used properly, but argues that when properly applied by professionals, they’re safe to plants, pets, people and even bees.

Mike Roberts

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