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EPA officials discuss neonicotinoid, bee health issues with Mississippi specialists

EPA's Biological and Economic Analysis Division issued a report last Oct. 22 that said neonicotinoid seed treatments provided zero benefits when applied to soybean seed.

The report became the latest salvo in a battle over whether the Environmental Protection Agency should withdraw the FIFRA registrations for imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin, insecticides that are the active ingredients in most of the seed treatments that are applied on soybeans. 

Environmental activists claim seed treatments such as those containing the three neonicotinoid insecticides are having a negative impact on the health of honey bees, particularly when they are carried in "planter dust" to nearby plants.

That was the background for a visit by Jim Jones, assistant administrator, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention at EPA'S headquarters in Washington, to the Mississippi Delta Jan. 20-21. Jones visited a Delta F.AR.M. Bee Pollinator experimental site and met with a group of Mississippi State University specialists and Delta Council leaders.

"The part of the country where our analysis was less clear was in the South," Jones said in an interview on a famr stop near Tunica, Miss. "And it wasn't long after we put this analysis out that the Delta Council, who we've worked with for years on a host of environmental issues, called and said ' we think you didn't quite get this right" and asked that we come down and talk to some people in the Delta about their experience both producers as well as academics.

"So we jumped at the chance to come down and actually see and hear firsthand from some folks from this part of the country about their experience with neonic-treated soybean seed. That's what the point of the trip is, but there are a host of other issues we're grappling with that we're also exploring while we're down here."

Jones said some of the issues are related to herbicide-tolerant crops and also some of the work being conducted in the state of Mississippi to try to protect commercial honeybees. EPA is reviewing registration request for two new formulations of dicamba for application on dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans. The would-be registrants are hoping the tolerances for those products can be approved by planting season.

He said the pollinator health debate was one of the "most interesting and challenging science and regulatory issues that I've worked with in the pesticides arena. The science is complicated because there are so many different factors at play and trying to tease out the role of the various factors that are playing on pollinator health is very challenging from a scientific perspective. And regulatorily, it's pretty challenging, as well."

One of the indisputable facts is that bees and pesticides don't get along well. "Bees are insects and insecticides are designed to kill insects so trying to figure out both the relative contribution of insecticides and then trying to figure out how to appropriately provide protection for commercial honeybees is really tricky," he noted.

"Then you add into it the fundamental reliance of  agriculture on commercial honeybees for pollination services and that adds a whole different dynamic to it. So it's a very challenging issue from a scientific level and that makes it a pretty challenging issue from a regulatory level as well."

Off camera, Jones said he believes the controversy is one that agriculture eventually will have so solve by reaching a consensus among beekeepers and producers, some of whom allow beekeepers to place hives on their farms to provide forage for the bees.

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