If companies won’t stop making a certain group of pesticides that can kill honeybees and other pollinators, and if growers won’t stop applying the chemicals to seeds and fields, consumers will have to force change by refusing to buy the foods produced from the yields, environmentalists said Saturday.
“Be an activist with every bite,” Tony Cleese, a longtime advocate for organic agriculture in North Carolina, told about three dozen people gathered for a rally on the Capitol grounds Saturday morning.
The event was organized by Toxic Free NC, Friends of the Earth, SumOfUs.org and other groups that say the overuse of pesticides is killing bees and may threaten humans.
The groups are especially critical of Bayer CropScience, a German company whose American headquarters are in Research Triangle Park, because the company manufactures pesticides called neonicotinoids, which many researchers say have played a role in large bee die-offs. The American Beekeeping Federation says that most of the crops produced in the United States would not exist without honeybees, which pollinate plants as they gather pollen and nectar from blooming plants.
Bayer, Dow Chemical Co. and others that make, sell or use neonicotinoids say the pesticides are safe as long as they are used correctly. The companies blame misapplication and other stressors, including genetic weaknesses, a parasitic mite and loss of habitat and forage, for reducing bee populations. Another problem, referred to as colony collapse disorder, in which nearly all the bees in a hive disappear except for a few worker bees and the queen, has not been seen in U.S. hives over the past couple of years.
Neonicotinoids are used to treat seeds before they are planted or are sprayed on plants after they emerge to protect against insects that suck or chew. The pesticides are used on most of U.S. corn and canola crops, on much of the cotton, sorghum, sugar beets and soybeans, and on many fruits, vegetables and grains.
Neonicotinoids are the most widely used pesticides in the world, and Bayer makes some of the most popular brand names.
Preston Peck of Toxic Free NC said more than 400 studies have indicated that neonicotinoids have played a role in the loss of bee colonies since the chemicals began to proliferate in the 1990s.
The European Union temporarily banned the use of neonicotinoids, but partially lifted the ban this summer to allow the chemicals’ use on an infestation of cabbage stem flea beetles and other pests. Canada has said their use must be cut by 80 percent on corn and soybean crops by 2017. The activists who gathered Saturday said they have collected 500,000 signatures on petitions asking Bayer to stop making neonicotinoids.
The two sides don’t even agree on whether there is a genuine crisis in the bee world.
Bee populations first became news in the mid-2000s, when beekeepers began noticing large numbers of dead bees in their hives. Typically, beekeepers had been losing about 14 percent of their colonies during seasonal die-offs, but in some years in the past decade, the die-offs have taken 30 to 40 percent of colonies, with the highest losses usually occurring over the winter.
And yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual survey of beekeepers recently reported the highest number of bee colonies in a decade – 2.7 million in 2014 – due to beekeepers’ splitting their hives or starting new ones.
Becky Langer, project manager for the North American Bee Health Program, housed at Bayer’s RTP campus, said neonicotinoids are safe as long as users read and follow instructions. For example, she said, the chemicals should not be applied to plants when they’re flowering, and are best used in the evening after bees have returned to their hives or in the early morning before they have emerged.
Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner at Friends of the Earth, traveled to Raleigh from Washington to speak at the rally. She said Bayer’s bee research and the $100,000 grant it pledged this year to the N.C. Department of Transportation to provide bee habitat in roadside flower beds are public-relations tools.
Pesticides are a lucrative industry, Finck-Hayes said, and whatever the company says publicly, “their interest is protecting their pesticide profits.”