Two years ago, Steve McDaniel’s bes started dropping like flies.
"This has all the marks of a pesticide kill," he said, describing the piles of dead bees that appeared outside his hives. "It’s the only thing that makes sense."
McDaniel, a master beekeeper in Manchester, Md., has been safeguarding his honeybee colonies from mites, viruses and other maladies for 35 years. Now he and other beekeepers blame a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids that have gained widespread use in the past decade and have been linked to a mysterious die-off of bees called Colony Collapse Disorder.
They want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to follow the lead of the European Union in December and ban its use.
Chemical makers Bayer AG, Syngenta AG and Dow Chemical Co. say neonicotinoids aren’t to blame for the bee deaths and have stepped up their own lobbying to counter calls for a ban as well as legislation now in Congress. Eliminating the products will do little for bees and force farmers and gardeners to go back to products that are more harmful, they say.
At stake are billions of dollars in agricultural production. Bees pollinate scores of plants from apricots to zucchini and are responsible for increasing crop values by $15 billion each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is set to release its annual survey of bee losses this week. Recent surveys have shown almost a third of bees in an estimated 2.6 million colonies fail to survive the winter dormant season.
More than half the nation’s commercial bees are needed to pollinate one crop: the $4.8 billion annual harvest of almonds, the country’s most lucrative nut. Companies using pollinator- aided crops range from Hershey Co., maker of Almond Joy candy bars, to Burt’s Bees lip-balm producer Clorox Co.
Neonicotinoids work by permeating a plant, protecting it throughout the growing season. This eliminates repeated spraying and represents "a revolution in pest control," said Dave Fischer, an environmental director at Bayer CropScience. "These products are being used in sustainable agriculture and is not causing widespread losses of pollinators."
The EU in December banned three pesticides for two years, citing studies showing that the neonicotinoids -- clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam -- may pose a risk to bees while acknowledging that conclusive proof is elusive. Environmental groups in Canada, including the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, have pushed for tighter regulation of the products there.
Bee deaths reached alarming proportions in 2006 when scientists identified Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome of unknown cause marked by disoriented bees failing to find their way back to their hives and dying. Beekeepers suddenly reported losing roughly a third of their colonies -- up from 15% in previous years.