Imidacloprid: What You Must Know Now

Thu, Sep 17, 2009 by Paul Tukey,

Pesticide Implicated in Widespread Bee Deaths

While environmental activists including the SafeLawns Foundation claimed a temporary victory Wednesday, Sept. 16 in the emerging battle concerning the widespread use of imidacloprid in Worcester, Mass., beekeepers and many other observers across North America are deeply concerned about the precedents being set in the rural community.

As the threat of exotic invasive pests spreads— just as more alarming information becomes available about the pesticides currently in use — it is imperative correct decisions be made in situations for which no easy answers exist.

On Friday, Sept. 11, SafeLawns, the Toxics Action Center of Boston and later the Pesticide Action Network North America sent out an urgent call to block a proposal to spread more than 1 million gallons of imidacloprid solution into 15 square miles of soil in Greater Worcester, in the center of Massachusetts. Worcester has made national headlines due to its overwhelming infestation of an exotic invasive insect known as the Asian longhorn beetle. Approximately 25,000 trees have been cut down already and imidacloprid, synthetic nicotine, is the only known treatment for the pest.

Imidacloprid, marketed as Merit by the original manufacturer Bayer, is well documented for its toxicity to bees, as well as birds, worms and aquatic life. Many beekeepers, environmentalists and scientists — though not all — feel that imidacloprid is the root cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD) of bees. CCD is a mysterious ailment that began wiping out millions of beehives in the United States in 2006, just a year after imidacloprid replaced diazinon as the pesticide of choice for many insect infestations. Diazinon was banned by the EPA in 2004 due to its toxicity to birds and humans.

France has long-since banned most applications of imidacloprid ever since the synthetic nicotine compound was blamed for wiping out its bee-keeping industry during the 1990s. The Bayer Corporation reportedly paid French beekeepers $70 million to rebuild the beekeeping industry, but as recently as Sept. 15 a representative of Bayer claimed to the Boston Globe that imidacloprid has “no connection whatsoever” to colony collapse disorder. Widespread evidence and common sense suggest otherwise.

“Findings reveal a disparity between independent research and the research that was undertaken by Bayer,” said a September 2009 report by Buglife, a British conservation group that released the most comprehensive study ever published about imidacloprid.

The proposal considered Sept. 16 by the Massachusetts Pesticide Board subcommittee would have allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use three times the legal amount of imidacloprid in soil treatments around Worcester starting in the spring of 2010. When beekeepers and others began contacting SafeLawns and asking for help, we rallied allies and voiced our collective opposition. At the end of the meeting, the subcommittee wisely asked to table the issue for two months to gather more information.

“I don’t believe that the environmental assessment done by (the EPA) is sufficient to justify any treatments because, as part of the assessment, they must determine if the bees will encounter enough imidacloprid to cause harm,” said Dean Stiglitz, a beekeeper from the Worcester area. “The problem is, no one has data showing how much imidacloprid will end up in the pollen, nectar, and/or plant resins (that bees collect) of the early blooming maple trees. Certainly not with the dosages (proposed).”

The Toxics Action Center, which organizes community support for pesticide reduction, drafted a letter, which was read aloud to the Pesticide Board. Here are just a few excerpts:

“Imidacloprid can persist in soil for 26.5 to 229 days in soil,” wrote TAC. “For this reason, direct application to soil as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing should be avoided at all costs. It can easily migrate from soil into groundwater resources and has been detected in both ground and surface water in New York. California put imidacloprid on its groundwater protection list due to its potential to contaminate groundwater.

“Imidacloprid has been linked in animal studies to reproductive, mutagenic and neurotoxic effects. There is reason for concern about human exposures if it migrates into drinking water.”

The chemical, unfortunately, is the only known solution in the fight against the Asian longhorn beetle, which is believed to have first arrived in New York City in packing materials from China in the 1980s. Perhaps the most troubling insect ever to invade the U.S., it infests most deciduous hardwood trees with the exception of oak. By boring pea-sized holes into trees, the insect causes a slow but certain death.

Virtually everyone agrees that doing nothing is not an option, yet this is clearly a situation with no perfect solutions. Citizens of Worcester, justifiably, do not want to lose any more of their trees to the insect. The maple sugar industry of Northern New England is in a virtual panic that the insect will spread northward. Yet beekeepers are petrified about the pesticide impact on their hives — especially given that the pollen of maple trees is an essential spring source of food for the bees. Imidacloprid does wind up in the pollen of the flowers all most treated trees.

Given that imidacloprid is the only control, two primary application methods exist. One involves manually injecting trees with small amounts of imidacloprid. The other involves drilling vastly larger amounts of the pesticide six inches deep into the soil. While everyone agrees that injection is the preferred method, soil “drenching” has been proposed in Worcester due to cost considerations.

Christine Markham, director of the Asian Longhorned Beetle National Program for the USDA told the Boston Globe that soil injection is more “cost effective” than tree injection.

“We will be able to treat more trees,’’ said Markham.

Treating the trees is different than saving the trees, however. Scientific data collected at numerous infestation sites across the country shows that soil injection offers low efficacy in relation to tree injection. Injecting a tree has shown to be virtually 100 percent effective for up to two years; soil injections often need to be repeated year after year — which eventually mitigates any cost differential.

“Soil treatment, while the cheapest option, is like using a fire hose to treat for this beetle when really a small syringe would work just fine,” said Megan Jenny of the Toxics Action Center. “We should be phasing out toxic pesticides and replacing them with safer alternatives. In this case, the tree injection method may be significantly safer than soil applications. Tree injection minimizes the amount of pesticide needed, prevents the pesticide from migrating into groundwater and drinking water, and reduces pesticide exposures to the environment.”

Whether you live in Worcester and are affected by this immediate crisis, or you reside anywhere else in the nation, the imidacloprid issue affects you directly. By most estimates, honeybees are responsible for pollinating a third of our nation’s food supply. Any use of a pesticide that can harm the bees should be carefully considered — yet most homeowners who apply imidacloprid for grub control on their lawns or insect control on their fruit trees never even think about the impact on bees. Most people have never heard the word imidacloprid, which is buried in the fine print of the pesticide label.

With two months until the Pesticide Board in Massachusetts takes up the issue again, both sides will be preparing arguments. On the one hand, Bayer and the other manufacturers will continue to maintain their imidacloprid is safe and the USDA, faced with finding a solution to the Asian longhorn beetle, will push for widespread use of the pesticide. On the other hand, SafeLawns, Toxics Action Center, the Pesticide Action Network and others will point out the myriad toxicity issues associated with imidacloprid.

We urge all of you to: 1) Form an educated opinion and 2: Make your voice heard. If you live in Massachusetts, write to Gov. Deval Patrick and Senator John Kerry and all of your other local representatives. If these folks hear multiple voices on the same issue, they will respond. If you live anywhere else in the nation, keep your eyes out for issues involving honeybees, or imidacloprid, or pesticides in general.

At your own home, read those pesticide labels. Outside your home, eliminate or minimize pesticide use and never attempt to treat for the Asian longhorn beetle on your own; it is a job for a licensed professional. And within your larger community, don’t be afraid to speak out. Nothing less than our forests and our food supply depend on it.