EPA Approves Expanded Use of Indiana-made Insecticide Toxic to Bees

Sulfoxaflor protects crops from aphids and tarnished plant bugs, but is linked to bee death and population decline.
July 17, 2019

This is part of a series of stories explaining the impact of climate change and other environmental factors on the population of honey bees, which are crucial pollinators for commercial crops.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expanded the use of sulfoxaflor, an Indiana-made insecticide that is highly toxic to bees, despite the concerns of beekeepers.

Sulfoxaflor is a chemical sold by Corteva Agriscience, but is produced by Indianapolis-based Dow Agriscience LLC. It is used to kill bugs such as aphids and tarnished plant bugs that are becoming resistant to traditional insecticides.

The EPA lists sulfoxaflor as “very highly toxic” to bees. The chemical has been found to be 20 times more toxic for honeybees than bumblebees and has also been linked to reproductive failure in bees.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expanded the use of sulfoxaflor, an Indiana-made pesticide that is "very highly toxic" to bees.

Despite the risks, the EPA will allow farmers to use sulfoxaflor-based insecticides on alfalfa, corn, cacao, grains, pineapple, sorghum, teff, teosinte and trees, and resume allowing farmers to use the chemical on citrus, cotton, soybeans, strawberries and some gourds.

“EPA is providing long-term certainty for U.S. growers to use an important tool to protect crops and avoid potentially significant economic losses, while maintaining strong protection for pollinators, said assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Alexandra Dapolito Dunn. “Today’s decision shows the agency’s commitment to making decisions that are based on sound science.”

The decision comes several years after a federal appeals court said the EPA was doing the exact opposite of that when it approved the unconditional use of sulfoxaflor in 2013.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the EPA to withdraw approval for sulfoxaflor in 2015. The court said the EPA’s decision to allow unconditional uses of the chemical was based on “flawed and limited data” that understated sulfoxaflor’s risk to bees.

A federal appeals court ordered the EPA to withdraw approval for sulfoxaflor in 2015.

“Without sufficient data, the EPA has no real idea whether sulfoxaflor will cause unreasonable adverse effects on bees, as prohibited by (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act). Accordingly, the EPA’s decision to register sulfoxaflor was not supported by substantial evidence,” said Judge Mary M. Schroeder in the court’s majority opinion.

This time around, the EPA says sulfoxaflor presents a “low risk” to birds, mammals, fish and other aquatic animals and plants. The agency openly admits the chemical’s toxicity to pollinators, but plans to minimize negative effects by restricting when and how the product can be sprayed.

The EPA has instructed Corteva Agriscience and other sulfoxaflor insecticide manufacturers to post more information on the product labels. An environmental hazard statement warns of the product’s toxicity to bees.

“This product is highly toxic to bees and other pollinating insects exposed to direct treatment or to residues in/on blooming crops or weeds. Protect pollinating insects by following labels directions intended to minimize drift and reduce pesticide risk to these organisms,” the statement reads.

Sulfoxaflor products will also be required to include directions for use that include a suggestion to notify beekeepers within a mile of the treatment area 48 hours before spraying and limiting application times to when bees and other pollinators are least active.

The EPA will require companies producing sulfoxaflor-based insecticides to include new warnings and directions for use.

The EPA will also require crop-specific restrictions for sulfoxaflor-based insecticide applications. The EPA will limit sulfoxaflor application amounts and times for citrus, ornamentals, pome fruit, stone fruit, tree nuts, pistachios, tree plantations, small climbing fruit vines and low growing berries.

Organizations that represent the farming industry like the National Sorghum Producers and the American Retailers Association approve of the EPA’s decision. But beekeepers and environmental groups want the chemical banned. They say the EPA’s actions are not enough to protect bees.

Ohio-based Pollinator Stewardship Council, Inc. was one of four national beekeeping organizations that joined with individual beekeepers in suing the EPA for its initial sulfoxaflor registration.

“EPA adjusted the pesticide label, reducing the bee-attractive crops on which the chemical could be applied. However, let’s be concise: the active ingredient, Sulfoxaflor, is toxic to chewing and sucking insects. Honey bees and other pollinators are chewing and sucking insects,” program director Michele Colopy told the Indiana Environmental Reporter in a statement. “With little to no data on the degradation of Sulfoxaflor, and no research of tank mixes with Sulfoxaflor, it remains a bee toxic pesticide contaminating bee forage through drift and residue. With the expansion of the use of Sulfoxaflor, EPA is ignoring the threats to essential agricultural and ecological pollination services, and to the very livelihood of beekeepers tasked with providing the managed honey bees to pollinate our crops.”

"EPA is ignoring the threats to essential agricultural and ecological pollination services, and to the very livelihood of beekeepers tasked with providing the managed honey bees to pollinate our crops."

Attorneys from environmental legal advocate Earthjustice handled the case for the beekeepers. The group says the EPA’s decision puts bees and the beekeepers’ economic interests at risk.

“At a time when honeybees and other pollinators are dying in greater numbers than ever before, Trump’s EPA decision to remove restrictions on yet another bee-killing pesticide is nothing short of reckless. Scientists have long said pesticides like sulfoxaflor are the cause of the unprecedented colony collapse. Letting sulfoxaflor back on the market is dangerous for our food system, economy, and the environment,” said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie.

The sulfoxaflor decision is the second move in a month that puts pollinators at risk.

On July 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would suspend data collection for its annual Honey Bee Colonies report. The reports are used to compare quarterly colony losses, track bee movement and analyze data on a state-by-state basis. The USDA says the decision to suspend data collection was “necessary given available fiscal and program resources.” The final report will be released Aug. 1.

Pollinators like bees are critically important to the agricultural system in Indiana and the rest of the nation. They are responsible for one out of every 3 bites of food we take each day.

Hoosiers are doing their part to help pollinators thrive in Indiana.

The Hoosier state is home to about 4,000 beekeepers who manage between 10 and 11,000 bee colonies.

Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill into law this May that prevents local municipalities from banning beekeeping within their jurisdiction. Those municipalities still have the power to set the rules regulating some aspects of beekeeping.

Beekeepers are also getting help from the academic sector.

Purdue University and Penn State University researchers collaborated to create Beescape, a website that can help beekeepers pick the best spot on their land to raise place their colonies. The site considers nesting quality, insecticide load, and other factors and gives users a score on how suitable a given habitat will be for their colonies.

EPA Approves Expanded Use of Indiana-made Insecticide Toxic to Bees