Honeybees and other pollinating insects are crucial helpers in putting food on American tables. But the bees’ colonies have declined over the years, leading concerned beekeepers and scientists to speculate about the causes.
A new lawsuit by leaders in the beekeeping industry against the Environmental Protection Agency highlights one often-cited worry: that pesticides are playing a role in those losses.
The focus of the lawsuit, filed last week in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, is the E.P.A.’s reauthorization of the use of an insecticide that has previously harmed honeybee colonies.
That chemical, sulfoxaflor, is absorbed into plants, where it can be ingested by pollinating bees. When the bees return to the hive, they can transfer the chemical to the colony. This affects the bees’ ability to breed and survive according to studies cited by Earthjustice, whose lawyer Gregory C. Loarie is representing the petitioners.
“Honeybees and other pollinators are dying in droves because of insecticides like sulfoxaflor,” Mr. Loarie said in a statement accompanying the lawsuit. “This is illegal and an affront to our food system, economy and environment.”
The lawsuit names the E.P.A. and its administrator, Andrew Wheeler, as the defendants. It was filed by the Pollinator Stewardship Council; the American Beekeeping Federation; and Jeff Anderson, a beekeeper.
The petitioners are asking the court to review the environmental agency’s decision in July to allow the use of sulfoxaflor on crops, the latest twist in a series of challenges and approvals surrounding its use, according to a summary of those actions on the E.P.A.’s website.
The first applications for the use of sulfoxaflor came to the agency in 2010 from the agriculture chemical company Dow AgroSciences, now called Corteva Agriscience, to register three products containing the chemical. After a period of public comment, the E.P.A. approved its use in 2013.
But the Pollinator Stewardship Council, an advocacy organization that documents the effects of pesticides on pollinating insects, and others in the industry petitioned for a review of that decision. In 2015, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned it, saying the agency had not provided “substantial evidence” of the chemical’s effects on bees, and ordered further studies.
After collecting more data, the E.P.A. in 2016 again approved registrations for the use of sulfoxaflor, but not on blooming crops that attracted bees and other pollinators. On July 12 of this year, however, the agency announced it had removed the restrictions and approved other uses for the insecticide, calling it “an effective tool to control challenging pests with fewer environmental impacts.”
The decision “shows the agency’s commitment to making decisions that are based on sound science,” Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, the assistant administrator for the E.P.A.’s office of chemical safety and pollution prevention, said in the announcement.
The Trump administration has been rolling back environmental regulations it sees as burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other big businesses. In some cases, agencies have skipped key steps in the process, like notifying the public and asking for comment.
Mr. Loarie, the lawyer for the beekeepers, said the suit aimed to set aside the E.P.A.’s decision on sulfoxaflor because it was “contrary to federal law and unsupported by substantial evidence.”
He said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that the agency’s July decision to approve use of the insecticide was “out of the blue” and that it had not solicited public comments or feedback from the beekeeping industry, as it had done in 2013, in light of the industry’s history of legal objections.
“To cut them out of the process is definitely something we have not seen before,” Mr. Loarie said.
An E.P.A. spokesman said that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. He said the agency had sought public comments in previous stages of registering the pesticide, receiving “considerable feedback on sulfoxaflor from stakeholders.”
Corteva said in a statement on Wednesday that it was “pleased that the U.S. E.P.A. has restored and expanded” the use of one of its insecticides that has sulfoxaflor as its active ingredient.
Corteva gathered “a considerable volume” of new data, including laboratory tests, colony feeding studies and data on pollen and nectar residue, and submitted it to the E.P.A., the company’s statement said.
The honeybee has been the dominant pollinator for decades, but beekeepers in the United States lost an estimated 40 percent of their managed honeybee colonies from April 2018 to April 2019, according to the latest survey from the Bee Informed Partnership, a nonprofit that advises beekeepers.
Scientists have pointed to many potential reasons for the bee colony collapses. Some say the fault lies with pathogens and pesticides like neonicotinoids, which chemically resemble nicotine and include sulfoxaflor.