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New labels for pesticides linked to bee deaths

Updated Tue 20 Aug 2013, 1:12pm AEST

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is introducing new labelling requirements for pesticides suspected of contributing to the global decline in bee populations.

It follows a European Union decision to impose a three-year ban on the same pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, from December.

Neonicotinoids are a widely used group of pesticides, popular because of their low toxicity for humans. But it's their effect on bees that's causing concern.

"This class of pesticides, these systemic neonicotinoids, fundamentally weaken bees, suppressing their immunity and making them more susceptible to a wider range of factors. Whether that's poor nutrition, whether that's other diseases, or parasites, these factors in combination are what are driving these bee declines," said Paul Towers of US-based lobby group Pesticide Action Network.

Mr Towers says the new labelling requirements, prohibiting the use of some neonicotinoid pesticide products where bees are present, are welcome, but more needs to be done.

"US agriculture faces one of the worst years on record for honeybee declines, so the EPA should move quickly to protect bees.

"It should start with creating the best protections possible in the places where bees face the greatest burden of pesticide exposure.

"They should act on this growing body of scientific evidence and really focus on restricting the use of neonicotinoids, especially as seed treatments throughout agriculture."

In Australia, the farm chemical regulator, the APVMA, is researching the impact of neonicotinoids on the health of honey bees.

Trevor Weatherhead, of the Australian Honeybee Industry Council, says neonicotinoids are a concern for the industry.

"The concern that has been raised is the sub-lethal effects.

"We know that they are like a lot of other pesticides, that they will kill bees.

"But it's the sub-lethal effect where there could be a minute amount which is below the level of what will kill a bee, but will have an effect on the bee, and the concern is that through navigation ability of the bee they will go out and lose their ability to find their way home."

Mr Weatherhead says the situation in Australia may be different to the US, and to Europe, where a ban on neonicotinoids comes into effect from December.

"The picture in Australia is not as clear because in the rest of the world they have a thing called Varroa mite, which we don't have here in Australia.

"We believe this is confusing the issue, that the Varroa mite is also weakening the bee as well, so any effect on the bee will be more pronounced than here in Australia where we don't have that mite.

"We're just waiting to find out more information. There is hopefully some research being done to look at whether the nectar and the pollen within the plants that are seed-coated are lethal and have an effect on bees."

The Australian review is expected to deliver findings before the end of the year. Any changes to labelling would not be introduced until new agricultural and veterinary chemical regulations come into effect in July 2014.

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