Trump Administration Overturns Ban On Known Bee-Killing Pesticides In Wildlife Refuges


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

There's a huge body of evidence suggesting bees are harmed by neonicotinoids. Veltas/Shutterstock

Back in April, the European Union (EU) voted to ban several neonicotinoids – the most widely-used insecticides – for use anywhere other than closed greenhouses, due to their proven bee-harming properties. As is grimly typical of the Trump administration, they’ve turned their back on such evidence, and instead have rescinded a 2014 ban on neonicotinoids.

The Obama-era policy, brought in after legal action from environmentalists, was nixed per a memo from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) deputy director Greg Sheehan. As reported by the Guardian, he also said that the planting of GM crops on wildlife refuges would also be permitted once more.


Until now, very little agricultural activity was permitted on a handful of such refuges – havens for biodiverse, ecologically important swaths of land. More than 50 national wildlife refuges will now be open to both – on a case-by-case basis – in order to boost the agricultural sector’s efficiency and yields.

First, a note about GM crops.

Thanks to thousands of scientific studies and reviews, it’s become clear that GM crops are of no more risk to people who consume them than those that have been grown using conventional farming and breeding methods. The issue as to whether GM crops can colonize land that wasn’t meant for them is a tad murkier, but recent research is demonstrating that this is something we can handle.

You can also debate the using of wildlife refuges for agriculture, although it certainly seems to run counter to the motivation behind creating them as refuges in the first place. What seems unequivocally concerning, however, is the rescinding of the blanket ban on neonicotinoids. So – what are they, exactly?


As noted by Chemistry World, these water-soluble anti-pest compounds are taken up by the plant and dispersed throughout them. Neonics, as they are often referred to, are popular thanks to their effectiveness against multiple pests, their longevity, and over time become less toxic to mammals.

However, it’s increasingly clear that neonics were harming bees, both wild bees and honeybees. Although the direct cause of the problems is still being determined, it’s suspected that neonics overstimulate their neurons, which can trigger cell impairment, shutdowns, and even death. The more that bees are exposed to neonics, the more vulnerable to them they become.

Data suggesting that these all-important pollinators are being directly threatened by neonics has been building for some time.

One highly-publicized study in 2017 on the topic – the largest of this kind – was widely interpreted as decisively evidencing this threat, even though the underlying data showed a more mixed picture. Nevertheless, it stands among an increasingly populous crowd of studies that more clearly point towards the danger that bees face from neonics.


The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was already becoming cognizant of this, but after a 2017 review of more than 1,500 studies on clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam – the three neonics of greatest concern – they doubled-down on their conclusions.

This report ultimately led to an EU-wide ban on these neonics just a few months ago. Although this caused some to raise legitimate concerns about how to best to deal with pests without these neonics, most scientists hailed the decision.


It is curious, then, that the FWS has gone against the grain. It’s worth noting that their own website still contains plenty of pages like this one, which advocates for agriculturalists to steer clear of neonics and other systemic pesticides.

Either way, the decision seems to fit with the Trump administration’s zealous drive to roll back environmental protections, almost always to favor industry. In this case, we’d expect pesticide manufacturers to be over the Moon.


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