Wallowa County beekeepers have a mix of opinions on a recent decision of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to approve new uses and lift restrictions upon a pesticide recognized by the EPA as a danger to pollinators. The chemical, sulfoxaflor, is branded as Transform or Closer, and is an insect neurotoxin

On Sept. 9, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici signed a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader of the 5th District and the lone Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, Rep. Greg Walden of the 2nd District, did not join the five in signing the letter to the EPA.

In the letter, the lawmakers highlighted concerns from beekeepers and other stakeholders in Oregon about the potential hazards of the pesticide on bee colonies and the importance of pollinator health to America’s agriculture and food supply.

The EPA decision to continue the use of sulfoxaflor, marketed under the brand names Transform and Closer, comes as the annual loss rate for honeybees increased to 40.7% this year, up from the previous average of 38.7%, according to a Washington Post report in July.

“These new approved uses come at a time when colonies are dying at alarming rates,” the lawmakers wrote. “This is particularly concerning, given that pollinators are an invaluable component of our nation’s food production. In Oregon alone, specialty crops like blueberries, marionberries, raspberries, and pears depend upon bees and other pollinators.”

Most local beekeepers contacted were not familiar with sulfoxaflor, an insect neurotoxin that kills through contact or ingestion. The pesticide is classified for use against sap-feeding insects. Application is only recommended when pollinators are not likely to be present, as sulfoxaflor is highly toxic to bees if they come into contact with spray droplets shortly after application; toxicity is reduced, but not eliminated, after the spray has dried.

Jordan Dinnock, owner of JD&T Apiaries of Nyssa in Malheur County, has 6,000 beehives in Wallowa and Union counties, including in the Enterprise area, and is the regional representative for the Oregon State Beekeepers Association.

Dinnock said he’s not familiar with sulfoxaflor, but his hives have had minimal pesticide trouble.

“Within my lifetime, we’ve had a minimum amount of trouble, but I hear the horror stories,” he said. “There may be lethal effects, but there are also sublethal effects.”

By this, he said there is some evidence that some pesticides cause bees with problems navigating, and therefore returning to their hives.

He said responsible use of chemicals is the key.

“If applicators are using it in a manner that’s safe, I’d guess that’s a good thing. … Beekeepers tend to have a knee-jerk reaction,” Dinnock said. “You say ‘spray’ and they say ‘bad.’ But you’ve got to get to know about the pesticide.”

Lorna Cook, a local organizer of beekeepers, who keeps bees at her home south of Enterprise, said she wasn’t familiar with the EPA’s proposed change.

She said many beekeepers in Wallowa County are beginners and like her, many are unfamiliar with recent EPA actions on chemicals that could harm their hives. She said when a pesticide or herbicide is regulated or banned, farmers are allowed to appeal such actions based on their need for the chemical. But follow-up is limited.

“No one ever goes out to see if they really need it,” Cook said.

Other local beekeepers had stronger opinions.

“Anything that harms pollinators, harms us,” said Catherine Matthias, a Joseph beekeeper. “With that said, it is hard for consumers to fight Dow, now Corteva, the producer of sulfoxaflor. The only thing it seems to have in its favor is that it requires fewer applications than some of the even more harmful insecticides out there, resulting in less risk to nontarget pests and plants. Me? I’ll buy organic whenever possible.”

Rancher Darla Klages, of Joseph, also was hesitant to give EPA rule relaxation their approval.

“I am a big believer that all pesticide use should be carefully considered,” Klages said. “Not only does the common urban use of over-the-counter pesticides have a much larger impact than people really imagine on the water and wildlife and the health of their family and pets, but farm use should be carefully considered.”

Local beekeeper, Pam Slinker, of Alder Slope Enterprises, also expressed hesitation at using pesticides in general.

“We are not familiar with it, other than the EPA and court decisions over the past few years,” she said. “We do not use it and we do, in fact, also raise bees, so alternative methods would be preferred.”

The lawmakers asked in their letter to know what scientific data the EPA used prior to the recent decision to lift restricted uses for sulfoxaflor, to determine whether an emergency exemption should be allowed.

The EPA’s sulfoxaflor webpage states that a comprehensive risk assessment was conducted on the long-term effects of sulfoxaflor on bees. The EPA was asked to provide by Oct. 9 the answers to several questions on risk assessment.

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