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‘Carpet of bees’: How Romania flouts EU ban on bee-killing insecticides

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Nearly a decade after the European Union first restricted the use of seeds coated with bee-killing insecticides, Romania’s honeybees are still feeling the sting.

In one of the EU’s honey-production capitals, the government has been relying on the banned seeds to prop up its lucrative cash crop exports, something NGOs and beekeepers denounce as an egregious and routine violation of EU laws that is endangering one of the country’s most ancient trades and harming biodiversity.

While the European Commission fully banned neonicotinoids, or neonics, in 2018 — after concerns about their impact on bees led to initial restrictions in 2013 — Romania’s agriculture ministry has routinely side-stepped the ban by resorting to an exemption mechanism in the EU’s main pesticide law designed as a last-resort measure to save an endangered harvest.

Romania keeps circumventing the restrictions by arguing that neonics are the only effective means out there to protect crops from devastating bug infestations. But critics say the government is ignoring existing alternatives and granting all derogation requests submitted by powerful farm and agrichemical groups.

In a 2017 report, three EU NGOs and Romapis, the Romanian federation of beekeeper associations, pinned Romania as the “EU champion” of neonic derogations, and called on the Commission to stop its “deliberate inaction” and challenge Bucharest’s “abuses,” as provided by EU law. But, five years on, no meaningful action has been taken because, at the EU level, no one is really watching.

The issue is far from being unique to Romania.

Aurel Petruș, in his organic cornfield in Romania | Gabriela Galindo/POLITICO

Virtually every EU country makes routine use of these so-called emergency authorizations to use the forbidden pesticides that keep their signature productions ticking over. France and Belgium’s continued neonic exemptions contribute to the EU’s stance as the world’s leading sugar beet producer; Spain, the EU’s fruit-growing champion, deploys them to allow farmers of popular crops like melons or strawberries to use 1,3-Dichloropropene, a fungicide so toxic that it never got EU approval; and countries like Denmark issue them to manufacture neonics for both EU and non-EU export.

Yet the situation is particularly damaging for Romanian beekeepers, as neonics have been used to grow sprawling fields of sunflower, corn and colza, all crops deemed highly attractive to pollinators. The use of the banned seeds, beekeepers argue, serves only the interests of a handful of powerful crop growers, and those of a government unwilling to give up its spot as one of the EU’s cereal-exporting giants.

The plight of Romania’s beekeepers further highlights how flagrant shortcomings in the European Commission’s abilities to enforce its own rules and to rein in an often barefaced readiness by countries to exploit regulatory loopholes, can render its lofty green rules toothless.

In interviews with EU authorities, NGOs and Romanian beekeepers and farmers, POLITICO found that a lack of resources and regulatory firepower — whether within the Commission’s executive units or within its chief scientific agency, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) — have entrenched this issue in a regulatory no-man’s land, where countries are able to make unchecked use of a system meant for emergencies.

The Commission declined requests for an interview. In written replies to questions from POLITICO, it admitted EFSA lacked sufficient resources to “systematically verify” all derogations and confirmed that in Romania, the derogations are “granted upon request.” In a 2019 audit in Romania, it also identified staff and resource shortages as a “severe issue” hampering proper implementation of its pesticide rules.

Small-scale beekeeper Cristian Trancioveanu said his hives fall into an eerie silence after each summer foraging season | Gabriela Galindo/POLITICO and Cristian Trancioveanu

Romania’s farm ministry also declined an interview but, in a written answer, said the annual derogations were needed “because there are no alternatives.” It added that neonic use in colza stopped in 2019, after an EFSA report found alternatives existed.

Martin Hojsik, a Slovak MEP working on pollinators, said the Romanian case laid bare a “super loophole” that showed “there is something really deeply rotten in the system.”

As the Commission pours considerable resources into a package of new laws to restore biodiversity and pursues a 2030 target to reverse rampant pollinator decline, its inability to enforce even the most straightforward of bans suggests it might be biting off more than it can chew.

Carpet of bees

Across Romania, the practice of using derogations is pushing beekeepers and farmers into an increasingly lopsided partnership, turning their once mutually beneficial bond into a toxic relationship.

Constantin Dobrescu, vice president of Romapis, said the continued use of neonics plays “a major role” in the “disastrous” rates of colony losses beekeepers grapple with each year.

“When they leave [a foraging site], beekeepers find a carpet of bees in the places where the hives were,” he said.

According to figures by COLOSS, an international research group monitoring bee deaths, Romania’s beekeepers lost 32.5 percent of their colonies in the 2020-2021 winter period, a figure that Dobrescu said was among the highest in Europe.

An all-too familiar sight to Romanian beekeepers: a pile of carcasses | Cristian Trancioveanu

“If a cattle farm would lose one in every three cows, it would be a tragedy,” he said. “But we beekeepers, we are already getting accustomed to that — we know that each year we will have to replace the bee colonies lost the previous year.”

Mostly used as seed coatings, neonics are today the most widely used type of agricultural insecticides. They act by loading up a plant’s tissues, nectar, and pollen with bug-killing toxins, making them highly effective at killing unwanted pests — but also non-target insects, like bees, butterflies, and other wild pollinators. 

The EU-wide ban came after studies showed neonics damage bees’ nervous systems, causing paralysis and death and impairing their vital flight and navigation abilities. Other studies also show they reduce fertility and pollination efficiency and link them to global pollinator decline.

Alina Crețu, executive director of the Romanian Maize Growers Association (APPR), said there is no way around the derogations they request yearly, especially for sunflower and corn harvests. “There are no alternatives, that’s why we need a derogation. So far as there are no alternatives, it is an emergency,” she said.

Crețu said none of the beekeepers they worked with ever complained.

But lots of beekeepers don’t really have much of a choice, as monoculture fields continue to gobble up greater swaths of land.

The EU first restricted the use of seeds coated with bee-killing insecticides nearly a decade ago | Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

Cristian Trancioveanu, a small-scale beekeeper, said his hives fall into an eerie silence after each summer foraging season, as his honeybees drop dead or fail to return home. His 60-colony apiary is located in Popești-Leordeni, a small town locked between Bucharest’s urban sprawl and rolling farmland. In an interview, the 38-year-old beekeeper said he sets money aside each year to repopulate his hives, to make up for by-now habitual massive die-offs.

“I already know what to expect this year. It’s going to be disastrous,” he said. During the most dramatic episode some five years ago, he said he could “scoop up the remaining number of honeybees in one hand.”

Across the EU, colony repopulation has for years soaked up the third-largest chunk of the EU national apiculture programs. In Romania, it represents the single largest expense.

Exceptional

Every year, Ionuț Tănăsoiu, an organic large-scale beekeeper, leaves the forested hills of Călimănești, a small spa town at the foot of the Romanian Carpathians, where his apiary is located, and drives hundreds of kilometers south, a truckful of beehives buzzing in tow.

One of his destinations is in Ștefan cel Mare, in the agricultural planes that make up Romania’s cereal basket. There, his honeybees will forage for days on the sunflower, colza and corn fields of Aurel Petruș, who grows 1,300 hectares of oilseed and cereal crops organically. Petruș, who’s been in organic farming for over 20 years, scoffed at the idea that neonics were vital for cereal crops and said that crop rotation sufficed to ward off pests. He said intensive monocropping was much more vulnerable to bug infestations.

During a break from the buzzing activity of his apiary, Tănăsoiu, 34, said he believed neonics played a major role in the devastating honeybee losses he grappled with in earlier years when he would find “a kilo of dead bees in front of each hive” —  around a quarter of a colony. 

Cristian Trancioveanu in his small-scale bee farm | Gabriela Galindo/POLITICO

Nowadays, he said his losses are “rare and not very important.” To him, the farmers he works with since he switched to organic in 2006, such as Petruș, are hard proof there is “no need or justification” to keep using neonics, bar keeping large-scale cereal production “cheaper and more competitive.” 

The government has sought to assuage beekeepers’ growing complaints by introducing measures to mitigate damage, such as making it mandatory for farmers to mark fields “exceptionally” treated with neonics. Yet Trancioveanu, the small beekeeper outside of Bucharest, said he’s never seen any such signs.

While the EU derogation system requires countries to consider non-chemical solutions, and, in cases of repeated derogations, to show they are researching for alternatives, Romania has for years openly flouted both rules. 

In 2018, the government funded a study that set out to “prove that EU neonic restrictions were unjustified.” In the written answers, the farm ministry said two projects to research alternative pest-control methods were underway but did not provide further details.

Beekeepers on the ground place the bulk of the blame on the agriculture ministry, and say farmers are acting “irresponsibly.” But many are also puzzled by the silence in Brussels.

Petruș, the organic farmer, said the EU “could and should do more,” while Tănăsoiu, the organic beekeeper, said: “The blame lies also with the EU, because if they wanted to stop the derogations they would have forced the Romanian authorities not to grant them.”

Dobrescu, the vice president of Romapis, said that, if there was any hope for beekeepers, “it would come from Europe.”

EU silence

Martin Dermine of the Pesticide Action Network EU, which is currently fighting Brussels’ inaction in the courts, and Hojsik, the MEP, say EU authorities have the responsibility of implementing their own rules rather than simply waving through derogations.

“For us, it is very clear that if a pesticide is banned then you cannot then give a derogation every year to use it. That would mean there’s no use in having a regulation,” Dermine said.

Noa Simon, scientific director of EU NGO BeeLife, said the only reason that Romania kept getting away with “very clear” abuses was that EU authorities were shirking their responsibilities.

“The Commission doesn’t bother checking if there is actually an emergency,” she said.

While EFSA, the EU’s scientific authority, can only get involved if Brussels mandates it to — which it has done only once — the agency has for years been under NGO fire for conducting what Simon referred to as a “mere administrative check.” 

A bumblebee collects pollen from the flower of a thistle | Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

When assessing a derogation, EFSA explains the evidence countries provide is considered “fully reliable” and that “no further research [is] conducted to validate” it.

Chris Lythgo, who is part of EFSA’s pesticide unit, said that neither “policing” for compliance with the EU’s laws nor assessing whether countries were effectively facing an emergency, was part of their remit.

“I would expect that a scientific authority at the European level would act like something more than a secretariat,” Simon said. “This is the result of regulatory faults — it’s not a matter of whether or not there are alternatives. But, in the meantime, out in the fields, the damage has been done.”

Dr. Carsten Brühl, an ecotoxicologist specializing in pesticides, said honeybees might just be the canary in the coal mine when it came to grasping how neonics impact nature.

Honeybees, whose populations humans have learned to manage, could learn to adapt, he said. “We might breed a species that can better tolerate pesticides, but it will come at some cost — maybe they’ll be less productive or more sensitive to other stressors.”

“But neonics … are also toxic to all other insects,” he said. “The question is whether all the other pollinators will also be able to cope.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the full name of EFSA. It is the European Food Safety Authority. It also misstated the position held by Chris Lythgo. He is part of EFSA’s pesticide unit.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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