EPA is planning to strengthen its certification requirements for pesticide applicators to protect bees and other pollinators -- the latest effort by the agency to limit pollinators' exposure to the chemicals. EPA also is weighing changes to how it assesses the risks that pesticides pose to pollinators but the revised applicator certification requirements action likely will precede that because the changes have broad support and can be implemented quickly.

Tom Moriarty, a team leader in EPA's Pesticide Re-Evaluation Division, recently announced plans for the new certification requirements at the spring meeting of the Assoc. of American Pesticide Control Officials in Arlington, Va. He said EPA is planning to revise its rules governing certification of pesticide applicators to include requirements for better training for spraying in a way that is protective of bees. Along with the new rules, which will need to be adopted by the states after federal approval, EPA also will issue an updated training manual.

EPA is grappling with how to control the exposure of bees to pesticides, which can be harmful to the insects, and in turn prevent them from pollinating crops and other plant life. Environmentalists and some agricultural groups are concerned that some pesticides may be contributing to the collapse of scores of bee colonies, which could threaten entire crops.

The issue came to the forefront late last year when a leaked EPA memo described one controversial systemic pesticide, clothianidin, as possibly being toxic to honeybees. Systemic pesticides are absorbed into the stem and leaves of the plant, unlike conventional pesticides which stay on the surface, making it impossible to prevent exposure to pollinators. In the wake of the memo's release, environmentalists called on EPA to issue a rare stop-use order. EPA officials recently rejected the request and said the agency's data shows that chronic harms posed by the pesticide are not sufficient to justify regulatory limits.

At a March 14 meeting, Moriarty reiterated that the agency has found little evidence that a group of systemic pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, have directly caused population decline among bees. While the populations are shrinking, that process started occurring after the chemicals were released, and "that correlation is not nearly as close as some would believe," he said.

Moriarty also rejected claims from activists that EPA’s studies of bees are invalid because they fail to examine the long term effects of the pesticides, among other things. The agency has trouble doing studies on the pollinators because of the cost of field space and the range of the animals. "It's almost impossible" to have a control environment for a 10-mile radius, which would be needed for a completely controlled study, he said. Moriarty also dismissed calls to throw out all of the information collected in those studies, arguing that much of it is still relevant.

Nevertheless, the agency told environmentalists and beekeepers that in 2012 it will propose a new method for assessing the risks posed by pesticides. The agency's proposal likely is to follow recommendations from a special panel of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, convened at EPA's request, which urged the agency earlier this year to adopt a new "tiered" approach so its risk assessment methods better account for risks that pesticides pose to pollinators. The executive summary of the panel's report is expected to be released later this month.