Seventeen DFL legislators rebuked the state Department of Agriculture late last week over its planned review of the controversial pesticides implicated in the decline in honeybees, arguing that the study should include the possibility of restricting or even banning them in Minnesota.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL South St. Paul, said the public criticism is unusual, but reflects the concerns that constituents have voiced over the fate of honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies and the hundreds of other pollinating insects that are declining across the state.

"This is a concern in farm country, the suburbs and the city," he said in an interview. "We are asking them to use [their] powers to make the best result for Minnesota."

At the direction of the Legislature, last year the Agriculture Department launched a special review of the pesticide class called neonicotinoids, which have been tied to the decline of insects, as part of a new law to protect pollinators in the state. In March, the department outlined the scope of the review but said it is not intended to go beyond what the Environmental Protection Agency has already done in its approval process.

In a public comment letter submitted to the agency on Friday, the DFL legislators said that interpretation of the law is "nonsensical and — more troubling — at odds with legislative intent." The review should include a thorough analysis of whether the pesticides should be banned or restricted in Minnesota, they said, regardless of what the EPA says.

"The legislature did not intend that the Department would simply rubber stamp USEPA's decisions," they wrote. Signatories included Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who is chair of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance committee.

While the class of insecticides have been temporarily banned in Europe, pending further research related to honeybees, New York is the only state in this country that has banned them, and has for many years.

Agriculture Department officials said Monday it would be "premature" to comment on their plans for the review and that the agency is reviewing all the comments it has received, including letters from agricultural interests, beekeepers, pesticide manufacturers, and citizens. But, a spokesman said in an e-mail, state law gives Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson the authority to take any number of steps, and that could include restricting or banning their use.

The review could also result in new state guidelines or rules over how they are used, more education for consumers and applicators, and training.

Others who have submitted comment letters said Minnesota should not go beyond the EPA. Bayer Crop Science, the leading manufacturer of the insecticides, encouraged the Agriculture Department to consider the "substantial information that has been developed already" regarding neonicotinoids and pollinators.

Fast-track approval

The first neonicotinoid was approved for use in 1991, followed by several others, and today they are the most widely used pesticides in the world. They were fast-tracked for review by the EPA because they are based on a synthetic nicotine that binds to nerve cells in insects but are largely harmless to mammals and humans. In agriculture, they are used on virtually all row crops, including corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, sunflowers and sugar beets.

Though the toxins, which are incorporated into the plant through seed coatings, are diluted as the plant gets bigger, they make the plant somewhat toxic throughout its life. Neonicotinoids are also widely used in back yard products, as sprays, tree injections, and even flea collars for pets.

Manufacturers say there is no evidence that if used as directed, the pesticides harm honeybees or other non-target insects, and have helped farmers improve their yields significantly. By the time the plant is big enough to produce pollen or nectar that pollinators would eat, the toxic levels are too low to cause harm, they say.

But beekeepers and environmental groups have filed suit against the EPA, saying its review of the pesticides have been inadequate. The EPA is now reviewing some of the pesticides and has asked for extensive research on how they affect honeybees in the field.

In the meantime, a number of new research studies show that "sublethal" effects could be at play, weakening bee colonies and making it difficult for honeybees to navigate from flowers back their hives.

Last year Europe enacted a two-year ban on the insecticides, pending the outcome of research on their use. New York has continued to ban them because of concerns about their contamination of aquifers used for drinking water, and also their impact on honeybees and other insects.

The legislators' letter also faulted the department for providing too little opportunity for public involvement in the review. The department should hold and publicize public meetings around the state to allow the general public to participate, the letter said.

"There is a hunger for these people to be involved," Hanson said. "And it's healthy. More participation leads to a better result."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394