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Don’t Worry, Bee Happy

Don’t Worry, Bee Happy

This week, the US EPA told our portfolio company Vestaron that they could remove the bee toxicity warning from the label of its biopesticide product, Spear. We were thrilled to be able to announce this in yesterday's press release, but I thought people may be interested to know exactly what we had to do to prove that Spear was non-toxic to bees.

The EPA's Bee Advisory Box is found on almost all pesticides. It says, in bold red letters, "This product can kill bees and other insect pollinators," and prohibits use of the product until the last petal falls off the last flower on a plant. This effectively bans the use of synthetic pesticides on all high value fruit and vegetable crops during most of their growing season.

Even biopesticides have a milder version of the bee toxicity warning, stating that the product may be toxic to pollinators, even if that is actually unknown. It's a case of "guilty until proven innocent," designed to protect the bees and other pollinators.

In order to remove the "bee language" from its label, Vestaron had to thoroughly prove that Spear was completely safe for bees. There were three phases to this process. First, the topical toxicity test: Bees had their backs painted with various concentrations of Spear dissolved in water. We had a high level of confidence around this test, and indeed, Vestaron's biopesticide, in any concentration, didn't kill any more bees than just plain water did.

Next, the oral toxicity test. Now, you may ask why exactly would bees consume a pesticide? After all, they don't eat the leaves of the plant. True, but they do consume nectar, which can contain dissolved pesticide. In fact, bees, like humans, seem to seek out foods which may not be very healthy. In May, Nature published a study from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University (Bees prefer foods containing neonicotinoid pesticides), which showed that not only can bees eat pesticides, they actually seem to be addicted to neonicotinoids, preferentially seeking out nectar or pollen dosed with the stuff.

So, Vestaron dissolved various concentrations of Spear in sugar water and gave it to the bees. Again, the bees showed no difference in health or behavior, regardless of whether they had taken the undosed sugar water and even the highest concentration of biopesticide. Check!

Because Spear had no detectable toxic effects on the bees, no matter what the concentration, Vestaron was permitted to skip a test that other pesticides must go through when they show mild toxicity: The foraging study. In this, a whole hive of bees is put into an open field setting, with different levels of pesticide dosed onto available sugar water and pollen. This study is designed to determine long term effects, and consequently takes a long time to complete.

Having been fortunate enough to not require this foraging study, Vestaron moved on to the final test: The bee larval feeding study, a test adopted by both the US EPA and the OECD. This is a frightening test to have to perform, as feeding a fragile infant animal with anything out of the ordinary at all might cause it harm. In this case, ordinary is royal jelly, the special secretion of worker bees reserved for queens and baby bees. A synthetic royal jelly was dosed with various concentrations of Spear and fed to the larvae. Fortunately, the little wrigglers suffered no effects from the biopesticide.

Even with all those tests passed with flying colors, the nail biting was not over. Vestaron next had to submit all the data to the EPA and then support them through their process of reviewing the information. The EPA understandably has a lot of work to do, and they need to be sure that the data is sound, with all proper protocols having been observed. This took several months. Yesterday's announcement marks the successful outcome of that process.

The timing for this could not be better. Last month, a study by the University of Guelph, also published in Nature (Neonicotinoid pesticide exposure impairs crop pollination services provided by bumblebees) , revealed that apple trees pollinated by bees exposed to neonicitinoids had 36% fewer seeds than bees without the exposure. This is the first direct evidence that neonics have a significant negative impact on both bee health and crop health. I've previously written about neonics (Neonicotinoids: Devastating The Food Chain), but they are still in widespread use despite the moratoriums in Europe and the US. The new Canadian government has also resolved to implement such a moratorium, and the province of Ontario has already done so.

Despite all of that, pesticides are still necessary if we are to produce enough food for everyone, and keep it affordable. In July of this year, the UK actually suspended its ban on neonics due to an emergency situation with cabbage stem flea beetles. Fortunately, companies such as Vestaron are coming to market with biopesticides that are not only proven effective, but also proven safe and "bee friendly". As you've just read, proving this was not a simple process, but now that it is accomplished, we can say, "Don't worry, bee happy."

General Partner, Pangaea Ventures Ltd. Keith has been making cleantech and advanced material venture investments since 2001, having managed Mitsubishi Corporation's Canadian VC activities and BASF Venture Capital America out of Silicon Valley.View Keith Gillard's profile on LinkedIn

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