In January 2019, Santa Catarina became national news for being the scene of one of the biggest exterminations of bees in the country: 50 million died in less than a month. Tests funded by the state prosecutor’s office indicated that the causative agents were pesticides used on neighboring properties. However, the lack of a protocol for quick notification and analysis of samples made verification difficult.
Recent improvements in the process of responding to incidents allow us to state today that the episodes of higher mortality are related to the insecticide Fipronil, applied to soybean plantations.
Two years and eight months after that extermination, Santa Catarina became the first in Brazil to restrict the use of this insecticide.
Foliar application of Fipronil was banned by an ordinance issued by the Integrated Agricultural Development Company of Santa Catarina (Cidasc), which entered into force this September.
The use of pesticides is still allowed, for example, for seed treatment. In this case, the risk to the life of the bees is negligible, according to agronomist Matheus Fraga, manager of the Agricultural Input Inspection Division at Cidasc.
“Fipronil, in the leaf modality, is allowed [no Brasil] for soy, cotton and sugar cane. Here in Santa Catarina, we do not have commercial cultivation of cotton or sugar cane. So, maybe our journey was made easier because, for the plague that Fipronil intends to control [na soja], we have alternatives for other products”, he analyzes.
Santa Catarina is the largest honey producer in the country. The epicenter of contamination in 2019 was the Planalto Norte region, where 200 beekeepers export to countries like Germany and the United States, in addition to supplying the domestic market.
One of the most affected producers was Alcides Frogel, from the municipality of Mafra, which had 150 hives affected in the middle of the harvest. The losses were estimated at R$ 50 thousand.
The report spoke with Frogel and other beekeepers in the region, who chose not to comment on the Fipronil issue because they were criticized by local soybean farmers when speaking to the press in 2019.
Deputy Coordinator of the Forum in Santa Catarina to Combat the Impacts of Pesticides and Transgenics (FCCIAT), councilor Marcos José de Abreu (PSOL), known as Marquito, says that pressure from the chemical industry has led many beekeepers to be labeled as enemies of agriculture by criticizing the misuse of pesticides.
“The representatives of beekeeping were fundamental in the beginning of this debate, with their reports. Today, the movement of the industry, co-opting the representations of family farming, ended up contaminating the debate on pesticides and on the need to ensure tax, social and environmental justice”, he laments.
The tax issue, to which he refers, is one of the FCCIAT’s priority debates. Forum members are against tax exemptions for the purchase of pesticides, in addition to taking a stand for banning the application of Fipronil in Santa Catarina territory.
“It is obvious that we wanted to have a deeper debate about the molecule, but, in the current situation, having these restrictions is already a step forward”, emphasizes Marquito.
The importance of bees is not limited to honey. They feed on pollen and, when they land from flower to flower, transport their food to other plants. This process, called pollination, is essential for the reproduction of plants that are consumed by humans and other animals.
“In recent years, soy monoculture has started to increase in the state. And with that came pesticides, causing an increase in bee mortality. In 92% of mortality cases, Fipronil appears, alone or with other products”, reports Ivanir Cella, president of the Federation of Beekeepers and Meliponiculturists Associations of Santa Catarina (Faasc).
“We have two of the most worrying regions in the state. In the North Plateau, where those deaths occurred due to the use of Fipronil at the time of soybean flowering, and in the West, from winter to spring, when they dry [do solo] to be able to plant corn and soybeans”, he completes.
Alceu Tomporoski, from Canoinhas (SC), lost ten hives in January 2019 and lost R$ 10,000. However, he was never able to prove what caused the deaths of his bees.
“The survey attested that it had nothing to do with Fipronil. But I think it was because it took a long time for us to collect the samples”, he recalls.
Structuring a protocol for agile response to these cases was just the first challenge.
The reaction of landowners who use the insecticide is another barrier faced by state agents trying to impose restrictions on the use of Fipronil.
The frank dialogue with all the parties involved was one of Santa Catarina’s assets, in the assessment of the Cidasc manager.
“Since the beginning of 2019, first with the support of the Public Ministry, which contributed resources, and then with resources from the state government itself, we created a structured program to address all occurrences involving bee mortality”, he reports.
At the time, a working group was formed within the Department of Agriculture, involving the Agricultural Research and Rural Extension Company of Santa Catarina (Epagri-SC) and Cidasc, which drew up strategies to face the problem.
“During this period [dois anos], we had 23 occurrences reported in Santa Catarina. Then we take sample collections and send the bees for analysis. In eight of them, pesticides were present, and in all of these the Fipronil product was identified”, explains Fraga.
The agronomist does not rule out underreporting, due to the length of service for each occurrence or the degree of sensitivity of the device used.
“So, we made a technical opinion based on these case reports, with a whole bibliographic review based on scientific studies on Fipronil’s problems. We also held meetings with the productive sector, with pesticide manufacturers and agricultural cooperatives, showing that we had a problem and needed to respond to society”, explains the Cidasc manager.
In parallel with the technical analyses, the Company invested in communication, bringing farmers and beekeepers closer together and disseminating the actions to society.
“Only for the actions taken towards the dissemination [dos danos], this year the mortality of bees caused by pesticides in the state has already greatly reduced”, emphasizes beekeeper Ivanir Cella, president of Faasc.
From this dialogue, a protocol for dealing with incidents and holding the culprits accountable was consolidated.
“Fipronil is not a shock insecticide, but it has a delayed effect. Then, the bee has contact with the active principle, it comes back, and when it communicates with other individuals, it leads to the collapse of the entire hive,” says Fraga.
“The bee flies up to 5 km in radius in search of food. In our agricultural scenario, this covers up to 300 properties. So, locating the person responsible for a possible contamination is very difficult. That’s why we decided to focus on prevention.”
In other words, it was considered necessary to establish restrictive measures for the use of Fipronil. The Cidasc manager recalls that other states have tried to do so through actions of the Public Ministry, which did not prosper after the reaction of monocultures.
In the case of Santa Catarina, the ordinance was the result of dialogue with all the parties involved. Therefore, the agronomist believes that the chance of success is greater.
“In Santa Catarina, there is less monoculture than in neighboring states, such as Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná and São Paulo. So, cases of contamination by pesticides are less frequent”, adds Ivanir Cella.
Some of the largest manufacturers, such as the German BASF, already indicated on the label that the foliar application of Fipronil was not recommended.
“So, there was a restriction on a product that shouldn’t even be used under those conditions. It was an improper use”, concludes the president of Faasc.
Councilor Marquito says that the next step will be to face the other uses of Fipronil, in addition to foliar application.
“Products based on Fipronil are used to combat parasites in domestic animals, and we don’t know how this control will be. Anyway, Cidasc opened the debate, and what we want is, based on this decision, to move towards the banning of this active principle”, he concludes.
Edition: Rodrigo Durão Coelho