An adult honeybee with a Varroa mite on it. Courtesy USDA
Smuggling operations along the Mexican border typically deal with illicit drugs, illegal weapons and human trafficking, but a recent takedown is noteworthy for its more unusual target — pesticides that both help and harm honeybees, an integral part of our food supply.
What was being smuggled was illegal pesticides used to kill Varroa mites that attack honey bees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said these mites are “a major threat to honeybee health and are becoming resistant” to the chemical compounds used to control them.
At the same time, James Nieh, of the UC San Diego Department of Ecology, warns that the smuggling of concentrated amitraz pesticides “poses a major risk for honey bees.”
Sofia Mancera Morales was the ringleader of a pesticide smuggling organization, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego. She admitted to obtaining pesticides in Mexico and directing her smuggling ring to bring the chemicals into the United States.
The pesticides were mainly Bovitraz and Taktic, which contain amitraz in a higher concentration than is permitted. The chemical kills the mites but it also “could cause neurological effects and reproductive effects in humans from consumption of contaminated honey.”
That’s according to Asst. U.S .Attorney Melanie Pierson, who oversaw the prosecution and has been the lead on other cases involving pesticide smuggling across our shared border, as previously reported by the Times of San Diego.
Pierson was joined in a multi-agency task force effort by the EPA Criminal Division and Homeland Security Investigations. Also participating was Special Asst. U.S. Attorney Stephen DaPonte.
“In exchange for ill-begotten profits, this cavalier smuggling operation was more than willing to risk the public’s health and the honeybee industry, which is critical to pollinating our food supply,” U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said after Morales pleaded guilty earlier this month.
Morales received eight months in custody, followed by two years of supervised release, and has to pay restitution of $7,497 to dispose of the illegal pesticides.
In animal studies, amitraz reduces male fertility and live births. It is also classified as a “possible human carcinogen based on rodent studies suggesting that long-term exposure could result in cancer,” according to the court documents.
The chemicals were smuggled into the country beginning in January 2020. Morales told her co-conspirators to bring the pesticides over the border to a storage facility in Calexico, the U.S. Attorney’s office said.
The smugglers were to send her images of the pesticides at the storage unit as proof of delivery prior to providing payment for the smuggling. Other co-conspirators would then “pick up the pesticides from the storage unit and further distribute them in the United States, by sale, shipment or delivery,” according to the criminal case filing.
The filing goes on to say Morales knew the pesticides were illegal in the United States and not available for sale and would be seized if discovered. The smugglers were to tell inspectors the bottles of unregistered pesticides were dog shampoo for fleas and ticks.
There is a shred of truth in this lie. The smuggled pesticides, at far lower levels of potency, are used in flea-control collars.
Morales recruited her team on Facebook, offering to pay up to $150 “for each box of six 1-liter bottles,” according to the court filing. One smuggler admitted to U.S. authorities he “brought two to three boxes of pesticides into the United States on three prior occasions” and delivered them to the same storage unit in Calexico, for which he was paid $100 to $150 per box.
The smuggler had cellphone photos of the chemicals in the Calexico storage locker. The filing goes on to say another recruit delivered almost 1,000 bottles of pesticides in 30 days, while others were dropping off the pesticides at the storage unit two-to-five-times a week
What drove this underground operation is a growing demand to combat the threat of the Varroa mites. According to the USDA, mites are considered “public enemy number one” to honeybees nationwide. The Honey Bee Health Coalition warns, “Every honeybee colony in the United States and Canada either has Varroa mites today or will have them within several months.”
The parasite feeds on the blood of bees “endangering the entire hive when infestations become severe.” They also pose an indirect threat to more than 90 flowering crops that depend on bee pollination, like apples, blueberries, cherries and cantaloupes. But what is being used by some to kill the mites is potentially dangerous to humans and the hives, as Pierson detailed in her court filing.
UC San Diego professor Neih said every year up to a third of honeybee colonies in the United States “die during the winter, and a major cause of death is infestations by Varroa mites.”
And the professor said that while amitraz is one of the chemicals used to control the infestations -– at concentrations of 3.33% in licensed products — “the smuggled solutions contained Amitraz concentrations that were nearly four times that, at 12.5%.”
JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.