The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit this week seeking the release of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency test data for a relatively new class of pesticides that might be playing a role in what's come to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder. That's the mysterious malady responsible for the disappearance and death of bees worldwide, including most Southern U.S. states.

Five years ago, EPA registered a new pesticide known as clothianidin under the condition that the manufacturer -- North Carolina-based Bayer CropScience -- submit studies about the product's effect on bees. The NRDC requested those studies from the EPA under the Freedom of Information Act, but the agency has declined to disclose them. Says NRDC Senior Attorney Aaron Colangelo:

"EPA should be evaluating the risks to bees before approving new pesticides, but now refuses to tell the public what it knows. Pesticide restrictions might be at the heart of the solution to this growing crisis, so why hide the information they should be using to make those decisions?"

Clothiandrin is part of a class of patented chemicals known as neonicotinoids because they're similar to nicotine, a natural pesticide that acts on the central nervous system. In insects, neonicotinoids cause paralysis that leads to death, but they're less toxic to mammals. They're widely used in agriculture to treat seeds and crops, and the neonicotinoid imidacloprid is an active ingredient in Bayer's Advantage flea treatment for dogs.

In May, Germany banned clothianidin and seven other neonicotinoid pesticides until they're proven harmless to bees. The move came after beekeepers in the southern German state of Baden-Wurttemberg reported a wave of honeybee deaths around the time farmers planted seeds treated with clothiandrin. Tests on dead bees showed that 99 percent had a build-up of the chemical in their bodies.

Meanwhile, France banned imidacloprid as a treatment for sunflower seeds in the 1990s, after a third of the country's honeybees died following widespread application. The French government has also outlawed the used of imidacloprid as a treatment for corn seed and refused to allow Bayer to register clothianidin.

Here in the United States, a group of North Dakota beekeepers has a lawsuit pending against Bayer over the 1995 die-off of their bees, which they blame on the spraying of rapeseed fields with imidacloprid. However, the U.S. government still allows the widespread use of neonicotinoids.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops grown in the country. It's been estimated that one out of every three mouthfuls of food in the typical American diet is connected to bee pollination. If the bee die-off continues, farmers can expect crop failures -- and consumers can expect to see food prices continue to climb even higher.

(Photo from USDA's Bee Research Laboratory)