Op-ed: Neonicotinoid Pesticides Keep Killing Pollinators. Here’s How We Can Help. | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Neonicotinoid Pesticides Keep Killing Pollinators. Here’s How We Can Help.

Several states now restrict the use of these widespread insecticides in some way to help protect native bees and honeybees, the pollinators critical for our food supply. Every person with a yard can slow the decline, too.

Two bees pictured on an apple tree on a farm in Watsonville, California.

For years at our farm in central North Carolina, we fed ourselves from our gardens and orchard. We had plenty of food to share, courtesy of the native bees here. Our apple, blueberry, and squash plants all relied upon insect pollination to make fruit. Then, in 2017, our harvests were interrupted because the bees disappeared.

As a bee veterinarian, I looked for answers. Where had the animals that had helped feed us so reliably gone? I learned that a wetland near our farm had been contaminated by insecticides, which kill pest insects, but they can also kill bees. I also learned that agriculture had been transformed in the last 20 years. Instead of insecticides being applied when needed, the chemicals were being used most of the time on many row crops—and they were a newer, more persistent type called neonicotinoids, or neonics.

Neonics are the most commonly used insecticides in the world. They dissolve in water and can spread over the land, far from the treated fields. Although the poisoned wetland waters never touched our food plants, the pollinators that supported our farm were decimated. Our orchard was barren for years.

“Neonics are so potent that one treated corn seed contains enough insecticide to kill more than 80,000 honeybees.”

During my investigation, I followed the work of insect scientists and beekeepers who, for over 15 years, had raised the alarm that overuse of neonics was a major cause of insect deaths around the world. This startling decline in populations of pollinators and other insects led to the term “insect apocalypse.” Scientists’ work pointed the way to what had happened at our farm: An analysis of water samples from the wetland revealed a particularly persistent neonic.

Neonics are so potent that a single treated corn seed contains enough insecticide to kill more than 80,000 honeybees. If a bee doesn’t die right away, its ability to reproduce, gather food, and fight off disease can be damaged. Among bees, neonic exposure is cumulative: If a meal of contaminated nectar sickens a bee, additional feedings may kill it. Neonics infuse all parts of exposed plants and persist in the soil. They can poison native bee adults and their young as well, disrupting or eliminating whole family lines.

In 2022, a multi-year New York state study of native bee populations found that 24 percent of bee species were at risk of loss, and another 11 percent may have disappeared completely. New York officials took action. Last winter, New York became the first state to restrict the planting of neonic-coated crop seeds; the law will take effect in 2027.

Although 12 other states have restrictions of some kind on neonics, they haven’t controlled their largest use: as a coating on crop seeds. By restricting planting neonic-coated crop seed, New York’s law promises to reduce insecticides in New York’s waterways in future years. But cropland outside New York may remain a risky place to be a bee.

Critical Pollinators Under Threat

In the U.S. and Canada, honeybees kept for honey and crop pollination are all variants of one imported European species: Apis mellifera. But the same region hosts more than 3,600 species of wild bees that pollinate flowering plants and crops alike. Native bees are diverse in numbers, size, and function. Some are specifically adapted to a single species of flowering plant. And among these pairs, the loss of a bee species can mean the loss of the plant dependent upon it.

Because native bees are disappearing, I see every one as precious; each animal can contribute its unique genetic makeup to the greater population. We know from studies of other animal populations that size matters: A large population increases the odds for the genetic diversity required for animals to adapt to today’s environmental challenges. A small, inbred bee population is frequently a population in decline.

We’re already experiencing the consequences of bee loss. A recent global study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed how inadequate insect pollination can reduce economic and food security through the loss of valuable foods such as fruits and insect-pollinated nuts and vegetables. Matthew Smith and colleagues estimated that worldwide, almost half a million excess deaths from chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers could be attributed to the loss of these nutritious foods.

With fewer bees to do the work, multiple countries now rely upon hand pollination for major crops. In the U.S., gardeners are advised to try hand pollination to grow squashes and pumpkins if they have poor yields.

People aren’t the only ones dependent upon bees. Entire ecosystems depend on them. For instance, at our farm, I witnessed the impact of the loss of small, native bees. Native, fruiting viburnum shrubs we’d planted for wildlife weren’t pollinated for years. Eastern carpenter bees, the first bees to return to the farm in 2020 after the barren years, couldn’t pollinate the tiny viburnum flowers because the bees are too big, and our distant neighbor’s honeybees weren’t interested in the musky-scented blooms. The smallest insect pollinators have yet to return, and the loss of wild viburnum fruits has led to fewer local birds.

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Beside insecticide contamination, bees face other challenges, too.

High temperatures threaten native bee families in subsoil nests; sprawling development erases bee homes; and bees starve as the forests, meadows, and shrubland flowers that provide essential nectar and pollen are lost to other land uses.

“We know how to support healthy populations of native bees—and we need to act now.”

Varroa mites are parasites that attach to honeybees and transmit lethal viruses to their bee hosts. Mites are a major reason that approximately 40 percent of U.S. honeybee colonies have been lost each winter over the last decade. Mite-infested honeybees can spread viruses to native bees, sickening or killing them.

We have the information we need to slow bee decline. We know how to support healthy populations of native bees—and we need to act now.

How We Can Slow the Decline of Bees

If we grow food, have a yard or garden, and we must control pests, pesticides should be the last option―not the first.

We can choose organic food options to reduce bee exposures to neonic-treated crops. Organically grown foods don’t use neonics.

We can create or leave healthy spaces for bees to live, such as dead wood, bare soil for ground nesting bees, or clusters of undisturbed plants for bumble bees that like to nest in rodent tunnels beneath those plants. In warm years, these habitats may be particularly valuable if they’re located on a north-facing slope, as they provide bees a cooler place to raise their babies.

Even without a yard, we can plant more flowers to feed bees. Pots of flowers or herbs can support tiny families. Regardless of the size of a flower garden, choosing flowering plants free of harmful pesticides is crucial. Unfortunately, “pollinator-friendly” plants are not necessarily free of contamination. Plant consumers need to ask questions about how the plants are grown, as there are no rules or signs required to identify pollinator-safe plants. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation offers resources for those who want to better support bees and butterflies.

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Finally, beekeepers can prioritize timely Varroa mite control to keep honeybee colonies strong through the winter while also protecting native bees that share local flowers.

Today, our farm is recovering. More native bees are active, and more fruit trees were pollinated this year. But I fear that we may never enjoy the diversity of animals that used to live here. Native bees have small territories. When populations disappear, new bees must rediscover the land and settle to raise their families.

Join me in working to support the native bees who do the work of providing an abundant food future for us and for all the other creatures that depend upon them.

Elizabeth D. Hilborn, DVM, is a honeybee specialist veterinarian, a North Carolina fruit grower, and the award-winning author of Restoring Eden: Unearthing the Agribusiness Secret That Poisoned My Farming Community. Read more >

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  1. David Kohlwey
    An interesting article about pollinators being killed. Looking at my selection I see a problem, if I spray Seven which should have a three day preharvest interval, there are several formulations with that brand name and the label doesn’t tell me what damage the active ingredient does. Because I eat off the garden/ vineyard I wonder how badly I am killing my self.

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