Bee-ware of Neonicotinoids

While the Environmental Protection Agency drags its feet on regulating pesticides harmful to bees and other pollinators, local communities take action.

| Spring 2016

  • Pollinators
    Larissa Walker is moved by individuals and communities who are taking action. "People don't want to wait for the federal government, and I think that is where we've seen local action be so inspiring," she said.
    Photo by Fotolia/Mariusz Prusaczyk

  • Pollinators

In 2013, the start of National Pollinator Week—a symbolic annual event intended to raise public awareness about the plight of bees—was an ironic one. It kicked off with the largest mass bumble bee death on record—on June 17, tens of thousands of bumble bees and other pollinators were found dead under European Linden trees at a Target store in Wilsonville, Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture confirmed that the deaths of more than 50,000 bumble bees, likely representing more than 300 wild colonies, were directly related to a pesticide application on the trees to control aphids, which secrete a sticky residue while feeding and can be a nuisance to parked cars. The pesticide product used was Safari, with the active ingredient dinotefuran, part of a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics), which are particularly harmful because they are systemic—absorbed and then spread throughout an entire plant. Bumble bees, honey bees and other pollinators are exposed to these insecticides through pollen and nectar when visiting plants.

The tragedy, though, did more than just raise awareness; it became a catalyst for new precedents for protecting bees at the federal level. Better yet, communities and individuals have begun taking matters into their own hands to ensure the health of pollinators.

A year after the incident, in June 2014, the White House ordered the creation of a Pollinator Health Task Force to study ways of preserving bee populations and other pollinators amid mounting concerns over the insects’ decline. According to the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Food Safety, one out of every three bites of food we eat is from a crop pollinated by honey bees, yet over the past decade, there has been an alarming decline in honey bee populations around the world. Commercial beekeepers lost an average of 36 percent of their hives in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More recently, beekeepers have reported average annual losses of 40 to 50 percent, with some as high as 100 percent.

Larissa Walker, who heads the CFS’ pollinator campaign BEE Protective, a joint effort with Beyond Pesticides, explains that in addition to being used ornamentally by homeowners, nurseries and landscapers in products like 12-Month Tree and Shrub Insect Control, All-in-One Rose & Flower Care, Ortho Bug B Gone and Ortho Rose & Flower Insect Killer, neonics are used in a way that insecticides were never used before, as seed coating to reduce farmers’ exposure to pesticide sprays. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, neonicotinoid seed coatings are used on more than 23 million acres of soybeans in the United States, and more than 1 million pounds of the insecticides were applied to soybean seeds from 2008 to 2012.

“What was not thought through by our regulatory process when we were approving all of these chemicals was the cumulative persistent aspect and wider contamination threats these chemicals pose,” Walker said. “They stick around in soil; they are being picked up by other plants whose roots are grabbing the chemicals. They are water soluble so they are running off into rivers and streams contaminating groundwater. They are wiping out all the aquatic invertebrates and starving bird populations. They are wiping out the beneficial insects that would normally be predatory species for pests that harm crops like slugs, so now we are seeing slug damage escalate in areas where neonics are used heavily as a seed coating.”

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