Ask Eartha: Systemic pesticides impact struggling bee population
High Country Conservation Center Column
I understand that honeybees aren’t the only pollinator in trouble. What are some of the issues facing pollinators and what can we do about it?
— Joanne, Breckenridge, Colo.
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Late last year, there was a lot of buzz on so-called “bee-friendly” garden plants carrying “bee-deadly” traces of pesticides known as neonicotinoids or neonics. The Pesticide Research Institute produced a study, called “Gardeners Beware,” that found neonics present in seven of 13 plants purchased from garden stores in California, Washington, D.C., and Minnesota. It turned out that home gardeners hoping to attract pollinators with vegetable and herbs were actually harming the very insects we rely on to grow our food.
If you’re a beekeeper or birder or you get your kicks from studying invertebrates, you’re probably aware of the raging debate on neonics.
As a reminder to the reader, neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides that impact the entire plant. Once applied to soil or seed, systemic pesticides are completely absorbed by plant tissue.
Neonics impact bees and other pollinators through pesticide-contaminated pollen and nectar that adversely affect reproduction and foraging capabilities. Take the wild bumblebee, which pollinates our beautiful, mountain wildflowers every summer. Like our honeybees, bumblebees have also experienced a dramatic decline. In addition, there’s concern for birds that eat pesticide-treated seeds; they’re showing signs of poisoning and reduced fertility.
Systemic pesticides impact other beneficial insects that are integral to food production, such as earthworms, lady beetles, butterflies and predatory ground beetles. These beneficial bugs provide natural pest management to farms and inherently contribute to soil and plant health, as well as productivity.
Beyond the birds and the bees is a report produced by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation that focuses on the “effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on agriculturally important beneficial insects.”
The Xerces Society valued the “ecosystem service” of these important creatures at more than $4.5 billion annually!
So how do neonics become a lethal exposure to pollinators and terrestrial invertebrates? Xerces gives the following examples of applications: on blueberries as a foliar spray; on corn seeds as a seed coating; around rhododendron shrubs as a soil drench; on turf as granule; or injected directly to the trunk of a maple tree. Neonics are used not only in agricultural areas, but also in various landscapes, including home gardens, schools, parks and city streets. Some of these systemic pesticides can remain in the soil for up to three years after one application.
One major issue is the lack of education on neonic risks for average homeowners. For example, neonics are now being widely applied with a “better safe than sorry” mentality. If fact, the Xerces Society found recommended application rates on neonic labels to be 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops. Never mind the misuse of these pesticides for those who don’t carefully follow instructions.
Overapplication and mismanagement of systemic pesticides leads to more problems. Neonic resistance has now been documented in several agricultural pests, including aphids, whiteflies and Colorado potato beetles.
While our beneficial organisms are disappearing, our true agricultural enemies seem to be gaining strength.
In the meantime, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for approving and regulating such pesticides, is facing a federal lawsuit from national beekeeping organizations such as the National Honey Bee Advisory Board and the Pollinator Stewardship Council. These groups argue that the EPA unlawfully granted neonics (specifically Sulfoxaflor) full registration for crop use without sufficient testing on pollinator safety.
Although the EPA has issued a new bee label for some systemic pesticides that includes a warning for homeowners about exposure and risk to insect pollinators, it’s a small step in comparison to the European Commission, which implemented a continent-wide ban on neonics.
If you are concerned about neonics and our invertebrate friends, you can take action. Sign the petition on High Country Conservation Center’s Facebook page that asks Lowe’s and Home Depot, two of the largest retailers of neonicotinoid pesticides nationwide, to stop carrying neonic products. Refrain from using systemic pesticides on your garden or lawn. Let nature’s beneficial predators do the job.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
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