It’s time we talked about the birds and the bees.
While the causes for these losses are many, one leading and preventable cause—the widespread use of highly insect-toxic neonicotinoid insecticides, or “neonics”—is an issue that New York state lawmakers are poised to take on this legislative session. The Birds and Bees Protection Act (A.7639 Englebright/S.5816 Hoylman) would halt outdoor use of the popular pesticides for five years while the state conducts further study. What we already know about neonics, however, is cause for alarm.
As an NRDC report released today shows, neonics now contaminate soil and water across the Empire State at levels capable of hollowing out ecosystems from the bottom up. The extensive pollution affects New Yorkers too—Centers for Disease Control testing reveals that half the U.S. population is regularly exposed to neonics.
Long thought of as a problem “just” for bees, neonics are now implicated in broader wildlife losses often described with terms like “the insect apocalypse” and a “second Silent Spring.” NRDC’s report highlights new research and analysis showing:
- Neonics Kill Birds – Scientific research increasingly identifies neonics as a leading cause of mass bird losses. Eating just one neonic-treated seed is enough to kill some songbirds, and even at low doses of exposure, neonics can harm birds’ immune systems, fertility, and navigation and cause rapid weight loss—reducing their chances of surviving in the wild. And where neonics kill off insect populations, insect-eating birds also starve.
- Neonics Contaminate New York Water at Damaging Levels – Neonics frequently show up in New York surface-water testing as well as roughly 30 percent of Long Island groundwater samples—indicating a “very high probability” that the pesticides are causing “ecosystem-wide damage.” It’s not just about the birds and the bees—neonics also eradicate aquatic insect populations that fish, amphibians, and other animals depend upon for food.
- And that May Be a Problem for New York’s Fish and Other Wildlife – Recent research shows a Japanese fishery collapsed within a year of the introduction of neonics in nearby agriculture—and neonic levels later measured at the site match those commonly seen in New York water. Neonics’ impact on trout, salmon, and wild bird populations could threaten New York’s billion-dollar tourism and recreation industries. And neonic water contamination has also been linked to harm to bats and birth and developmental defects in white-tailed deer.
- Neonics Raise Human Health Concerns – Millions of New Yorkers are exposed to neonics every day. Thus, studies suggesting those exposures may increase risk of developmental or neurological damage, including malformations of the developing heart and brain, memory loss, and finger tremors, are of serious concern. For many people, neonic exposure may be hard to avoid. Conventional drinking water treatments generally do not remove neonics from neonic-contaminated water, and neonic residues commonly contaminate produce and baby food. Because neonics permeate foods, they cannot be washed off.
- Neonics Aren’t Needed – For nearly all uses, neonics are replaceable—with the best and most cost-effective alternative often being nothing. For example, neonic corn and soybean seed treatments account for an estimated 73% of the neonics used in New York agriculture, yet provide little to no benefits to farmers (see here and here). For growers and homeowners, non-synthetic or less-harmful synthetic substitutes exist, including organic and minimum-risk pesticides.
The pesticide industry, of course, does not want you to know any of this. It’s waged a multi-million dollar marketing campaign blaming the “varroa mite” parasite for mass honey bee losses, intentionally ignoring the science, including new evidence showing neonics make honey bees more susceptible to varroa. This disinformation campaign has been so wildly successful that the U.S. has failed to take action, even as the European Union and Canada have moved to ban harmful neonic uses.
This year, however, must be different. New York’s leaders need to give the state a much-needed break from widespread neonic contamination by passing the Birds and Bees Protection Act. Industry pressure will be fierce, so it’s more important than ever to make your voice heard. If you live in New York, let your state representatives know: It’s time to protect bees, birds, butterflies, bats, amphibians, fish, deer, the state’s clean water and soil, and, quite possibly, New Yorkers themselves from the harms of rampant neonic contamination.
To take action now, click here.