Neonics are particularly insidious pesticides, designed to seep through a plant from roots to pollen. They turn the whole plant into poison for any insect that nibbles on it—even helpful pollinators like bees. But the agriculture industry finds neonics cost-effective, and they’re less toxic to humans than another notorious class of pesticides, organophosphates, making these chemicals the most widely used insecticides in the world. The use of neonics has doubled in recent years.
A growing body of research, however, shows that neonics are a major culprit in the mysterious collapse of honeybee populations. Just 2.5 million commercial honeybee colonies remain today, down from 6 million in 1947. Native bumblebee species, also important pollinators, are likewise mysteriously disappearing from vast stretches of their traditional ranges—pesticides likely play a role in the decline of wild bees as well. Today, NRDC filed an emergency petition with the EPA requesting that the agency stop the use of bee-killing neonics and protect our vital pollinators from harm.
Stepping up to protect bees is more than a demonstration of good stewardship. Bees play a critical role in our food system. Of the 100 or so crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food supply, 71 are utterly dependent on bees for pollination. In the United States alone, these crops, including apples, broccoli, strawberries, and almonds, to name a few, are worth $15 billion annually. The cost of some of these foods is already rising as commercial honeybees are in increasingly short supply. Other important crops, such as pumpkins, depend on the particular buzz of a bumblebee for pollination—and these bees, wild and commercial, are also susceptible to the damaging effects of neonics.
Science shows that neonics can not only kill bees outright, but that even low exposures—which happen when bees bring toxic pollen back to the hive, exposing the entire population—can have damaging effects. Neonics may suppress bees’ immunity to diseases, impair egg-laying, and make them disoriented, which hurts their ability to forage and find their way back to the hive. An international panel of scientists, reviewing the accumulated body of scientific research on neonics, recently concluded that these pesticides are a key cause of bee decline. The threat to agriculture and the environment, said one of the lead authors, is “equivalent to that posed by DDT.”
President Obama recently directed the EPA and the USDA to set up a Pollinator Task Force, charged with protecting and restoring bees, butterflies, and other pollinator species. It’s now up to the EPA to move quickly to save bees and protect our food system. Their current plan is to wait until 2019 to complete their evaluation. That’s not good enough. Bees are in a tailspin, and they need immediate relief. Too much damage has already been done.
The European Union recently voted to ban neonics for two years. This was a wise, considered move, based on the best information available. The United States should take similar precautions to save bees, instead of continuing to protect companies like Monsanto and Syngenta by delaying. Nor should the USDA and EPA follow the industry’s self-serving line of reasoning that honeybees can be protected by another chemical treatment, sold by the same companies that are causing them harm in the first place. Wild, native bees are not going to be helped by this tactic; in fact, these pollinators might have even more trouble bouncing back from a pesticide exposure, since their colonies tend to be small.
Here at NRDC, we’ve been doing our part by setting up our very own rooftop bee colony. My brother-in-law Charles Branch, a beekeeper in Westchester, helped get us started when New York City legalized beekeeping in 2010, and my colleagues here in the office are doing a fantastic job keeping our four hives of bees buzzing along.
NRDC activists are also lending bees a hand, sending more than 100,000 messages to the EPA urging the agency to step up for bees. You can voice your support and help protect these valuable pollinators at SaveBeesNow.org.