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Science

Most common insecticides could be killing bees

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Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
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One of the most widely used classes of insecticides in the world, known as neonicotinoids, may be killing our bee populations, and harming other pollinators, according to a new study.

The report by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found that high levels of these insecticides can be lethal to bees, and even low levels of exposure can make them more susceptible to other diseases.

“What they do is they pre-dispose the bees to other illnesses. You know, it would be like you’re immune system being compromised,” says executive director Scott Hoffman Black.

The report shows there is no direct link between neonicotinoids and the phenomenon seen in honey bees known as Colony Collapse Disorder. But, Hoffman Black says the research suggests that the insecticides are a contributing factor.

They're also a danger to other bee species and pollinators too, he says.

Neonicotinoids are systemic chemicals. This means they’re absorbed by a plant and transferred through its vascular system, making the plant itself toxic to insects.

Hoffman Black says these insecticides can remain present in plants and the surrounding soil for years after a single application.

“It makes them uniquely problematic from a pollinator point of view because they’re so highly toxic, they’re long lived, and they can be in the flower nectar and in the pollen.”

But, he says not enough research has been done to determine how multiple applications affect pollinators; insects which are integral to the production of healthy crops and ecosystems.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is currently reassessing when and where neonicotinoids should be used, but Hoffman Black says things need to move a lot faster.

He says the products should be taken off the market until more is known about how these insecticides affect bees and other pollinators.

“We actually now think that time enough has passed that we should have what we’re calling a neonicotinoid time out. We would take the most toxic neonicotinoids off the market until we see how toxic they are in certain situations.”

A two-year ban on some neonicotinoid chemicals will go into effect across the European Union this December, and Hoffman Black says the US needs to follow suit.

He concedes that there may be some pushback from farmers if the products were banned altogether. But Hoffman Black says farmers have other choices, and they also understand the important role pollinators play in the successful growth of crops.

The widespread use of neonicotinoids can be attributed to the fact that they’re easy to apply and can be applied to crops prophylactically.  

But, Hoffman Black says farmers and gardeners need to consider a different approach.

These insecticides are used commercially on crops, and are widely available for domestic use.

Hoffman Black says they should carry clear labels to warn gardeners that they may be lethal to bees and other pollinators. And, he says, their use for cosmetic reasons in gardens should eventually be banned as it has been in some areas of Canada.