Despite Pesticide Use Declining in the US, Toxicity Levels in Our Pollinators Continues to Increase

What Are Pollinators?

Pollinators are an essential part of our ecosystem and our food production. The hard work of birds, bats, bees, butterflies, and even other small mammals bring us one out of every three bites of food. These pollinating animals carry pollen on their bodies as they travel from plant to plant. This allows the pollen to spread as the animals move, making up a critical step in many flowering plants’ reproduction process.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Vera Kuttelvaserova

Why Are Pollinators Dying?

Bees in particular play a significant role in fruit, vegetable, and nut production. Without the help of bees, we would likely never see berries, apples, almonds, cucumbers, peppers, or even seeds again. In 2018 alone, the U.S. lost 40.7 percent of its honeybee colonies. Though scientists are still working to pinpoint the exact factors that are contributing to this mass death of bee colonies, they have narrowed it down to four potential categories: pathogens, pests, stress, and pesticides.

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Many viruses are killing bees worldwide, and some have developed resistance to the antibiotics beekeepers use to try and prevent the spread. Hives are also often invaded by parasitic mites, which have developed immunity to pesticides. Additionally, bees require variety in their diets and as farmers continue to grow acres of the same crop, bees are forced to fly too far to try and reach the nutrients they need. However, what has been proven to have a direct link to bee population collapse is pesticide use on crops.

What Are Pesticides And How Are They Harmful?

A pesticide is a chemical substance used to control unwanted plants, pests, rodents, or plant diseases. There are many different types of pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, and fungicides. Though all of these pesticides have their negative impacts, it is believed that insecticides cause the most harm to our pollinators. When proper application processes are used, pollinators can be kept safe from the damaging effects of these insecticides.

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However, this is not always the case. When farmers apply pollinator-toxic pesticides during blooming season, pollinators are frequently poisoned. Further issues occur when pollinators carry the pesticides back to their colonies or nests, or if pollinators drink or even touch contaminated water that has run off of recently treated plants.

What Action Has Been Taken?

A recent study shows that American farmers are making the effort to use smaller amounts of better-targeted pesticides. However, the same study shows that pollinator poisoning and harm has continued to skyrocket. How is this possible?

Recently, German scientists have examined 381 pesticides used by U.S. farmers between 1992 and 2016. These scientists then compared this data with the EPA data that shows toxic effects on eight types of plants and animals most impacted by pesticide use. They found that calculating the amount of pesticides used is not enough to understand the harmful impacts, and it is more sustainable to measure the total applied toxicity on these eight groups of species, charting the trends over time.

“Very often politicians, media, scientists just talk about amounts,” said Ralf Schulz, lead author and professor of environmental sciences at the University of Kolenz-Landau. “They always argue ‘OK, the amount of pesticides we use is reduced so things are getting better’ and this is not necessarily true. It’s sometimes true, but not always.”

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As the country switched to a new generation of pesticides, toxicity levels in essential species such as honeybees, mayflies, and buttercup flowers, more than doubled since 2005. However, we have seen a fortunate and substantial decline of dangerous chemical levels in birds and mammals, according to a study published April 2nd in Science.

“Compounds that are particularly toxic to vertebrates have been replaced by compounds with less vertebrate toxicity, and that is indeed a success,” Schulz continued. “But at the same time, pesticides became more specific, and therefore, unfortunately, also more toxic to ‘non-target organisms,’ like pollinators and aquatic invertebrates.” One of these toxic pesticides is clothianidin, which is very harmful to honeybees and has yet to be tested for leaving traces of chemicals behind on crops. Clothianidin is especially toxic as it impairs a bee colony’s immune response and ability to reproduce, posing a threat to queen bees.

What Can I Do To Help?

Join others in demanding that EPA ban clothianidin from agricultural and household use. Click below to make a difference.

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