Sunday, May 5, 2013

some thoughts on neonicotinoids

 I was sitting down to lunch on Friday, and had a rare treat- somebody had left behind a pile of newspapers in the skyway food court where I eat my lunch on the days I don't bring my own.

Though this is downtown St. Paul, in the pile was a copy of Minneapolis' Star-Tribune.  I love the Strib, and in general love reading an analog newspaper, though I've never gotten into the habit of subscribing to one.  Mainly because I'm a cheapskate, but also because they have an army of telemarketers who will harangue you into submission if you ever let your subscription expire. 

So I was eating a burrito and paging through the Star-Trib and found an article on neonicotinoids that, I'm sure most people breezed by, but which nearly made me choke on my lunch.

You can see the article here (10 articles free a month)

If you'd rather not read the whole thing, here is a synopsis of the article-- The US Department of Agriculture has been pressured by beekeepers into doing a study of the effect of neonicotinoids on bees in the US.  Apparently they found that bees were being significantly harmed by the pesticides, along with varroa mites,  but- here's where it gets dicey- the cost of banning the pesticides may be too great to go through with banning them.  This after an admission that most food crops are dependent on pollinators in a phenominally poorly-written sentence:

"Bees are key to the production of $20 billion to $30 billion worth of food each year, including such crops as alfalfa, strawberries and soybeans. Fully 100 food crops rely on pollination."

Fully 100 crops depend on pollination?  According to who?  How about "fully almost everything we eat depends on pollination?"

How about I rewrite this article.  Here it is:

Researchers have  found that we will likely starve to death en masse if we allow pollinators to continue dying off.  However, banning the pesticides responsible for killing the pollinators will result in reducing the profit margin of several chemical companies.  Therefore, we shall choose to starve to death rather than see the stock prices of  Bayer or Monsanto decline.  For more about your likely mid-to-long-term prospects, please see the obituaries page.

That is very likely more forthright than what  got  printed in the A section of the Strib.

Interestingly, they had a quote from Vera Krischik, an entomologist at the U of M who I respect a lot.  I've talked  to her about beneficial nematodes when preparing a program of nematode distribution for my neighborhood to combat the Japanese Beetles which seem to be getting worse each year.  She struck me as someone with a lot of common sense, but also as someone who is willing to turn to chemicals more often than not to solve insect problems.  Interestingly, she sounded very concerned about neonicotinoids' effect on bees, and had the following quote, “It is clear to me that there is a link" (between neonicotinoids and colony collapse disorder).    The rest was paraphrasing about her concerns regarding the chemicals.

So a conscientious entomologist can admit that there is a problem with neonicotinoids, but spokepersons from the federal government can't?  I suppose that shouldn't be too surprising.

But it's more than just that.

I had the 'opportunity' to attend a seminar (ok, it was free, and included lunch, so I was grateful for that) about Emerald Ash Borer this winter.  It was billed as an informational session for people involved in the 'green' trades (even landscape architects like me) to learn more about what EAB does to trees, where the infestation is in its life cycle in the Twin Cities, and what can be done about it.

The stories of what EAB has done in other parts of the Midwest were eye-opening and disturbing, and the analysis of where it is in the Twin Cities right now were sobering.  We're going to see a lot of dead ash trees in the next year or two if the presenters were right.  They're pretty much all going to go.

But the most disturbing part of the symposium was the sales pitch for Imidacloprid (a neonicotinoid insecticide) that followed.  The researchers showed  the preventive effects of  several chemicals, and all were effective to some degree.  But all agreed that it was a stop-gap measure, and that treatment for all ash trees forever was not practical, and that this was merely a way to delay having to remove thousands of trees all at once.   And this particular neonicotinoid  that was out of patent was much cheaper to use than the other pesticides.  So we were all urged  to support its use.  And  specifially to oppose any effort by any unit of government  to ban it or any other neonicotinoid, for that matter.  One panelist was very adamant that we (the attendees) had to oppose any effort to ban neonicotinoids here, as was being considered (and has now been done) in Europe.

Now, I've been to a lot of  continuing education courses in my time.  I've had my LA license for a few years now, and have to do a bunch of stuff like this to keep it current- but I haven't seen a sales job like this before- a preventive attack on possible future regulation of  a branded product.  Something really rubbed me the wrong  way about it.
Even the  answers to the questions  were weird.  A woman asked a question about how  honeybees would be affected by the residue in flowers, since the official recommendation  on how to save an ash tree was to apply a soil  drench of Imidacloprid around all ashes targeted for preservation.  And if you are not familiar, a 'soil drench' is just what it sounds like- dumping a whole lot of pesticide, mixed with water, around the roots of a tree.  It's not very target-specific.  And the insecticide suggested is systemic- meaning that it is taken up by the roots, and spread to every part of the plant.

This means that every part of the plant in contact with the soil drench is now  toxic to bees and a variety of other insects.  The presenter said something to the effect- "Now, you gotta choose- do you want your ash tree, or pretty flowers.  I like flowers, but you gotta consider what's more important and plant your flowers somewhere else".

I'm not trying to make him sound like a goon.  That's the essence of what he  said.  And it sounded pretty condescending.

And here's the rub.  Most  street trees (because that's what we were discussing) are surrouded by grass- not by flower beds.  And in that grass are a variety of other plants- dandelions, clover, black medic.  All of which bees love- and all of which are taking up synthetic pesticides as quickly as the targeted ash trees.  No homeowner or city worker is going to take the time to remove all of those, and so the bees will be exposed to the pesticide, and weakened  or killed as a result.

I asked a question of one of the panelists about the effects of systemic herbicides on composted leaves, and insects that came into contact with them.  This is pretty relevant for me, since my community garden relies pretty heavily on fall-raked leaves that neighbors dump at the garden for soil  fertility and organic matter.    I asked it the effect might be similar to triclopyr or clopyralid. These two can persist in vegatative matter for years.  If leaves or grasses treated with these chemicals are added to compost, they can kill or inhibit the growth of tomatoes, eggplant, or other solanaceous crops for two years or more.  If you are a gardener, and use compost from off-site, this is no small matter.

Anyway, the panelist I asked the question of, very literally laughed it off, telling me that there were no similarities between triclopyr and the neonicotinoid he was pushing.  That it was silly for me to even mention it.  That my concerns didn't matter.

And maybe they don't.  The concerns that I have, and that lots of conscientious people have don't matter much.  What matters is that we have access to cheap poisons to keep our trees alive long enough for them to be harvested on a rolling schedule by the city crew, and that the chemical companies are able to post quarterly profits.   To hell with the insects that do billions of dollars of pollinating work for us for free.

It's not just honey that bees produce.  They make corn and beans and all sorts of fruit possible.  We mess with them at our own risk. 

It's the narrow focus of the arborists and academics and chemical companies that is endangering all of us.  Add to that the seed companies that coat their seeds in the stuff, and farmers who spray the stuff to keep bugs off of their crops.    It's cheap and convenient in the short term.  The effects in the long term are yet to be felt.

So I applaud the European Union for being brave enough to place a moratorium on this  class of poisons, even though Bayer AG is located in the European Union and will be affected negatively by this.  Thank you for having the cojones that my country lacks, and doing what seems to be the right thing.  Because waiting for absolute, undeniable, incontrovertible proof of harm is not always the right thing when dealing with the precipitous decline of a species that our own species relies upon so heavily.  We don't have the luxury of allowing bees and other pollinators to go the brink of extinction, because by doing so, we risk going  there ourselves.

That's all.


  1. Hi Jeff - there has been a huge outcry about these neonics over here in the UK - practically everyone wanted them banned apart from the chemical companies, the government and - weirdly - the Association for British Bee Keepers (who, I presume, are clients of the chemical corps)

    I had the privilege of going to a talk by the guy from Friends of the Earth who spearheaded the campaign to get them banned and he said there had only ever been a single trial to test their effects on bees - and that trial (done by a chemical company) was so poorly executed that the results were meaningless.

    Luckily, it seems like the efforts by our government to thwart a ban, have failed. I saw an article in the usually good Independent the other day saying how the ban is going to hit farmers hard. Apparently a lot of them have borrowed money to 'invest' in using neon's and will now have to find some other poison to spend their money on.

    Still, I was down at my woodland yesterday and was pleased to notice thousands of bees busily collecting nectar from flowering trees. I've set aside a section to produce a bee-friendly wildflower meadow - just to give them an extra helping hand.

    Let's hope the US government sees the light and bans these poisons too, before it's too late.

    BTW did you know that there are over 200 species of bee - only one of which makes honey? Many of the others are lone bees and they are equally as susceptible to neon's - but no research has been done on them, even though some may be keystone species in ecosystems.

    1. Glad to hear that the Brits still have some good sense. Really, there hasn't been much talk of neonics here- I would think most Americans have never heard of them.

      I think the way this issue is treated is indicative of a greater difference in how we adopt new technologies in North America as compared to Europe. Here, the default is to allow any sort of new development, and only ban it if over time it proves to be harmful. The people harmed by the technology can file lawsuits, but only after the gremlins are out of the box. The European model seems to put the burden of proof on the person or company trying to introduce a new thing. The European model is ultimately safer, if also a bit slower to adopt new technologies. In this case, that's a very good thing.

    2. For a much broader concept of worldwide ecology, an answer to desertification and a way to build soil, read a new book: Cows Save the Planet. The bees and all else depend on natural means of building soil.
      This well-researched book shows the dependence between soil, grass, carbon cycle, climate, weather, animals and economics. Holistic Management can even improve the weather.
      Ira Edwards