When the White House Pollinator Health Task Force released its long-awaited federal strategy in May, we applauded the Obama administration for this Herculean effort to protect the nation's pollinators.
The first sentence of the Executive Summary raised our hopes: “Wherever flowering plants flourish, pollinating bees, birds, butterflies, bats, and other animals are hard at work, providing vital but often unnoticed services.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the document takes a more myopic view. There are positive aspects — who could be against planting more wildflowers? — but the plan tiptoes around the role of neonicotinoid insecticides commonly used in both agriculture and home gardens. This insidious class of chemicals has the potential to derail U.S. efforts on behalf of pollinators.
Hundreds of recent studies detail the worrisome effects of neonicotinoid pesticides, not just on honeybees but on birds, butterflies, earthworms, and a wide range of terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates — effects that occur when the chemicals are applied as directed. These chemicals are a primary driver in the bee declines of the past decade.
But neonics affect wildlife beyond bees. Consider the birds: As little as a single seed coated with a neonicotinoid insecticide is enough to kill a songbird. Just one-tenth of a coated seed per day during the egg-laying season can impair reproduction.
The federal strategy downplays this enormous body of research and the need for a comprehensive plan to address the neonicotinoid coatings used on agricultural seeds. The pesticides coat nearly all corn seeds and many other seeds as well, leaving many farmers no choice but to use neonic-treated seeds even if there are no pests.
Although these coated seeds represent the vast majority of neonicotinoid use, their planting remains unregulated due to a “treated seed exemption” loophole. The coatings are contaminating the resulting food crops and the surrounding soils on a massive scale. In an ironic twist, EPA scientists concluded last fall in their assessment of treated soybean seeds that neonicotinoids are not increasing agricultural yields.
In addition to direct harm to wildlife, the elevated levels of these chemicals in many waterways may already be high enough to kill the aquatic invertebrate life on which aerial insectivore birds (such as Purple Martin and Chuck-will's-widow) and bats depend. The chemicals can persist for many years and are extremely toxic to aquatic invertebrates.
By killing off pollinators and native pest control agents like birds and butterflies, neonicotinoids are sabotaging entire ecosystems. Instead of wrestling with these problems head-on, the White House strategy suggests such fixes as revised pesticide application schedules to avoid directly spraying the bees when plants are in bloom and the development of better glues to stick the pesticides to the seeds.
These steps are important, but they do little for managed bees and nothing for birds, bats, and other wild pollinators — essential providers of the “vital but often unnoticed services” that support production of food for people everywhere.
Cynthia Palmer directs ABC's efforts to address toxic impacts and pollution threats to birds through our Pesticides Program. She coordinates the National Pesticide Reform Coalition and participates on the EPA Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee.