Spring is right around the corner and flowers will be a’blooming. Soon, pollinators will be diligently doing their work. Twenty years ago, we might have felt nothing but joy at the promise of our nectar-loving insect, bird, and mammal friends getting busy again, but the plight of the pollinators (particularly marked by the decline in bee and monarch butterfly populations) makes spring seem almost bitter-sweet.
But there’s hope. In the ongoing quest to ensure that our pollinators are surviving in full force, the EPA and others are doing their work to combat exposure to pesticides.
Some good news actually arrived in spring of last year, when the White House issued a memorandum to create the Task Force to create a Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. This was due to public outcry over pesticides, particularly those of a type called neonicotinoids, that have long been suspected of causing problems for bees.
Here we are a year later, and the EPA has issued its first assessment of the neonicotinoid called imidacloprid. The EPA corroborated previous findings and declared this pesticide dangerous to bees, beehives, and other pollinators. In a statement issued by Beyond Pesticides, a pollinator advocacy group, Nichelle Harriot, Science and Regulatory Director, applauded the results, but explained that the EPA still has a long way to go:
Today’s imidacloprid honey bee assessment confirms much of the existing scientific evidence showing imidacloprid’s toxicity to bees. However, the agency still falls short in fully assessing broader risks to wild bees and other non‐target organisms. Time is of the essence and bees and other pollinators cannot wait for EPA to slowly complete these reviews. The agency must take action and suspend imidacloprid and other neonicotinoids to protect pollinators.
It’s true that there are still plenty of chemicals on the market that are linked to bee problems. A recent study out of New Zealand found that another widely used neonicotinoid, chlorpyrifos, disrupts bees memory...and ability to learn something (such as routes back to the hive) in the first place. Read the synopsis of the study here. While it is understandable to want to shake a fist at the EPA for their slow movement on stopping all use of dangerous pesticides, the agency is continuing to make movement in that direction. For instance, in light of recent findings, the EPA banned Bayer CropScience from producing pesticides with an ingredient that is now known to harm aquatic insects.
Aside from biodiversity and human-planetary impact concerns, many people are worried that pollinator loss will lead to the loss of nutritious food crops. A recent UN-sponsored report, the first ever global assessment of pollinator threats, draws more attention to the idea that our food system could be in real trouble if we don’t do something to intervene. John Schwartz of The New York TImes explains:
Pollinators, including some 20,000 species of wild bees, contribute to the growth of fruit, vegetables and many nuts, as well as flowering plants. Plants that depend on pollination make up 35 percent of global crop production volume with a value of as much as $577 billion a year. The agricultural system, for which pollinators play a key role, creates millions of jobs worldwide.
However, Dan Charles of NPR, points out that fears of food loss may be too far fetched. Among other things, he notes, that in our current food system, a lot of what we eat globally does not rely on pollinators:
First, the world's biggest crops, the ones that billions of people still depend on for most of their calories, don't rely on insects or other pollinators. These crops include corn, wheat, soybeans and rice.
Charles also points out that many food crops are pollinated by domesticated bees, which are managed carefully and in less danger of disappearing than our wild bees. Frankly, this kind of “it’s not so bad after all” commentary strikes us as whistling through the graveyard—at least the graveyard of pollinators. We should allow no statistics to diminish the magnitude of this possible global catastrophe.
Let’s do our best to locally preserve pollinators; by planting pollinator gardens, boycotting neonicotinoids and other pesticides in our homes, buying local produce that you know to be free of harmful pesticides, and keeping yourself educated about pollinator-friendly practices. Try to stay abreast of your local policies: states and municipalities continue to draft pro-pollinator legislation, like this recent bill in Maryland. There is also a federal bill in the House—Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2015—which will further press the EPA to carefully assess pesticides.
PHOTO: via flickr
- EPA Releases the First of Four Preliminary Risk Assessments for Insecticides Potentially Harmful to Bees via EPA
- EPA Data Confirms Honey Bee Exposure to Hazardous Pesticides via Beyond Pesticides
- Chlorpyrifos Reduces Memory and Learning in Exposed Bees via Beyond Pesticides
- US orders widely used insecticide pulled from market via Associated Press
- Decline of Pollinators Poses Threat to World Food Supply, Report Says via New York Times
- Is Nutritious Food In Peril, Along With Pollinators? via NPR
- Support the 2016 Pollinator Protection via Maryland Pesticide Network
- Saving Americas Pollinators Act of 2015 via Congress.gov
Read all stories by Damon Cory-Watson