Earth Matters: The Buzz on Bees

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By Patti Wood

A few years ago, I saw a picture in a magazine of what the produce section of a grocery store would look like without any fruits or vegetables that were dependent on bees for pollination. I remember it clearly because it was so alarming.

Only a handful of vegetables and fruits were stocked in contrast to the large number of empty bins. Could this actually happen? Can we turn around the drastic worldwide decline in our pollinator species? With three-quarters of food crops dependent on pollination, it is no wonder the plight of bees is looming large as we contemplate the question of whether we will have enough food to eat in our lifetimes.

Around the turn of the century, beekeepers and entomologists began to notice an alarming drop in bee populations. There were many theories about what could be causing this problem — invasive parasites, climate change, industrial agriculture with its lack of plant biodiversity, expansion into pristine wild spaces by relentless human activities, pesticides, RF microwave radiation from a rapidly expanding wireless world, to name but a few. And while each of these factors are probably playing a role, the lack of interest in the world of scientific research and an even larger lack of funding for scientific research leaves us with many unanswered questions

In fact, we are seeing a dramatic decline in almost all of our insect populations. Entomologists in Germany and Denmark began noticing a loss of insects where they had always been before — they called it the “windshield phenomenon.” Oh, right… I remember too that we were always cleaning bugs off our car windshield when I was a kid. Not anymore.

The study found that flying insects have decreased by 75 percent in about 27 years. The implications of this decline are too great to mention here, except to say that untold numbers of bird, fish and other species rely on insects as their main food source and that these pesky insects are indeed a critical part of our food chain. Did I forget to mention pollinators?

I strongly suggest you read the New York Times Magazine article written by Brooke Jarvis titled “The Insect Apocalypse is Here,” dated Nov. 27, 2018. It will change the way you think about bugs forever.

So, what are we humans going to do about this?

Across the U.S. and beyond, experts in the field are raising warning flags about a class of widely used systemic insecticides (pesticides) called neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are extremely toxic to honeybees and other pollinators, attacking the insect’s nervous system and killing them by paralysis. All 20,000+ varieties of wild bees and managed species (honeybees) are considered at great risk from just this class of pesticides alone. Eliminating or reducing their use would address a leading and preventable cause of pollinator loss.

New York environmental organizations, businesses and individuals are appealing to Gov. Cuomo to support a moratorium on outdoor uses of neonicotinoid insecticides and other harmful systemic insecticides to safeguard the state’s bees, birds and other critical pollinators. They cite damage to the state’s agricultural economy — pollinator dependent crops in New York are estimated at $1.2 billion annually — as well as the healthy functioning of critical ecosystems, including native plants and wildflowers, which are also dependent on pollinators. And, of course, the costs to New York’s beekeepers, who are currently showing losses around 40 percent.

Their appeal also references the U.S. EPA’s “repeated and ongoing delays in its own scientific review of neonicotinoids and the Trump Administration’s unwillingness to prevent unsafe pesticide use which have left states with the responsibility to take the lead. Connecticut and Maryland passed laws prohibiting over-the-counter sales of neonicotinoid products, and earlier last year, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation put a freeze on any new pesticide approvals that would expand neonicotinoid use.”

Calls, e-mails and letters to your elected officials in Albany to support the moratorium would be extremely helpful.

Besides the pollinator losses associated with this class of pesticides, there is ongoing research into the potential human health impacts, especially endocrine disruption. Endocrine disrupters can be natural or synthetic molecules that alter hormone function by interfering with the body’s own natural hormones, and can lead to many different health problems.

Neonicotinoid pesticides for lawn care, sod production, agriculture and greenhouse operations are widely used on Long Island, especially imidacloprid. This particular neonicotinoid has been found in our groundwater where it can remain for decades or longer, discharging into surrounding surface water resources as well. In 2012, a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation water study showed that imidacloprid was detected 782 times at 182 locations on Long Island.

As with all chemical contamination of our natural world, it always has unintended consequences. Your gardener, surveying the grub problem in your backyard and deciding to use imidacloprid, will certainly kill the grubs, but also thousands of bees and other beneficial insects as well.

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