Will Governor Hochul help protect the bees?
For most of us, bees are a common insect – we see them around flowers, buzzing by our heads, and sometimes even stinging us. However, bees play a critical role in the natural world: they are responsible for pollinating 80% of flowering plants. In the US, honeybees pollinate $15 billion in agricultural products each year, including more than 130 types of fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
They play a vital role in producing food for wildlife, maintaining soil health, and keeping water clean, in addition to their role in pollinating agricultural products. Bees are one of the most important pollinator species to our food security and ecosystems.
There are more than 1,000 plants grown for food, spices, beverages, medicines, and fibers that require pollination. Without the help of bees, the world would be without such well-loved foods as chocolate, coffee, peaches, almonds, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, apples, pumpkins, melons, vanilla and many other fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
Yet bees are at risk. In 2007, honey bees began disappearing. Beekeepers across the United States reported that adult worker bees were leaving their nests, queens, larvae, and resources with no apparent cause. Large, industrial beekeepers suffered dramatic losses.
In North America, four species of bumblebees are in decline, and one is already extinct. Far less is known about the situation with solitary species. Recent evidence suggests that as many as 700 of the 4,000 bee species in the United States are facing devastation.
There are multiple reasons for the devastation of the bees: diseases, parasites, pesticides, loss of habitats, are among the top reasons. Of those, the use of pesticides is the one we can control the most.
Neonicotinoids (or neonics for short) are a class of pesticides that have been linked to bee die-offs. Neonics are a relatively new class of pesticides that hit the market in the 1990s, billed as being less harmful to mammals and other vertebrates. They’re a synthetic, neurotoxic pesticide applied directly to the soil or as a seed coating and used widely in agriculture, residential use, golf course maintenance, and in pet flea and tick treatments. As their use has climbed, so too have studies revealing that they threaten birds, bees, aquatic creatures. Potential human health risks remain under investigation.
Wild bees living and foraging near crops grown from neonic-treated seeds showed large population die-offs in a study funded by pesticide manufacturers.
Honey bees are reared and managed for their honey production and ability to pollinate crops, among other services. Research shows the insecticides kill worker bees, reduce immunity of the hive and leave colonies without their queens. Neonics attack bees’ brains, impacting their ability to sleep, forage, fly and even find their way home.
As researchers uncovered more about the threat neonics pose to bees, policymakers began to act. The European Union placed restrictions (including bans) on several neonics for outdoor uses because of the risks to bees. And some states in the U.S. already have some restrictions (or bans) on the use of neonics.
New York has taken steps to limit the use of neonics. Earlier this year, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), citing the dangers to pollinators, restricted the use of neonics.
New York State lawmakers went one step further during the 2023 legislative session and approved the Birds and Bees Protection Act. This legislation would ban the sale or use of corn, soybean, and wheat seeds coated with neonics beginning in 2026. In addition, the bill commissions a study on the feasible alternatives to toxic pesticide use to be submitted to the Governor and Legislature no later than January 1, 2025. The bill also provides the commissioner of the DEC the authority to temporarily suspend the ban if there’s a lack of a commercially available alternative for a specific seed; and allows the DEC to provide a use exemption if there is an environmental emergency that no other less harmful pesticide could effectively address.
The use of neonics in seed treatments pose risks to bees (and other pollinators) since they can move from the targeted pest areas. For example, planter dust, which is generated during and shortly after planting treated seeds, contains high concentrations of neonic insecticides. Dust can move beyond field margins and land on flowers and other vegetation and potentially expose non-target insects (including bees and other pollinators). Neonics are highly soluble in water, which facilitates movement beyond field borders via drainage and runoff. Studies also show that neonic contamination in water bodies has a negative effect on arthropod communities, which are the bases of local food webs.
A report by researchers at Cornell University concluded that the most common uses of neonics in New York, which pose substantial risks to pollinators, provide little to no benefits to users and can be replaced by safer alternatives. Supporters of the Birds and Bees Act argue that the bill will help stop approximately 80-90% of the total outdoor neonic use from entering the environment.
The bill will land on the governor’s desk sometime this year. How she acts on the bill may well determine the future of bees in New York. Let’s hope she protects the bees.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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