Climate change and agriculture may be contributors to the destruction of insect habitats. But neonicotinoid pesticides might be the final draw for the imminent insect apocalypse, especially when it comes to killing our bees.
There has been a sharp increase in toxins found in neonicotinoid pesticides. These toxins are causing a massive decline in the insect population. Unfortunately, these insects include pollinators like butterflies, birds, and bees. While the toxicity of pesticides is not an entirely new phenomenon, the new generation of pesticides has a more detrimental impact on insects, and especially bees.
Neonics account for at least 92 percent of the increase in the toxic effects of pesticides. And since bees are used as the proxy for the survival and health of insects globally, it stands to reason that concern is growing over the reproductive capabilities of insects. More worrying is that these pesticides also affect the environment, since the neonics can remain in their surroundings for up to 1000 days.
So, are scientists right to worry about the state of bees and other birds? What would be the effects of an insect apocalypse? Are neonics the overall cause of this decline, and is there a solution to the problem? Let’s dive in to find out.
The Declining Insect And Bird Populations
The best indicator of the global population of the different insect species and their reproduction is butterflies. That said, the number of iconic Monarch butterflies in the United States has declined by 80 to 90 percent over the past 20 years. In Ohio alone, 81 butterfly species declined by an average of 33 percent over the same period. Moreover, following the 2014 global insect analysis, scientists determined that the number of insects has reduced by 45 percent in 40 years.
Steve Holmer from the American Bird Conservancy says that the decline in birds is an inevitable outcome following the decline in insects. Why? Every bird must eat insects at a certain point in its life cycle. Therefore, if there are no insects to eat, it stands to reason that some birds might die as a result.
Why is this bad for the world? Insects like butterflies, bees, and other insects pollinate one-third of the global food crops. Hence, they have a massive impact on global ecology.
“Without insects, the rest of life, including humanity, would mostly disappear from the land, and within a few months.” These are sentiments from a renowned Harvard entomologist known as E.O. Wilson.
By and large, the human population and the environment depend on insect species for their survival. Therefore, since neonics don’t solely affect insects but also impact the environment, they ought to affect the longevity of humanity. But what is the role of neonics?
Neonics’ Effect On The Insects
More than 120 countries use neonicotinoids in over 140 different agricultural crops. By and large, neonics are very systematic. Once used on the plants, they reside in the tissues of the leaves, sap, pollen, stems, and nectar. This means that the pesticides remain present from the seeding to the harvesting stages of the crops. Even the dead leaves contain neonics.
Therefore, when the insects ingest these crops, the neonics attack their central nervous system. This causes an overstimulation of the insects’ nerve cells, leading to paralysis and then death.
Neonics’ Effect On The Environment
However, studies have found that only five percent of the neonics used will remain in the crops. The rest stays in the soil and the environment. Since they dissolve in water fast, you’ll find some amount of neonics in ponds, streams, and wetlands as well.
Moreover, there is evidence that the amount of these pesticides only continues to increase with agroecological practices. For instance, compared to 26 years ago, the agricultural landscape is already 48 times more toxic from neonics.
Explaining The Controversy
Studies haven’t quantified the number of neonics bees are exposed to or if other reasons further enhance the death of insects. Entomologist, pest control expert, and owner of Ant & Garden Organic Pest Control, Ryan Smith says: “Yes, I believe with what is going on around us now, with urbanization, the use of pesticides, climate change, and the destruction of insect habitats being more prevalent, we are facing an imminent insect apocalypse.”
When asked whether he thought pesticides, especially neonics, had a significant contribution to killing bees, this is what Smith adds: “Neonics are insecticides, and that alone says a lot. However, along with pesticide use, we should also consider how we manage our environment to support our pollinators.”
Smith’s statements are backed by a study conducted in 2019 that warned that 40 percent of all insect species were at risk of extinction. However, the reason for the demise, as cited in the study, was not merely pesticides. Things like climate change and habitat destruction were identified as contributing factors.
Moreover, many critics argue that the pesticides in previous experiments are unrealistic. As a result, regulatory agencies like the EPA state that seed treatment using neonics only poses a low risk on the insects, primarily when used according to the label.
On the other hand, new studies suggest that pesticides are killing bees over a long period. The queen bees are especially at risk of this demise, further aggravating the future reproductive rates of bees.
So, what’s the truth about the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on the insect population?
Amro Zayed, a biologist at York University in Toronto, and his team conducted a study that measured agricultural chemical use from neonicotinoid-treated seeds. Unlike other studies, Amro studied the crops over a five-month growing season.
Zayed confirmed that neonicotinoids dissolve in water and find their way into waterways. As a result, crops from miles away take up the same chemicals. Additionally, they found the presence of neonics on dead bees, nectar, and pollen.
The most surprising result of their study was that they found the highest presence of neonics on pollen from plants near their designated crop field of study. This confirms that the pesticides do remain in plants, bees, and the environment longer than the crop’s life cycle.
Another significant result from Zayed’s study was that the bees suffered, even when exposed to small doses of neonics. The lab results showed that the neonicotinoids affect the bees’ natural defense systems and their chance of survival. The queen bee was also affected, and since most of the bees were falling sick, it became harder to get another queen for the colony.
Therefore, the overall effect was that neonicotinoids reduced the number of queen bees, which reduced the reproductive success of bees. The impact was even more significant when the neonicotinoids were used with other fungicides and fertilizers.
Is Natural Farming The Answer?
Could natural farming be the solution to the insect apocalypse? Smith suggests: “Definitely organic farming. The less exposure to toxic chemicals, the better. Natural farming helps support our pollinators by providing and protecting the natural habitat of bees and exposing them to little to no toxic chemicals.”
A 2018 study determined that farms using neonics had half the profits and ten times the insect pressure compared to the farms that used regenerative farming methods. The regenerative agriculture process uses no-till and other methods like cover crops to improve soil health and increase farm biodiversity, just like agroecological farming.
The no-till farming method is the practice of farming that preserves the nature of the soil because it doesn’t require any tillage. By not tilling the farm soil before planting crops, organisms like insects and other plants that safeguard the natural healthy elements of the soil remain intact. And by climate scientists accounts, healthy soil reduces the amount of carbon emitted into the environment.
The cover crop farming method also preserves the nature of the soil since the cover crops do provide ground cover to the soil. This, in turn, improved the biodiversity, structure, and nutrient balance in the soil. This shows that scientifically tested and sound solutions to the declining insect population lie in natural farming.
Save Our Dying Bees
Are neonicotinoid pesticides killing bees? Yes, they are, and not merely during their application, but long term because of their potency. Additionally, these pesticides do affect the environment and other surrounding plants.
This is a sad realization because, with no bees, the coming generations will have a harder time growing healthy and organic foods. And can you think of a world with no honey or bird songs waking you up in the morning? The good news is that you can do something to save our dying bees, birds, and insects.
Simple practices like planting trees, using natural methods to plant trees, and planting a bee garden can provide a sanctuary for bees. And if you cannot keep bees in your home, become an avid supporter of local beekeepers in your region and other bee conservancy organizations. Help them save our world one bee at a time.