According to a study published on Tuesday, agriculture in the US has become 48 times more toxic to insects over the last 25 years, largely due to a controversial, widely used class of pesticides that are particularly harmful to bees.
Neonicotinoid pesticides, also known as neonics, are used on more than 140 different types of crops, from apples to rice. Neonics are most persistent in corn and soybeans as the pesticide is used to coat the seeds of these crops.
The new study is the first to quantify the effects of neonics in the US over the span of time since the pesticide was introduced to crops. But researchers have been sounding the alarm about neonics for years, particularly because of growing evidence that the pesticide could be a major contributor to declining bee populations.
“We have not learned our lessons. We know neonics are one of the most toxic classes of pesticides to bees ever introduced into agriculture,” said Kendra Klein, an author of the study and a senior scientist at not-for-profit Friends of the Earth. “There’s this fundamental recklessness and foolishness to introducing [neonics] and continuing down this path.”
Researchers used three types of data to conduct the study: the specific amount of pesticides used in the United States, information about the persistence of pesticides in the environment and data on the toxins found in honeybees. They found that, between 1992 and 2014, neonics accounted for 92% of the increase in toxicity.
It took a while for beekeepers and researchers to deduce what could be causing symptoms like an inability to navigate and weaker immune system. Years of analysis eventually pointed to systemic pesticides such as neonics.
“It’s enough to kill them instantly. They come back and they’re suffering a lethal dose, lying on their backs dying from gathering the nectar and the pollen from the willow trees adjacent to the corn field.”
Bees have been dying in alarming numbers across the country. A June 2019 study found that beekeepers had lost 40% of their honeybee colonies over the past year, partly due to the use of pesticides. Bees are an essential part of the agricultural system, as they pollinate three-quarters of all crops.
EU ban of most dangerous neonics
The European Union banned the most dangerous neonics in 2018 after an EU scientific risk assessment found that the class of pesticides posed a serious danger to bees.
But in the US, progress has been slower than many beekeepers would like. The most recent victory came in May, when the EPA banned 12 types of neonic products. A bill called the Saving America’s Pollinators Act that bans all neonics was also introduced in the House in February.
This article was amended on 6 August 2019 to clarify how neonics are systemic and that the EU banned the most dangerous neonics, while the EPA banned 12 types of neonic products, not neonics themselves.