hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2021-January 2022


A battle over saving bees

Farming, green groups debate New York bill to ban neonic pesticides



A close-up view of bees from a hive at Dancing Bee Gardens, near Middlebury, Vt., taken in 2015. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


New York lawmakers are expected to vote in the new year on whether to ban a class of pesticides that have been blamed for massive die-offs of honeybees over the past decade and a half.

Conservation groups and many beekeepers around the region say a ban on seeds treated with neonicotinoids, or neonics, is the key to curbing the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees leave their hives and never return.

“Insecticides are an enormous problem,” said Lloyd Spear, a beekeeper with about 200 hives in Columbia County. “These are insecticides that last forever. Everything the bees bring in is contaminated.”

Spear said colony collapse disorder has become a persistent problem for his hives.
“It’s happened every summer for the past 10 years,” he said.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency still say no single cause of colony collapse disorder has been identified, a series of studies in the past few years has strongly implicated neonics, which are highly toxic to bees. The studies show that even low-level exposure to the pesticides over time leaves bees confused and unable to find their way home.

Advocates say the bill to ban neonics in New York, known as the Birds and Bees Protection Act, is vital to protecting bees and other pollinating insects as well as insect-eating birds. The state Senate passed the bill in June, but the proposal never advanced to a floor vote in the Assembly. Advocates expect both houses to take it up again when the new legislative session begins in January.

But many farmers and local legislators oppose the ban, saying neonics protect crops and are better for the environment than older, less targeted chemicals.

“If you use untreated seeds, you need to apply gallons of pesticides per acre to control pests,” said Jeff Williams, director of public policy for the Farm Bureau of New York. “If you use treated seeds, you only need a shot glass per acre.”

Systemic insecticides
Neonicotinoids are an updated version of an older class of insecticides derived, as the name suggests, from nicotine, the naturally occurring chemical in tobacco plants.

Neonics are considered less dangerous to mammals because they act on a nervous system receptor found only in insects. The chemicals target sap-sucking insects like aphids and leaf hoppers and grubs that eat roots. Imidacloprid, one of the major neonics, is an ingredient in some flea and tick treatments for pets.

Neonics are easily soluble in water, so they can be applied to the soil and taken up by plants. They are slow to break down. When seeds are coated with neonics, the developing plant incorporates the insecticide in all its tissues -- roots, leaves, stems and flowers -- and the pesticide won’t wash off in the rain.

Soil and seed coat applications mean there’s no spray to drift onto other crops. Seed processors can add other pesticides such as fungicides to the coating at little cost, saving farmers time and money. Neonicotinoids also are safer to people than the organophosphate insecticides they replaced.

Since neonics were introduced in the 1990s, their use in the U.S. has boomed.
An estimated 73 percent of the neonics used by New York farmers are on treated corn, soybean and wheat seeds. Most of the rest is applied to turf farms, other turfs such as golf courses, and nursery plants. The proposed state legislation would halt the use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds for turf and ornamental plants

For farmers, untreated seeds are available but “are much harder to get,” Williams said.
Almost all the corn seeds and most of the soybean seeds planted in the United States are treated with neonicotinoids.

One of the principles of integrated pest management is not using toxic pest control measures until there’s evidence of that pest in the field. But Williams compared the use of neonics to an insurance policy, citing the example of one insect pest, the European corn maggot.
“With the European corn maggot, once you see it, the crop is done, and there’s usually not enough time to replant,” he said. “You don’t drop your car insurance just because you didn’t crash your car last year.”


Effects on birds, groundwater
That extra level of protection for farmers comes at a high cost to bees.
The European Food Safety Authority has estimated that the active ingredient in one neonic-treated seed could potentially kill 250,000 bees. Other studies have found that in social bees, concentrations too low to kill them outright can impair their memory and ability to forage and find their way back to the hive. The loss of worker bees can cripple or wipe out an entire hive.
Corn and wheat are wind-pollinated, meaning bees don’t feed directly on their flowers. But as the pollen drifts, it can contaminate flowers on nearby land where bees are foraging. Studies have found exposure through dust released when coated seeds are planted. The European Union was so concerned about the hazard to pollinators that it banned all outdoor use of three of the most common neonics in 2018 and didn’t reapprove a fourth in 2020.

Although neonics were touted as being harmless to birds, that hasn’t proved true. Eating just one treated seed may kill some songbirds. At low doses, research shows damage to birds’ immune systems, reproduction and ability to migrate. Birds may lose weight, which lowers their chances of survival. Birds may also starve if there aren’t enough insects left for them to eat.

Because neonics are water soluble, soil applications can run off and contaminate streams, ponds and groundwater. Research by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey has found troubling concentrations of neonics in New York waterways.

And when aquatic insects die, it affects all the fish, amphibians, birds and mammals that feed on them. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of Americans have regular exposure to neonics, and some research links neonics to neurological, developmental and reproductive illnesses in people. Because neonics permeate plants, concerned consumers can’t wash them off.

In June, Cornell University released an analysis of 1,121 studies on the relative costs and benefits of neonics and their impact on the environment. The analysis concluded that the chemicals are dangerous to bees and other pollinators while providing no economic benefit to farmers. The chemicals resulted in no consistent increase in crop yields – nor any improvement in farmers’ net incomes.

The Cornell report also noted that there are safer alternatives for both crops and non-agricultural uses such as lawn and garden treatments.

Williams countered that the study didn’t consider what would happen if there were an insect infestation and the pesticides were unavailable.


Ross Conrad, a former president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, works with his bees in this file photo taken in 2015 at Dancing Bee Gardens in the town of Cornwall, Vt. Joan K. Lentini photo


Ross Conrad, a former president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, works with his bees in this file photo taken in 2015 at Dancing Bee Gardens in the town of Cornwall, Vt. Joan K. Lentini photo

Closing a regulatory loophole
The New York bill would ban the sale of corn, soybean and wheat seeds treated with five neonicotinoids starting in 2024, unless untreated seeds are unavailable or unreasonably expensive. A ban on applications to outdoor ornamental plants and turf would start in July 2023.
The bill provides an exception for situations in which a neonic is necessary to manage, control or prevent invasive species. The state Department of Environmental Conservation would be tasked with reviewing the science around neonics and coming up with regulations to protect pollinators and birds, as well as researching and reporting on alternatives to neonics. The DEC’s report and proposed regulations would be due in January 2023 – with a goal of having new rules in place before the ban expires in July 2028.

Advocates say the bill would close a loophole in pesticide regulations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate or track pesticides applied as seed coatings. As a result, there’s no data on the amount of neonics entering the environment on seeds.

State pesticide regulations generally follow federal regulations, but the bill would give the DEC explicit authority to regulate treated seeds.

When the bill passed the state Senate in June, local Sens. Daphne Jordan, Dan Stec and James Tedisco, all Republicans, voted against it.

The Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee held a hearing on the bill in September, but the bill failed to advance to a vote. Supporters expect it to be reintroduced in both chambers when the new legislative session begins in January.

Dan Raichel, the acting director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Pollinator Initiative, said that in addition to the European Union’s ban on neonics, the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine and Maryland have imposed restrictions on outdoor landscape applications of the pesticides. That doesn’t touch agriculture, which is by far the biggest market for the chemicals, but “it takes the pesticides off the shelf and prohibits outdoor consumer uses,” he said.

In the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, farmers now must show a need before they can plant coated seeds, Raichel said. Getting that certificate is relatively easy, but even so, the portion of coated corn seeds planted in Quebec dropped from nearly 100 percent in 2015 to only 2 percent in 2019, he said.

“These markets do shift,” Raichel said. “People are moving away from neonics. The U.S. is behind the curve.”


‘Canaries in the coalmine’
The EPA has to re-certify pesticides every 15 years. Neonics came up in 2020, and the EPA has proposed some restrictions based on concerns for human health — a first for the agency, Raichel said. The rules have not been finalized.

“The jury is still out,” Raichel said.
Raichel called the Birds and Bees Protection Act “well-tailored” to New York’s situation as documented in the Cornell report.

The proposal “gets at 80 to 90 percent of the neonics going into New York’s environment,” Raichel said. “It’s a good all-around bill.”

For Raichel, the most important part of the Cornell report was its finding that neonics have no economic benefits for corn, soybean and wheat farmers, despite the pesticides’ high environmental costs.

The situation for fruit and vegetable crops is less clear, Raichel said.
“There may prove to be some justification,” he said. “We should operate in the area where we have certainty. I hope the Legislature continues to be guided by science.”

Passing the New York bill, he added, would be “a huge step and a really important one.”
Rebecca Louie, managing director of The Bee Conservancy, also expressed strong support for passing the bill. The conservancy, based in New York City, runs a Sponsor-a-Hive program to support urban beekeeping and habitat-building activities for wild bees.

“In New York, honeybee keepers just experienced the second worst annual losses on record,” Louie said in an email interview.

Louie, who’s a beekeeper in the Catskills, called neonicotinoids “a leading cause” of the die-offs of honeybees that began in the mid-2000s, just as use of the pesticides was spiking.

“Honeybees are also ‘canaries in the coalmine’ for the other 400-plus native bee species we have in New York, which are crucial to crop pollination as well as ecosystems,” Louie said. “While these species are not tracked and accounted for like honeybees, we have some examples of major native bee losses in recent decades. For example, the American bumblebee has lost 99 percent of its population in the state and is currently being considered a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.”


Disappearing bees
Spear, the Columbia County beekeeper, said most of his hives are on organic farms, with the rest in orchards. That might seem to protect his bees from exposure to neonics, but Spear said bees often travel widely from their hives.

“Bees forage three miles under ideal conditions, seven or eight miles if they’re less than ideal,” he said. “The bees on the organic farms are unquestionably foraging on non-organic land.”
A neonic ban “would be helpful,” Spear said. The pesticides “affect butterflies, moths, bumblebees, native bees — everything that forages on green living plants.”

To be sure, neonics aren’t the only problem facing bees. Anthony Antonucci, a beekeeper in southern Rensselaer County, said he hasn’t seen much impact from neonicotinoids.
“I’m not near corn,” he said. “It’s a bigger issue in the Midwest.”

Antonucci said he is more worried about varroa mites, an introduced parasite that weakens bees and spreads diseases. Other challenges are habitat loss and other pesticides. He’s down to four hives after losing six last winter.

Statewide, beekeepers lost about 40 percent of their hives last winter, he said. The nonprofit group Bee Informed estimated the losses at more than 50 percent of the state’s managed bee colonies.

“I’ve cut back after last year,” Antonucci said. “Losing so many hives — -it’s not as cheap to keep bees any more. New bees are expensive.”

Besides domestic honeybees, New York has 450 species of native bees, Antonucci said, all of them vulnerable to pesticides and loss of habitat.

“Neonics are a whole different breed of pesticide,” he said.
Antonucci said he supports banning neonics until the state has had a chance to do its own studies.

“We can’t just go on and allow it to continue,” he said. “Look at the PFOA stuff in the water. Neonics can be the same way until they’re saturated in our environment, like PCBs. We can’t let these big businesses call the shots. We need to find different pesticides. We need to slow down and look at the science.”