Neonicotinoids and The Great Die-off: Birds, Bees, and Chemistry

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Home / Neonicotinoids and The Great Die-off: Birds, Bees, and Chemistry
Nicotine, Courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Nicotine, Courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Just as news of ‘collapsed colony disorder’ for bees has become a major news item, there is now a reported bird die-off in progress, according to a recent journal article in Nature.

The authors of the article, five wildlife ecologists from the Netherlands, detail how a newer class of insecticides – the neonicotinoids – are strongly correlated with bird decline in the Netherlands.

What Are Neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides related to the drug nicotine, which have a long history in pesticide circles – the first reported use of nicotine as a pesticide was in the 1940s.

Nicotine’s toxicity to humans is well-known, and science has documented its toxicity to all insects as well. Farmers have been using pure nicotine as a contact insecticide for at least 60 years. However, the government de-registered pure nicotine as a pesticide in the mid-2000s.

Various agri-business companies patented the present generation of neonicotinoids in the mid-1980s, but researchers discovered the first ‘neo-nic’ in the 1970s. Experts classified the neonicotinoids as being just as toxic as the most effective insecticides of last 40 years.

Toxicology of Neonicotinoids

The toxicology of this class of compounds revolves around their soil-persistence and water dissolvability (or solubility). The neonicotinoid that researchers believe is affecting the bird population, once applied to the seed, is taken into the grown leaf and is incorporated within plant.

The insecticide persists in the plant and around the stem of the root. The reported problems associated with bird toxicity come into play because of an application of greater-than-safe levels of the insecticide. The insecticide persisted within the soil and leached into the water table after many periods of application.

Imidacloprid, Courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Neonicotinoid- Imidacloprid, Courtesy of National Institutes of Health

 

Bird Die-Off Worldwide: Insecticides the Culprit?

Although the report details the problems as occurring in the Netherlands, ‘bird die-off’ has been an issue in North America as well. A report from 2013 in the journal, PLOSOne, details the decline of grassland bird population in farm-land America due to insecticide use. The study conducted by two Canadian environmental scientists concluded that the ‘die-off’ steadily progressed from 1980 to 2003.

The team from Canada explained how pesticides became the culprit of bird die-off in the farms of North America: An increase of crop-land followed with an increase in pesticide usage correlated with a drop in bird population. The persistent nature of pesticides (like the neonicotinoids) and the build-up of pesticide residue from the farm land led to the die-off.

Farm Pesticides: Art and Science

The science of farm pesticide use is also a complex art. When agri-business applies pesticides to a crop such as cotton, there are several applications of herbicide and insecticide (and plant growth regulators as needed) throughout the growing season. On the up-side, the “cocktail of chemicals” has allowed farming to become an ‘economic powerhouse.’

The use of chemicals in farming allows the consumer to purchase attractive and bug-free produce. That being said, the evaluation of toxic aspects of pesticide use are difficult to translate from laboratory to farm-land. The controlled environment of pesticide invention is misleading to most.

Researchers initially test pesticides under strict experimental procedures. Once on the farm, the conditions are far from ideal; this invites the inevitable problem of miss-application. Agribusiness tests pesticides (according to EPA guidelines) prior to commercialization – but the tests can’t take into account the complex interplay of organisms and processes over time on a real-life farm.

EPA Registration, Agrichemicals, and Toxicity

These issues bring up a number of questions: How much more rigorous must the EPA’s registration procedures be? Where is it safe to apply agrichemicals? And, these questions only scratch the surface of deeper problems — is it possible to regulate the eventual use of anychemical so that there’s no harm to humans or the environment? 

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