Graphic by Naomi Idehen
The Birds and Bees Protection Act — the first bill in the United States that aims to prohibit the agricultural use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which decimate pollinator populations — has been awaiting signage by Gov. Kathy Hochul since its approval by the New York State Legislature in June. But after months of limbo and mere weeks remaining until the end of the year, environmental advocacy groups are pushing harder than ever to get the bill signed into law — keeping New York state at the forefront of national environmental legislation.
“We have worked on this bill for five years,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), said.
CCE, an environmental organization based in Farmingdale, New York, held a press conference on Nov. 14 that strongly urged Gov. Hochul to take the final action of signing the Birds and Bees Protection Act into law. “SAVE THE BEES/BAN TOXIC NEONICS,” read the poster placed in front of the podium. Pumpkin pie was served to guests in an effort to emphasize the important role that pollinators have in feeding the American people, especially during the holiday season.
“As America and New Yorkers sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, and serve their pumpkin pies, their apple pies, their green beans, their corn casseroles … they should be thanking the bees,” Esposito said at the press conference. “Yet, as we rely on these species for the very food we eat, they are dying in massive numbers that are unprecedented around the globe. One of the primary causes is neonicotinoid pesticides.”
Neonicotinoids, also called neonics, are a group of synthetic, neurotoxic insecticides with varying indoor and outdoor uses ranging from ornamental plants and agricultural crops to flea and tick treatments for pets. They eradicate pests by targeting insects’ nerve cells, causing paralysis and ultimately death. Although neonics are the preferred insecticide class in the United States, their ability to kill ranges beyond the targeted pests.
A 2019 study conducted by PLOS One found that the populations of insect-eating birds have nosedived in recent years due to the widespread die-offs of their food sources caused by toxic neonic exposure. The study also found that since neonics were introduced into the American food system over two decades ago, the country’s agricultural processes have become nearly 50% more toxic. This toxicity is accountable for the decimation of bee populations countrywide — American beekeepers lost over 45% of their honey bee colonies between April 2020 and April 2021, which is the second-highest annual loss recorded.
Kendra Klein, a co-author of the PLOS One study, compared the toxicity of neonics to that of DDT, an insecticide infamous for near-worldwide due to its devastating environmental and human health impacts.
“This is the second Silent Spring,” Klein said in an interview with National Geographic, in reference to Rachel Carson’s 1962 novel which documents the devastating environmental impacts of reckless pesticide use. “Neonics are like a new DDT, except they are a thousand times more toxic to bees than DDT was.”
During the CCE’s press conference in November, Laura Alexander, a board member of the Long Island Beekeepers Club who has been master beekeeper for over 19 years, spoke about honey bees’ imperativeness to the environment and the American food system.
“I believe that honey bees are the canaries in the coal mine,” Alexander said, referencing that honey bees are often used as a proxy to measure toxicity for other insects. “The consistent loss of over 45% of our colonies … should be alarming.”
Neonics are known as “systemic” insecticides, which means that they are either sprayed directly into the soil, or that they are used preemptively as a coating on the seeds. In the latter method, seeds are drenched in the insecticide, so as the plant sprouts and grows, the toxins inhabit every part of it: stems, leaves, fruit, pollen and nectar. In the United States, neonics are most prominently used in this “coating” manner, which renders the entire plant toxic. They are also used prophylactically, where seeds — primarily corn, soybean and wheat — are proactively coated in the insecticide whether there is an active pest issue or not. This leaves tremendous quantities of toxins in the soil, where neonics prove their environmental persistence. In a 2015 study, the U.S. Geological Survey found neonic pollution in 53% of sampled streams nationwide.
Dan Raichel, the acting director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Pollinator Initiative, said that the Birds and Bees Protection Act is based on state-commissioned research led by Cornell University, which found that the risks associated with neonics far outweigh the potential benefits.
“These coatings on corn, soybean and wheat seeds posed substantial risks, but provided no overall economic benefits to farmers,” Raichel said during CCE’s press conference. “Nonagricultural lawn and garden uses, most of the time, were providing no benefits to users treating for pest problems that didn’t actually exist, or else they were easily replaced with safer alternatives.”
Cornell’s report found that between 87% and 93% of field trials noted either a decrease or no increase in corn seed yield that was treated with neonicotinoids when compared to groups that were exposed to chemical alternatives or untreated controls. More specifically, in 89% of the field trials, there was no observed increase in corn yield for neonicotinoid-treated seeds when compared to completely untreated seeds. According to Raichel, the Birds and Bees Protection Act would be the first national law to target both primary uses of neonics — outdoor garden use and insecticide-treated seeds for agricultural use, the latter of which has yet to be restricted by any legislation across the United States.
“For each seed, only 2 to 5% of the neonics make it into the target plant,” Raichel said. “The other 95% plus stay in the soil, where they persist for years. … Anytime it rains, anytime there’s irrigation or lawn watering, those neonics are moving through the environment.”
Because of these insecticides’ ability to permeate through soil, neonics pose a significant threat to drinking water and public health. Neonic residue is found in 86% of United States honey. Neonic-coated seeds also create wholly toxic produce, meaning no amount of rinsing can remove the insecticides from the affected fruits and vegetables because the neonic toxins have grown into the plant itself. Similar to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), standard water purification methods typically do not remove neonicotinoids from drinking water. In fact, there is evidence that these insecticides may become increasingly toxic in tap water due to their potential to form chlorinated disinfection byproducts (DBPs).
“Neonicotinoid pesticides are also the most common pesticide found in Long Island’s drinking water,” Esposito said during CCE’s press conference.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly half of the U.S. population is exposed regularly to at least one type of nicotinoid. According to current research, neonic exposure has been linked to neurological issues in humans such as muscle tremors — similar to the violent twitching that the neurotoxins cause in insects — and metabolic or insulin-regulating issues. Research has also provided evidence that prenatal neonic exposure can cause fetal harm and birth defects in the heart and brain.
While neonic restrictions and bans have not yet taken flight in the United States, the European Union banned field use of neonicotinoids in 2018 due to their evidential harm to pollinators. Canada also passed restrictions on some of the most widely-used neonics in 2019. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not banned neonics yet, but this initial stance may be changing. The EPA released new analyses of three specific neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam — which detailed their threat to endangered species. The agency anticipates the release of interim decisions on potential mitigation efforts of these insecticides in 2024.
In New York state, after a bill is delivered to a governor’s desk, the governor has a ten day period to either sign or veto it before that bill automatically becomes law. Although lawmakers can deliver bills that await the governor’s signature at any time, they typically wait until the governor has sufficient time to review those bills. However, bills that have not been delivered or acted on by the end of the calendar year are subject to a different rule, which puts them at risk of being scrapped. If the Birds and Bees Protection Act is not acted on by Gov. Hochul prior to the end of the year, it will be automatically vetoed after 30 days.
“We are here today because we have worked for five long years to pass the Birds and Bees Protection Act,” Esposito said during CCE’s press conference. “Governor Hochul, we don’t want half the pie, we want the whole bill!”