I was sitting down to lunch on Friday, and had a rare treat- somebody had left behind a pile of newspapers in the skyway food court where I eat my lunch on the days I don't bring my own.
Though this is downtown St. Paul, in the pile was a copy of Minneapolis' Star-Tribune. I love the Strib, and in general love reading an analog newspaper, though I've never gotten into the habit of subscribing to one. Mainly because I'm a cheapskate, but also because they have an army of telemarketers who will harangue you into submission if you ever let your subscription expire.
So I was eating a burrito and paging through the Star-Trib and found an article on neonicotinoids that, I'm sure most people breezed by, but which nearly made me choke on my lunch.
You can see the article here (10 articles free a month)
If you'd rather not read the whole thing, here is a synopsis of the article-- The US Department of Agriculture has been pressured by beekeepers into doing a study of the effect of neonicotinoids on bees in the US. Apparently they found that bees were being significantly harmed by the pesticides, along with varroa mites, but- here's where it gets dicey- the cost of banning the pesticides may be too great to go through with banning them. This after an admission that most food crops are dependent on pollinators in a phenominally poorly-written sentence:
"Bees are key to the production of $20 billion to $30 billion worth of food each year, including such crops as alfalfa, strawberries and soybeans. Fully 100 food crops rely on pollination."
Fully 100 crops depend on pollination? According to who? How about "fully almost everything we eat depends on pollination?"
How about I rewrite this article. Here it is:
Researchers have found that we will likely starve to death en masse if we allow pollinators to continue dying off. However, banning the pesticides responsible for killing the pollinators will result in reducing the profit margin of several chemical companies. Therefore, we shall choose to starve to death rather than see the stock prices of Bayer or Monsanto decline. For more about your likely mid-to-long-term prospects, please see the obituaries page.
That is very likely more forthright than what got printed in the A section of the Strib.
Interestingly, they had a quote from Vera Krischik, an entomologist at the U of M who I respect a lot. I've talked to her about beneficial nematodes when preparing a program of nematode distribution for my neighborhood to combat the Japanese Beetles which seem to be getting worse each year. She struck me as someone with a lot of common sense, but also as someone who is willing to turn to chemicals more often than not to solve insect problems. Interestingly, she sounded very concerned about neonicotinoids' effect on bees, and had the following quote, “It is clear to me that there is a link" (between neonicotinoids and colony collapse disorder). The rest was paraphrasing about her concerns regarding the chemicals.
So a conscientious entomologist can admit that there is a problem with neonicotinoids, but spokepersons from the federal government can't? I suppose that shouldn't be too surprising.
But it's more than just that.
I had the 'opportunity' to attend a seminar (ok, it was free, and included lunch, so I was grateful for that) about Emerald Ash Borer this winter. It was billed as an informational session for people involved in the 'green' trades (even landscape architects like me) to learn more about what EAB does to trees, where the infestation is in its life cycle in the Twin Cities, and what can be done about it.
The stories of what EAB has done in other parts of the Midwest were eye-opening and disturbing, and the analysis of where it is in the Twin Cities right now were sobering. We're going to see a lot of dead ash trees in the next year or two if the presenters were right. They're pretty much all going to go.
But the most disturbing part of the symposium was the sales pitch for Imidacloprid (a neonicotinoid insecticide) that followed. The researchers showed the preventive effects of several chemicals, and all were effective to some degree. But all agreed that it was a stop-gap measure, and that treatment for all ash trees forever was not practical, and that this was merely a way to delay having to remove thousands of trees all at once. And this particular neonicotinoid that was out of patent was much cheaper to use than the other pesticides. So we were all urged to support its use. And specifially to oppose any effort by any unit of government to ban it or any other neonicotinoid, for that matter. One panelist was very adamant that we (the attendees) had to oppose any effort to ban neonicotinoids here, as was being considered (and has now been done) in Europe.
Now, I've been to a lot of continuing education courses in my time. I've had my LA license for a few years now, and have to do a bunch of stuff like this to keep it current- but I haven't seen a sales job like this before- a preventive attack on possible future regulation of a branded product. Something really rubbed me the wrong way about it.
Even the answers to the questions were weird. A woman asked a question about how honeybees would be affected by the residue in flowers, since the official recommendation on how to save an ash tree was to apply a soil drench of Imidacloprid around all ashes targeted for preservation. And if you are not familiar, a 'soil drench' is just what it sounds like- dumping a whole lot of pesticide, mixed with water, around the roots of a tree. It's not very target-specific. And the insecticide suggested is systemic- meaning that it is taken up by the roots, and spread to every part of the plant.
This means that every part of the plant in contact with the soil drench is now toxic to bees and a variety of other insects. The presenter said something to the effect- "Now, you gotta choose- do you want your ash tree, or pretty flowers. I like flowers, but you gotta consider what's more important and plant your flowers somewhere else".
I'm not trying to make him sound like a goon. That's the essence of what he said. And it sounded pretty condescending.
And here's the rub. Most street trees (because that's what we were discussing) are surrouded by grass- not by flower beds. And in that grass are a variety of other plants- dandelions, clover, black medic. All of which bees love- and all of which are taking up synthetic pesticides as quickly as the targeted ash trees. No homeowner or city worker is going to take the time to remove all of those, and so the bees will be exposed to the pesticide, and weakened or killed as a result.
I asked a question of one of the panelists about the effects of systemic herbicides on composted leaves, and insects that came into contact with them. This is pretty relevant for me, since my community garden relies pretty heavily on fall-raked leaves that neighbors dump at the garden for soil fertility and organic matter. I asked it the effect might be similar to triclopyr or clopyralid. These two can persist in vegatative matter for years. If leaves or grasses treated with these chemicals are added to compost, they can kill or inhibit the growth of tomatoes, eggplant, or other solanaceous crops for two years or more. If you are a gardener, and use compost from off-site, this is no small matter.
Anyway, the panelist I asked the question of, very literally laughed it off, telling me that there were no similarities between triclopyr and the neonicotinoid he was pushing. That it was silly for me to even mention it. That my concerns didn't matter.
And maybe they don't. The concerns that I have, and that lots of conscientious people have don't matter much. What matters is that we have access to cheap poisons to keep our trees alive long enough for them to be harvested on a rolling schedule by the city crew, and that the chemical companies are able to post quarterly profits. To hell with the insects that do billions of dollars of pollinating work for us for free.
It's not just honey that bees produce. They make corn and beans and all sorts of fruit possible. We mess with them at our own risk.
It's the narrow focus of the arborists and academics and chemical companies that is endangering all of us. Add to that the seed companies that coat their seeds in the stuff, and farmers who spray the stuff to keep bugs off of their crops. It's cheap and convenient in the short term. The effects in the long term are yet to be felt.
So I applaud the European Union for being brave enough to place a moratorium on this class of poisons, even though Bayer AG is located in the European Union and will be affected negatively by this. Thank you for having the cojones that my country lacks, and doing what seems to be the right thing. Because waiting for absolute, undeniable, incontrovertible proof of harm is not always the right thing when dealing with the precipitous decline of a species that our own species relies upon so heavily. We don't have the luxury of allowing bees and other pollinators to go the brink of extinction, because by doing so, we risk going there ourselves.