Help Bees (and Us) Stay Virile for World Bee Day
Let’s talk about the birds and the bees—and I mean that in more ways than one.
As World Bee Day approaches on May 20th, there’s no hiding that bees are in big trouble. Last year, beekeepers in New York and across the country had their second-worst losses on record. And there’s every indication that honey bees are merely “canaries in the coalmine” for mass losses of hundreds of native New York bee species (like the vanishing American bumble bee)—threatening food security and the health of the state’s ecosystems.
The good news is that New York has a big opportunity to fight these dangerous declines with a bill—the Birds and Bees Protection Act—that would dramatically curb use of a class of pesticides long identified as driving bee losses. And, as we are just learning, these pesticides also dampen bees’ ability to “get it on.”
For those unacquainted, neonicotinoid pesticides or “neonics” are some of the most ecologically damaging pesticides ever created. Since their introduction, they have made U.S. Agriculture 48-times more harmful to bees and other insects, contaminating whole ecosystems, and hollowing them out from the bottom up, with rippling losses that harm birds, fish, and other wildlife. While neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds—where the pesticides are painted on seeds to be soaked up by the growing plant, making it (pollen, nectar, fruit, everything) toxic—bear most of the blame, heavy use on lawns, gardens, and golf courses has also been, quite literally, a buzzkill.
Neonics are “neurotoxic,” meaning they kill insects by destroying their nerves. And even teeny tiny exposures that don’t kill, still harm bees’ brains (especially baby bees), impairing their ability to navigate, find food, and survive in the wild. Since we have the nerve sites targeted by neonics in sensitive areas of our brain and central nervous system too, health experts have been increasingly raising alarm bells about their threats to New Yorkers’ health—especially given that neonics appear all over New York water and in the bodies of half the U.S. population.
But as bad as that sounds, it gets worse.
Recent research shows that even just a single, small exposure to neonics can hamper bees’ ability to reproduce for multiple generations. And other new science points to neonic impacts on something most of us haven’t thought about much—bee sperm. As it turns out, neonics impair both the quality and quantity of their sperm, reducing mating success.
Like with nerve damage, neonics’ harms to human virility may not fall far from the bee. CDC data shows that elevated levels of neonics are associated with lower levels of testosterone in people, making neonics a real kick to the “you-know-where”.
Thankfully, New York doesn’t need to stand for it, but the time to act is quickly running out. The Birds and Bees Protection Act would eliminate 80-90% of the neonics that pollute New York’s environment every year, and better yet, by prohibiting only those uses that provide zero benefits or are easily replaced with safer alternatives. Specifically, it would ban neonic treatments on corn, soybean, and wheat seeds—which extensive Cornell University research finds provide “no overall net income benefit” to farmers—and unnecessary lawn and garden uses that poison the places where millions of New Yorkers live and play.
If passed, the bill would put New York in the company of bee protectors like the European Union (which banned most outdoor neonic use in 2018), Ontario and Quebec (where neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds are largely phased out), and New Jersey and Maine (which banned most non-agricultural uses). If passed, the bill would also make New York a national leader in smart, targeted, and effective protections for its birds, bees, water, and people.
With only three weeks left in the 2022 New York State legislative session, however, there’s no time to waste. Use World Bee Day as a signal to do all you can to help bees “get lucky.” Please call or email your state representatives and tell them to pass the Birds and Bees Protection Act.
Dan Raichel is the Acting Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Pollinator Initiative and an enthusiast for New York’s 400+ species of native bees.