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My View: Protect pollinators like our lives depend on it

A single pesticide application killed 50,000 wild bumblebees in Oregon last year, dealing a devastating blow to 300 or more colonies.

The one bright spot in this tragedy is that the Oregon Legislature realized the severity of the issue and created the Task Force on Pollinator Health.

The task force has a tough road ahead as pollinators face many hardships in the modern world. Lack of habitat and forage diseases, and exposure to pesticides are all implicated in the dramatic decline of native and managed bees. In addition to the widely publicized troubles facing honeybees, one-third of North America’s bumblebee populations are at risk of going extinct.

Pollinator decline has a direct impact on our health as well as on the broader health of our environment. In Oregon alone, pollinators provide agriculture a service estimated at $600 million a year. Pollinators also are a critical link in biodiversity. Insect pollination of wild plants is essential to produce the fruits and seeds that feed a vast range of wildlife, from songbirds to black bears.

Across the nation, local and state governments are passing policies to bring back pollinators. Unfortunately, these efforts are hindered by the systematic effort of the pesticide industry to downplay the effects pesticides have on pollinators.

This tactic cannot be allowed to prevail. If we are to protect pollinators, Oregon must pursue limits on where and how pesticides can be used.

A relatively new class of insecticides — neonicotinoids — is especially dangerous for pollinators. Neonicotinoids entered the market in the 1990s. Touted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “reduced risk,” many neonicotinoid products were fast-tracked through the regulatory process.

In the decades since those initial registrations, a tidal wave of scientific studies has demonstrated that these chemicals, the most widely used insecticides in the nation, are toxic to pollinators.

The EPA ranks four neonicotinoids — clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam — as highly toxic to bees because small doses will kill bees. At extremely low doses, these chemicals also undermine the general health of bee populations by damaging their ability to fly, navigate and learn new tasks, which in turn can impair their ability to find food.

These risks are exacerbated because many neonicotinoids persist for years in the soil or plants, increasing the length of time bees are exposed.

Furthermore, neonicotinoids are systemic: When applied to seeds, roots or leaves, the insecticide is absorbed into the plant, and can make the flower nectar and pollen toxic to bees.

In short, these chemicals are widely used, long-lived and highly toxic. For a comprehensive look at the research on neonicotinoids and bees, see “Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees?” at www.xerces.org/pesticides/.

Underscoring their risk is that last year’s massive bumblebee die-off was caused by a neonicotinoid. Now the task force created in response to the tragedy gives Oregonians the opportunity to work together to find concrete solutions to help bring back pollinators.

This is not an easy task. Many businesses have become accustomed to the ease of using neonicotinoid products. Nursery and farm employees can apply almost any neonicotinoid product without a pesticide applicator license. The EPA assumed these products to be of low enough risk that no training, beyond reading instructions on the container, was deemed necessary. Yet, what we know today about the risks to pollinators, coupled with new research showing human health concerns, paints a very different picture.

Clearly, the fact that these pesticides can be used without training must be scrutinized. But neonicotinoid use is prevalent in many arenas. We also must review their use around the home. An analysis performed by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found that a backyard gardener treating trees can apply 32 times more of the neonicotinoid imidacloprid than is allowed in an agricultural setting. This discrepancy, which allows excessive amounts of these products to be used in neighborhoods, should be corrected.

On farms, we need to re-evaluate the prophylactic use of these pesticides. In some crop production, such as wheat and corn, it is common practice to plant seeds pre-treated with neonicotinoids, even when pests are not present. Such prophylactic use flies in the face of modern integrated agricultural techniques and increases risk to pollinators and to ourselves.

Change is not always easy. In this case, it is necessary. In light of the preponderance of evidence now available, Oregon’s Task Force on Pollinator Health must have the will to take a hard look at these harmful pesticides, develop strict guidelines for their use, and deliver a clear message to Oregon’s legislators.

Scott Hoffman Black is the executive director and Aimee Code is the pesticide program coordinator for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland. Code also is a member of Oregon’s Task Force on Pollinator Health.