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Published July 9, 2014
Pesticides don't just kill pests. New research out of the Netherlands provides compelling evidence linking a widely used class of insecticides to population declines across 14 species of birds.
Those insecticides, called neonicotinoids, have been in the news lately due to the way they hurt bees and other pollinators. (Related: "The Plight of the Honeybee.")
This new paper, published online Wednesday in Nature, gets at another angle of the story—the way these chemicals can indirectly affect other creatures in the ecosystem.
Scientists from Radboud University in Nijmegen and the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology and Birdlife Netherlands (SOVON) compared long-term data sets for both farmland bird populations and chemical concentrations in surface water. They found that in areas where water contained high concentrations of imidacloprid—a common neonicotinoid pesticide—bird populations tended to decline by an average of 3.5 percent annually.
"I think we are the first to show that this insecticide may have wide-scale, significant effects on our environment," said Hans de Kroon, an expert on population dynamics at Radboud University and one of the authors of the paper.
Second Silent Spring?
Pesticides and birds: If this story sounds familiar, it's probably because Rachel Carson wrote about it back in 1962. Carson's seminal Silent Spring was the first popular attempt to warn the world that pesticides were contributing to the "sudden silencing of the song of birds."
"I think there is a parallel, of course," said Ruud Foppen, an ornithologist at SOVON and co-author of the Nature paper.
Foppen says that while Carson battled against a totally different kind of chemicals—organophosphates like DDT—the effects he's seeing in the field are very much the same. Plainly stated, neonicotinoids are harming biodiversity.
"In this way, we can compare it to what happened decades ago," he said. "And if you look at it from that side, we didn't learn our lessons."
How Neonicotinoids Work
In the past 20 years, neonicotinoids (pronounced nee-oh-NIK-uh-tin-oyds) have become the fastest growing class of pesticides. They're extremely popular among farmers because they're effective at killing pests and easy to apply.
Instead of loading gallons and gallons of insecticide into a crop duster and spraying it over hundreds of acres, farmers can buy seeds that come preloaded with neonicotinoid coatings. Scientists refer to neonicotinoids as "systemic" pesticides because they affect the whole plant rather than a single part. As the pretreated seed grows, it incorporates the insecticide into every bud and branch, effectively turning the plant itself into a pest-killing machine.
This lock, stock, and barrel approach to crop protection means that no matter where a locust or rootworm likes to nibble—the root, the stem, the flower—the invader winds up with a bellyful of neurotoxins.
"The plants become poison not only for the insects that farmers are targeting, but also for beneficial insects like bees," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who's been building a case against the widespread use of neonicotinoids. The pesticide's top-to-bottom coverage means the plants' flowers, pollen, and nectar are all poisonous too.
Worse still, Sass says, neonicotinoids can persist in the soil for years. This gives other growing things a chance to come into contact with and absorb the chemicals.
"So they actually end up in plants that grow on the sides of fields and that were never meant to be targeted," she said.
Bye Bye Birdie
The new Nature paper shows strong evidence that neonicotinoids are dangerous even if not ingested.
The study looked at population statistics for over a dozen species of birds common to farmlands in the Netherlands. Most of these species are dependent on insects for all or part of their diet, though some also munch on seeds and grains. This means that there are two ways neonicotinoids could be harming the Netherlands' birds.
The first is ingestion. Studies have shown that while neonicotinoids are commonly considered to be safer for mammals and birds than for insects, they can still be lethal in high enough doses. And the best way to get a concentrated dose of neonicotinoids is to eat seeds coated with them. A 1992 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that sparrows have difficulty flying after consuming a tiny amount of imidacloprid, and become immobile at higher doses.
The second way neonicotinoids can affect birds is by eliminating their food sources. Since these pesticides kill target and nontarget species alike, there are fewer flies, grasshoppers, stinkbugs, and caterpillars for the birds to feast on.
Causation vs. Correlation
While the new paper shows a correlation between high concentrations of neonicotinoids and declining bird populations, it doesn't claim the pesticides are a direct cause of the decrease.
To make sure the correlation wasn't some sort of coincidence, the team analyzed a number of alternative explanations.
Caspar A. Hallmann is an ornithologist and population ecologist at SOVON and Radboud University. As the lead author of the Nature paper, he explained that there are numerous causes for population declines in birds, from changes in the kinds of crops planted in any given year and the amount of fertilizer used to the urbanization of former farmland. But when the team looked at the data, none of these explanations held up.
Hallmann said that, as with any correlative study, caution is a watchword. "But still," he says, "we think we have a line of evidence that is building up."
Pesticide Maker Disagrees
Bayer CropScience, the primary manufacturer of imidacloprid, defends the use of neonicotinoids. In a statement responding to Hallmann and his colleagues, the company writes: "Neonicotinoids have gone through an extensive risk assessment which has shown that they are safe to the environment when used responsibly according to the label instructions."
The statement concludes by saying that the Nature paper fails to establish a causal link, and therefore "provides no substantiated evidence of the alleged indirect effects of imidacloprid on insectivorous birds."
"Indeed, we showed a negative correlation, which is already very alarming," the Dutch scientists said in response to Bayer CropScience's critique. "Showing causal links at the ecosystem scale would require landscape-scale experiments," which would be "difficult and probably very unethical."
A Third View
The Dutch scientists say neonicotinoids are negatively affecting bird populations. Bayer CropScience says neonicotinoids are safe when used correctly. Whom do we trust?
Maybe an independent group that just completed a review of over 800 scientific studies on the effects of neonicotinoids on wildlife. The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, composed of 29 multidisciplinary scientists, recently released its landmark report titled Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems.
Overall, the scientists concluded that even when neonicotinoids were used according to the guidelines on their labels and applied as intended, the chemicals' levels in the environment still frequently exceeded the lowest levels known to be dangerous for a wide range of species—and were "thus likely to have a wide range of negative biological and ecological impacts."
Not Just Bees Anymore
David Gibbons, a member of the task force and head of the RSPB Centre For Conservation Science, the largest nature-conservation charity in Europe, explained that many European countries have already restricted three types of neonicotinoids—including imidacloprid—because of the mounting evidence that they harm bees.
(As of yet, similar protections do not exist in the U.S. Though not for lack of trying—the NRDC filed a legal petition just this week asking the EPA to withdraw its approval of neonicotinoid pesticides.)
"Over the last decade, there have been a number of mass die-offs of bees in several European countries," said Gibbons.
The process of planting corn can actually dislodge the neonicotinoid coating, which tractors then kick up into the air with the dust from fields.
"These clouds of dust contain very high concentrations of neonicotinoids," says Gibbons, "and are instantly lethal to bees."
But part of the goal of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment report is to show that bees aren't the only animals affected. The task force presents evidence that earthworms, aquatic invertebrates, lizards, fish, and many other animals are suffering ill effects as a result (either direct or indirect) of systemic pesticides.
Gibbons says it's hard to say whether we've entered a second "silent spring."
"However," he adds, "[neonicotinoid] use is now so widespread—nearly 40 percent of the global insecticide market—that there are valid reasons to be worried."
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Whom do we trust? Its fustrating to see such pheudo-scientific clap-trap in national geographic... science doesn't work by picking and choosing.. That's why there is a peer-review process; to verify the work is accurate/reliable.
Here's one such criticism I found on the "task force" meta-analysis:
“The Task Force report is not new research; rather, it is a selective review of existing studies which highlighted worst-case scenarios, largely produced under laboratory conditions."
.. hardly conclusive without the bodies, and without knowing they died from neo...
What could be responsible for the overall, worldwide decline of bird species? neonicotinoids are only one class of pesticides... invasive species... wind farms... natural predators... climate change.. habitat destruction.. shall we go on?
It's extremely troubling that we as a country don't have the guts to prevent these multinational biotech companies from stealing the natural world from the next generation for the sake of their quarterly profits. When did "profit at any cost" become acceptable?
And the PR war these biotech giants are waging is straight out of the tobacco playbook -- "there are other causes," "the science isn't good," "we need Neonics and GMO to feed the world."
It's all BS, designed by
thinktanks to turn scientific conclusions into some bizarre, fake
"debate" in order to delay action, so they can squeeze that much more
profit out of their toxic Neonics and GMOs.
In nature, there is never a single smoking gun. Pesticides are an easy issue for the media to report on because they are simple.
For example, imidacloprid is very toxic to invertabrates which certain bird species feed on as their primary source of food. If the invertabrate populations are being decimated by pesticides then the birds populations are declining because of the invert pops declining.
"They are in the environment or they are not. They
are doing harm or they are not." seems to be what the media preaches.
Unfortunately, these articles paint more of a cloud of uncertainty, which is propaganda in some form or another. Pesticides are like the gun issue, It's their misuse not the product its self.
Imidacloprid is a fantastically powerful insecticide, which is one of the few systemic insecticides. It is long lasting in water and highly water soluable. It breaks down readily in light. It has very low mammalian toxicity, higher avian toxicity, very toxic to fish and invertebrates. In fact, you use imidacloprid on your dogs and cats for flee and tick protection all the time.
It is, extremely toxic to bees, being more toxic than products of 20-30 years ago.
The use of it on any plant a bees pollinate has to be highly regulated, due to its systemic nature. Use on well drained systems, and systems near water sheds needs to be highly regulated. It is currently, not - and that is the governments fault. The label of the product paints a clear picture of how it should be used and where it should be used, there is almost no enforcement at all.
It is extremely useful in saving ash trees against emerald ash borer.
It is extremely useful in saving hemlocks from hemlock woolly adelgid.
There are other products to use on orchards, on corn fields, in almond groves that are less toxic to bees.
There is a lack of integrated pest management in this country. Imidacloprid is a very powerful cure all for the ag industry. We could be using a philosophy of integrated pest management while using some permacultural techniques and developing local, non-monoculture fields and systems.
The food system is flawed in the whole because we have developed an ag system so efficient the united states is able to feed and profit from feeding the world. Bees are the keystone that keeps the ag machine moving, problem is that the system is so unnatural bees cannot survive. Can't kill all the bad insects without killing some of the good ones.
Thanks for reading,
I an now aware of the plight of the bees, but before I was - earlier this Spring I wondered aloud 'where are the chickadees?' We usually have dozens at any given moment - days can go by now ........
Since learning about the bee decline, my husband and I have decided to do our little part - and for 6 weeks now, we are newbie apiary owners!
In the US we have several man made contributing factors to our declining song bird populations:
1) Habitat destruction and especially with our industrial factory farms. But the channel islands along the gulf coast is a critical area for migrating song birds and those islands have been destroyed by developments and big oil.
2) The government subsidized huge wind farms that are basically hamburger grinders to migratory birds of all species including song birds. The tapes don't lie.....those turbines are even killing an alarming number of golden eagles....check out YoutTube.
3) Pesticides and herbicides
4) Domestic cats are natural born killers and could account for up to 40% of song bird deaths according to the National Audubon society. Like every other domesticated animal, we should be keeping our cats either in doors or in caged areas in our yards. They should not be running free and especially in the spring when birds are fledging.
5) The Dept of Agriculture and their programs to poison bird to protect our mono-culture system of raising corn, wheat, and soy. If this stupid country woke up up and put the Agi monopolies out of business and restored the family farms and a diversified farm belt, we wouldn't have to engage in massive bird poisoning programs.....government funded to boot.
Big corporate power has negatively affected every crucial institution whether it is public education or scientific research, helping to make this environmentally destructive trend feasible on a large scale (because the profit motive won't get "challenged" as Carson had said) without notable repercussions for the big polluters and destroyers. In fact, many people cheer them on, or view them as "saviors." It's the power of propaganda at work. A fitting example is the so-called "war on cancer" led by the highly lucrative cancer industry that also flourished with the re-structuring of the American Cancer Society into a marketing tool for this industry, whereas this charity continues to obfuscate the known causes of cancer, such as toxicants (read the afterword of this: http://www.supplements-and-health.com/mammogram.html ). With big corporate power come big abusive practices and big propaganda.
"Dutch scientists ... [or] Bayer ... Whom do we trust?"
Let's see, academics and non-profit researchers with little if any vested interest versus a multinational corporation that (as a part of IG Farben) used to manufacture poison gas for the Nazi death camps and stands to lose billions if their product in question is banned ...
Yeah, that's a tough call, all right.
We have also noticed that more birds are living around our home/farm/forest because we, as beekeepers, do not use chemicals or kill living things--i.e., the purple martins are more plentiful because we don't kill the insects like our neighbors do, so we enjoy their "natural abilities." Plus we have many human (me: hormone breast cancer with NO risk factors--same for other neighbors plus pancreatic, non-smoker lung, brain, liver, and skin cancers) and canine cancer cases in our area, which is right in the middle of grain farm country and chemicals are widely used.
When will the madness stop? When we're all dead?
Since I learned that neonicotinoid pesticides are being used on annual garden plants I buy each spring at box stores such as Lowe's, Home Depot & Walmart, I will not be buying them in future, unless they change this practice. So much for attempting to grow bee friendly plants in my garden. Fortunately, most of my plants are now perennials and organic. To date, this season I have seen only a handful of butterflies and 2 bees in my garden. Only 1 monarch. I use a paper lantern "hive" to deter wasps from settling nearby. I hope people are no longer buying the bee and wasp traps, which kill them. We can't afford to lose any more of these important insects. I only buy organic corn for my family- better for them, plus the birds & the bees!
This was an upsetting article- I have bought plants to help the bees/pollinators- now I realize I don't know how the plants were raised. I may be harming not helping. I am glad Home Depot/ CBS news brought this to my attention.
Forgot to add, we live next to large corn fields, grown every year now. Thought you were not supposed to plant corn in the same field year after year. They do now.
I was just speaking with our neighbors and we wondered where all the hummingbirds and yellow finches have gone. One or two, here and there, that's it.
@Philip Germann You mean there is a world of humans to feed as well. Birds do not/cannot exceed the carrying capacity of their environment.We can and have, for the last 12,000 years, subject to numerous "corrections" since then, as we degraded the local environment, or our numbers grew too large. How many humans do we need? 10, 20, 30 billion? Those starving people you mention are mostly in countries where the environment is severely degraded, and the average age may be in the 19 year-old range. Do humans have a god-given right to multiply to the point of killing this "little blue ball"? Some believe exactly that. Maybe we already have.
Politically and socially, we're having the wrong conversation. The debate is not "What new tool can we develop to raise more food for less money on less land?", but "What do we need to do to survive for the long-term?" Even fleas do not (usually) kill the dog they're riding on.
Any 12 year old farm kid with an iPhone could shoot video of the swarms of birds, bees and butterflies that thrive in the areas of most intensive neonicotinoid use.
These pesticides are killing insects. And they are killing bees. We need the bees. And now they are finding that the chemicals are also killing the birds. We also need birds. My next question... what are the chemicals doing to US??? This has been my biggest argument against chemicals being used in our fields and in our animals from the beginning. Something is causing the increase in mental health problems, autism, and other problems with our kids and society as a whole.... I'm going with the foods we eat!!!
We can't continue to ignore that were poisoning the entire Earth. Like a domino path, it will all come tumbling down.
We have to remember there is the world to feed as well. If we stop using the neonics totally, how many additional children in third world countries would starve due to higher crop prices? There are many direct, provable links with this as well. Would a 1-3% increased starvation rate be worth saving the birds we are losing now? To me, a bird population decline of 3-4% is alarming, but no reason to have a knee jerk reaction. It actually sounds manageable if it does not accelerate. There will be blowback with anything we do. It sounds like we just need to be more careful in the use of these pesticides to make sure the problem does not accelerate.
As I drive through the corn fields of Illinois and Indiana, I used to squash millions of bugs on my windshield which would become quickly coated with goo. No longer, I can drive for miles now and not squash a bug. They are not there any more. So the birds cant eat them. I don't know where they went or why. I just know my windshield stays clean in corn and soybean country now and it didn't used to.
Now that we have the proof, how do we stop these huge corporations from killing off the planet? We eat these foods too.
Not only that think of the synergies between pesticides and the various chemicals we pour on the land and which drains into the water.
So the plant itself is poisonous....and people eat these??? What are the cumulative effects of eating this stuff over years, let alone having it build up in the air, water and soil?
@Gina Johnson Worldwide Integrated Assessment report is to
show that bees aren't the only animals
affected. The task force presents evidence that earthworms,
aquatic invertebrates, lizards, fish, and many other
animals are suffering ill effects as a resu
manufacturer of imidacloprid, defends the use of
neonicotinoids. In a statement responding
@Greggory Gregory You say we use it on our pets and I believe that is most likely why we see more and more of our pets with cancerous tumors.
@José Lira grand idea for the few systems that works in, there have been a magnitude more failures than successes.
@s b I think blaming domestic cats as a major reason for the bird population decline is insane. I own 7 cats that live in and outside and I find I lose more birds around my house to them flying into windows. Maybe we should outlaw those. I would think if any cats are to blame for a massive decline, it would be the feral population which depends more on catching their food. The best way to solve that problem is by establishing a TNR program in all communities. I do agree with everything else though. Thank you for commenting.
@L H. It is more the ag use than the home market that does the harm.
I don't have any answers for that question. It is a fundamental problem any way you look at it. I agree-lower population would be better, but is there any way to control the world population outside of the unconceivable eugenics programs? Do we let children starve to death because the population is too high? Who chooses. If it was your children starving, you would not feel so sorry for the bird loss... According to some theorists, the dinosaurs exceeded their carrying capacity and pushed themselves into extinction...
@Philip Germann you've got to be a neonic salesman
@Scott Sinnock all gmo fields most likely
@Scott Sinnock - that's really sad. Despite the annoyance of cleaning your car, it's never a good sign when nature changes so drastically for the worse. If Politicians weren't so corrupt, taking money hand over fist from corporations and the farming industry who don't want to risk losing profits, we'd have a much healthier world to leave our kids...
@Ina Lippard - Honestly, grow your own fruits and vegetables without these insecticides. I just don't see being able to change politicians with the way our system is set up. Lobbying has been put in place, through bribes, so that corporations don't have to worry about "the people" affecting the way they do business. This won't change unless major changes are made to campaign funding/contributions and lobbying
@Kurt Cooper - It's only a matter of time before the human race starts suffering the same consequences. We're the smartest species on the planet, but still quite dumb. We're much more reactive than proactive!
@Zak Johnson You do realize that poison to one thing is not always poison to all things right? Like biologically something poisonous to a mosquitoes could do absolutely nothing to any mammal. Science.....
@Eric Paul @Scott Sinnock I place the blame more on us, Eric. Politicians, corporations, and farmers just reflect our desires back to us. We buy the foods grown in the fields that use the nicontinoids, some say with good arguments, because it is cheaper, and we all want to save money for that vacation we are planning..
@Jason Marquet - Jason, please consume some neonicotinoids and then get back to us in a few years! If something affects "animals", it usually affect all animals. The reason we aren't affected in a way that insects are, for partial reasons, is because the dosage is so low...and we're smart enough not to consume it! That certainly doesn't mean you put a can of wasp spray to your mouth and inhale/consume!
@Jason Marquet According to these extensive studies, Bayer's claim for imidacloprid/neonicotinoids as 'safe' for birds (and mammals?) appears to be a lie. The article states various vectors beyond the eating of affected insects that would compromise those poor and often non-citizen/unprotected human farm workers who actually tend the fields along with all of us who eat this treated produce.
Imidacloprid is also difficult to avoid for both home gardeners and pet guardians. Plants and seed for the general public are automatically treated, but still unlabelled with this poison if not organic or rarely, marked "un-treated", (so not applying pesticides prevents nothing.) Bees, ladybugs, butterflies, earthworms, spiders, hummingbirds or other delightful/dependable wildlife species are decimated,
And veterinarians recommend it as a monthly flea killing drop on our dogs, cats, (ferrets & rats?) Who knows how close pet contact, guardening or even regular small-dose eating of treated (most non-organic) produce affects us directly as a neurotoxin or indirectly through our most critical gut biomes?
@Scott Sinnock - You're definitely partially correct. I'll never understand how some people can be so shortsighted and purchase from stores like Walmart. BUT...Government isn't set up so that people dictate policy. We choose between candidates - who are indirectly chosen by big business through campaign contributions/lobbying/political influence. I GUARANTEE you right now that if there was a poll to stop the use of these chemicals, an overwhelming amount of Americans would vote yes. But we can't vote for policy...for a reason. Because Politicians/Big Business doesn't want "the people" to affect their profits.
@Elise Villemaire @Jason Marquet I've stopped putting those flea drops on my cats and their health has improved greatly. One of my siamese had developed terrible eye infections, which have since disappeared. I simultaneously stopped feeding them dry food containing wheat/ grain/ corn products, which may have also contributed to the change. They don't vomit it up as much.
@Eric Paul @Scott Sinnock I feel like the whole system has been rigged by a concerted, patient, 40-year campaign tied to corporate personhood and the PR campaign to convince the public that anything that makes money is good. Most people do believe that, but it's absolutely not true. 100 years or so ago, most state law was that the first item on a corporate charter had to be "to serve the public good." Today, after a century of chipping away at anti-trust laws and shoring up corporate personhood, it's "to make a profit for the shareholders."
Fighting this has to come from the bottom up. Any politician that sticks his neck out becomes an automatic target and we as a people have too short an attention span to back that politician up in the aftermath of whatever stand he/she takes. I'm encouraged by the new breed of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who eschew corporate money and don't think a reelection is worth selling their souls. More politicians like this and we could have some progress in congress.
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