By Daniel Raichel
While many know Chicago as the "Second City," the old stomping grounds of Michael Jordan or Al Capone, or perhaps even still as "Hog Butcher to the World," I doubt many think of it as a home for endangered wildlife.
However, as a recent Chicago Tribune article shows, that's exactly what it is for one of our very favorite endangered pollinators—the rusty patched bumble bee.
For the better part of a decade, NRDC has fought for the rusty patched bumble bee's survival, and we are now suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the fourth time—this time, to reverse a Trump-Era decision not to designate federally protected "critical habitat" for the bee.
That's why it was particularly sweet to learn that a couple of rusty patched bumble bees were spotted foraging near the Rogers Park Metra stop, not far from the Honeybear Cafe and some of my old foraging grounds growing up.
"Rogers Park Metra Community Garden" by LN is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Although the article provides a fun "work meets life" moment for me, it also underscores the importance of our lawsuit. As Abby Shafer of the Evanston Native Bee Initiative notes, one patch of native habitat can be meaningful, but what's most needed is a network of interconnected habitat so that the bee's populations can recover and once again thrive.
By refusing to designate "critical habitat" for the bee, the Fish and Wildlife Service effectively scuttled any plan for such a federally protected habitat network—breaking the law and putting this magnificent and vulnerable bee one step closer to extinction. That's why we'll keep fighting in court until we (yet again) secure the protections that the rusty patched bumble bee deserves.
Who knows, if we're successful, maybe you'll see the rusty patched bumble bee in your neighborhood too.
"The Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park" by UGArdener is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Reposted with permission from NRDC.
Americans take great pride in their lawns. A centuries-old practice adopted from Great Britain and Northern France, lawns have become a status symbol; a standard fixture of American communities.
In the United States, more than 40 million acres of land are covered in grass, making it the single largest irrigated crop in the country, requiring more labor, fuel, toxins, and equipment than industrial farming. These vast areas of monoculture (the practice of planting only a single crop) do ultimately have devastating consequences for ecosystem health.
Constituting 2% of the continental US, turf grass has a substantial environmental impact, especially in regards to lawn care: 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas (for mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides are used for lawn maintenance every year; fertilizer – containing large concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous – runs off of lawns, into storm drains, and eventually flows to waterways, causing algal blooms and contaminating drinking water; herbicides and pesticides kill unwanted – yet necessary – plants and insects, causing harm to humans and wildlife alike.
Moreover, the turf grass used for most lawns in the United States isn't native to North America and doesn't support the rich, diverse life needed for a healthy ecosystem. Blanketing an area with exclusively non-native grass eliminates the habitats of native plants and insects, decimating the biodiversity of the area and creating far-reaching consequences for food chains.
While boasting a bright green, perfectly mowed, immaculate lawn has become the norm, turning your yard into a native ecological refuge – sometimes called "naturescaping" – with these eco-friendly alternatives can do wonders for the biodiversity and overall health of your backyard ecosystem.
1. Native Plants and Flowers
Lake Lou / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
The ryegrass and Kentucky Bluegrass that make up most American lawns aren't native to the US; between 5,000 and 385,000 acres of native ecosystems are displaced by lawns every day, crowding out regional flowers, plants, and grasses across the country. Without these native plants, monoculture lawns are essentially wastelands for birds and pollinators – like bees, whose populations have been declining rapidly around the world – eliminating the flowers they feed on and locations for nesting.
Choosing to instead foster a yard of native flowers and plants creates a ripple affect in regional food chains: plants provide food for the bugs and bees that depend on it, which in turn provide food for mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, restoring the biodiversity that has been lost. Creating a deliberate landscaping plan to replace grass with low-maintenance plants will attract wildlife and bring some beauty to your backyard.
In urban areas, clover, dandelion, and other lawn "weeds" have been identified as some of the most important food sources for bees, and flowers like columbine, monarda, asters, and holly provide a friendly habitat for birds. Of course, native plants vary by region, so be sure to check with your state's Native Plant Society to find the right species for your eco-haven.
2. Grass Alternatives
If you love to look out the window at your luscious patch of green, you don't have to give it up entirely.
Groundcover plants provide an alternative to turf, but eliminate the need for mowing and still deliver that traditional verdant green. Clover, creeping jenny, barberry cotoneaster, Corsican mint, and creeping herbs like thyme and oregano require very little maintenance; clover especially needs little attention once it's established, suppresses weeds, and has a deep root system that aerates the soil.
Flowering perennial groundcover species – like sweet woodruff, liriope, and horned violets – bring a dash of color to your yard and often do well in shaded areas, as do many kinds of moss. Species of native ornamental grass thrive in different ranges of light, moisture, and soil, giving you plenty of options for your space.
Growing a natural lawn also eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, improves soil quality, and prevents erosion – all while creating a native habitat for the birds and the bees.
3. Befriend the Bugs
The prevailing rhetoric of traditional yard maintenance is to eliminate as many humming, buzzing, and crawling things as possible, which drives away the beneficial bugs that foster healthy, thriving ecosystems such as ladybugs, spiders, and ground beetles. While caterpillars and Japanese beetles might not be a welcome sight, not all bugs are a bad sign!
During their lifetime, ladybugs may eat as many as 5,000 aphids – a common backyard enemy. Ground beetles too feed on less-desirable bugs like caterpillars, slugs, weevils, and nematodes. To encourage such insects to make a home in your yard, you can purchase many of them online or at garden stores to jumpstart the process. But, once you begin to populate your yard with native plants and bid the turf adieu, the insects should start crawling, flying, and buzzing back.
Learn what beneficial bugs live in your area so you can identify the signs of a healthy, bio-diverse lawn.
4. Ditch the Fertilizer …
While typical fertilizers ramp up the productivity of farms and might keep our backyards emerald green, they also emit harmful greenhouse gases – accounting for 1.5% of global emissions – and fertilized lawns are no exception.
According to Dr. Chuanhui Gu of Appalachian State University, a standard lawn emits up to 6 times more CO2 than what can be absorbed during photosynthesis through mowing, irrigating, and fertilizing, including the production and transportation of the fertilizer.
Instead of synthetic fertilizers, try adding organic nutrients to your eco-friendly lawn by spreading compost. "Topdressing" your yard with compost supplies nutrients and keeps the soil healthy without depleting it, allowing you to maintain a healthy ecosystem for the diverse plant and animal life thriving in your eco-oasis.
5. … and the Pesticides
Henner Zeller / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Scientists have directly linked pesticides to the demise of frog, bat, and bee populations, throwing delicately balanced ecosystems and food chains into disorder. Ninety percent of flowering plants depend on bees and other pollinators to survive – species that have seen alarming decreases in population across the globe (also referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder).
Luckily, saving the bees can start in your own backyard: lawn-owners can make a tangible difference by cutting pesticides from their lawn-care regimen. Allowing native plants and weeds to grow freely and bugs to crawl amongst them will save the lives of your local bees, providing them a sanctuary to live, eat, and thrive in.
6. No-Mow Zones
Mile-for-mile, gas-powered lawn mowers produce about 11 times more pollution than a new car, estimates the EPA – so, running a single gas-powered mower for an hour is nearly equivalent in emissions to a 100-mile car trip.
Mowing lawns is also extremely time-consuming, accounting for more than three million collective hours each year for Americans, who, on average, mow their lawns 22 times per year. Think of the time saved by going no-mow!
The No-Mow Movement encourages lawn-owners to leave native grasses to their own devices, growing tall and wild to eliminate the environmental cost of watering and mowing, and allowing a more natural landscape to take over unimpeded. If you've decided on an alternative to grass that requires no mowing – like clover or moss – you're already there.
Do keep an eye out for invasive weeds in your no-mow lawn that might crowd out native plants and grasses.
Before embarking on your eco-oasis adventure, you'll need to set about "killing" your lawn – that is, doing away with existing turf grass to make way for your native plants and no-mow zones.
Covering the lawn with a sheet of black plastic will trap heat and kill the turf underneath; or, adopt the no-till method of layering newspaper over a section of grass and covering it with a few inches of soil. The newspaper will decay over time and provide a fresh start for your new lawn.
While recovering global biodiversity may seem like a daunting goal, cutting down your environmental impact and saving native ecosystems can all begin in your own yard!
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Along with her most recent position at Hunger Free America, she has interned with the Sierra Club in Washington, DC., Saratoga Living Magazine, and Philadelphia's NPR Member Station, WHYY.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Brian Lovett
As winter phases into spring across the U.S., gardeners are laying in supplies and making plans. Meanwhile, as the weather warms, common garden insects such as bees, beetles and butterflies will emerge from underground burrows or nests within or on plants.
Most gardeners know how beneficial insects can be for their plots. Flies pollinate flowers. Predatory bugs, such as the spined shoulder bug, eat pest insects that otherwise would tuck into garden plants.
As a scientist whose research involves insects and as a gardener, I know that many beneficial insect species are declining and need humans' help. If you're a gardener looking for a new challenge this year, consider revamping all or part of your yard to support beneficial insects.
Lawns Are Insect Food Deserts
Some gardeners choose native plants to attract and support helpful insects. Often, however, those native plants are surrounded by vast expanses of lawn.
The vast majority of insect species find blades of grass as unappetizing as we do. Yet, lawns sprawl out across many public and private spaces. NASA estimated in 2005 that lawns covered at least 50,000 square miles (128,000 square kilometers) of the U.S. – about the size of the entire state of Mississippi.
A well-manicured lawn is a sure sign that humanity has imposed its will on nature. Lawns provide an accessible and familiar landscape, but they come at a cost for our six-legged neighbors. Grasses grown as turf provide very few places for insects to safely tuck themselves away, because homeowners and groundskeepers cut them short – before they send up flowering spikes – and apply fertilizers and pesticides to keep them green.
Entomologists have a recommendation: Dig up some fraction of your lawn and convert it into a meadow by replacing grass with native wildflowers. Wildflowers provide pollen and nectar that feed and attract a variety of insects like ants, native bees and butterflies. Just as you may have a favorite local restaurant, insects that live around you have a taste for the flowers that are native to their areas.
Have you thought about this? https://t.co/nz31BXYKKI— David Steen, Ph.D. (@David Steen, Ph.D.)1562630208.0
This bold choice will not just benefit insects. Healthier insects support local birds, and meadows require fewer chemical inputs and less mowing than lawns. The amount of attention lawns demand from us, even if we outsource the work to a landscaping company, is a sign of their precarity.
A meadow is a wilder, more resilient option. Resilient ecosystems are better able to respond to and recover from disturbances.
Entomologist Ryan Gott, integrated pest management and quality control specialist at Maitri Genetics in Pittsburgh, describes lawns and meadows as two opposite ends of a resiliency spectrum. "As far as basic ecological functions go, a lawn does not have many. A lawn mainly extracts nutrition and water, usually receiving outside inputs of fertilizer and irrigation to stay alive, and returns very little to the system," he told me.
Native flowers, by definition, will grow well in your climate, although some areas will have more choices than others and growing seasons vary. Native plants also provide a palette of colors and variety that lawns sorely lack. By planting them as a meadow, with many different flowers emerging throughout the growing season, you can provide for a diverse assortment of local insects. And mowing and fertilizing less will leave you more time to appreciate wildlife of all sizes.
There are many different types of meadows, and every wildflower species has different preferences for soil type and conditions. Meadows thrive in full sunlight, which is also where lawns typically do well.
Making Insects Feel at Home
Not every yard can support a meadow, but there are other ways to be a better, more considerate neighbor to insects. If you have a shady yard, consider modeling your garden after natural landscapes like woodlands that are shady and support insects.
What's important in landscaping with insects in mind, or "entoscaping," is considering insects early and often when you visit the garden store. With a few pots or window boxes, even a balcony can be converted into a cozy insect oasis.
If you're gardenless, you can still support insect health. Try replacing white outdoor lights, which interfere with many insects' feeding and breeding patterns. White lights also lure insects into swarms, where they are vulnerable to predators. Yellow bulbs or warm-hued LEDs don't have these effects.
Another easy project is using scrap wood and packing materials to create simple "hotels" for bees or ladybugs, making sure to carefully sanitize them between seasons. Easiest of all, provide water for insects to drink – they're adorable to watch as they sip. Replace standing water at least weekly to prevent mosquitoes from developing.
A Refuge in Every Yard
Many resources across the U.S. offer advice on converting your lawn or making your yard more insect-friendly.
The Xerces Society for Insect Conservation publishes a guide to establishing meadows to sustain insects. Local university extension offices post tips on growing meadows with specific instructions and resources for their areas. Gardening stores often have experience and carry selections of local plants.
You may find established communities of enthusiasts for local plants and seeds, or your journey could be the start of such a group. Part of the fun of gardening is learning what plants need to be healthy, and a new endeavor like entoscaping will provide fresh challenges.
In my view, humans all too often see ourselves as separate from nature, which leads us to relegate biodiversity to designated parks. In fact, however, we are an important part of the natural world, and we need insects just as much as they need us. As ecologist Douglas Tallamy argues in his book, Nature's Best Hope, the best way to protect biodiversity is for people to plant native plants and promote conservation in every yard.
Brian Lovett is a postdoctoral researcher in mycology at West Virginia University.
Disclosure statement: Brian Lovett does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
By John Cooley and Chris Simon
A big event in the insect world is approaching. Starting sometime in April or May, depending on latitude, one of the largest broods of 17-year cicadas will emerge from underground in a dozen states, from New York west to Illinois and south into northern Georgia. This group is known as Brood X, as in the Roman numeral for 10.
For about four weeks, wooded and suburban areas will ring with cicadas' whistling and buzzing mating calls. After mating, each female will lay hundreds of eggs in pencil-sized tree branches.
Then the adult cicadas will die. Once the eggs hatch, new cicada nymphs fall from the trees and burrow back underground, starting the cycle again.
There are perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 species of cicadas around the world, but the 13- and 17-year periodical cicadas of the eastern U.S. appear to be unique in combining long juvenile development times with synchronized, mass adult emergences.
These events raise many questions for entomologists and the public alike. What do cicadas do underground for 13 or 17 years? What do they eat? Why are their life cycles so long? Why are they synchronized? And is climate change affecting this wonder of the insect world?
We study periodical cicadas to understand questions about biodiversity, biogeography, behavior and ecology – the evolution, natural history and geographic distribution of life. We've learned many surprising things about these insects: For example, they can travel through time by changing their life cycles in four-year increments. It's no accident that the scientific name for periodical 13- and 17-year cicadas is Magicicada, shortened from "magic cicada."
As species, periodical cicadas are older than the forests that they inhabit. Molecular analysis has shown that about 4 million years ago, the ancestor of the current Magicicada species split into two lineages. Some 1.5 million years later, one of those lineages split again. The resulting three lineages are the basis of the modern periodical cicada species groups, Decim, Cassini and Decula.
Early American colonists first encountered periodical cicadas in Massachusetts. The sudden appearance of so many insects reminded them of biblical plagues of locusts, which are a type of grasshopper. That's how the name "locust" became incorrectly associated with cicadas in North America.
During the 19th century, notable entomologists such as Benjamin Walsh, C.V. Riley and Charles Marlatt worked out the astonishing biology of periodical cicadas. They established that unlike locusts or other grasshoppers, cicadas don't chew leaves, decimate crops or fly in swarms.
Instead, these insects spend most of their lives out of sight, growing underground and feeding on plant roots as they pass through five juvenile stages. Their synchronized emergences are predictable, occurring on a clockwork schedule of 17 years in the North and 13 years in the South and Mississippi Valley. There are multiple, regional year classes, known as broods.
The five stages of the periodical cicada underground juveniles. Between each stage the juvenile cicada molts so that it can become larger. Actual size of the fifth-stage nymph is 0.83 inches. Chris Simon / CC BY-ND
Safety in Numbers
The key feature of Magicicada biology is that these insects emerge in huge numbers. This increases their chances of accomplishing their key mission aboveground: finding mates.
Dense emergences also provide what scientists call a predator-satiation defense. Any predator that feeds on cicadas, whether it's a fox, squirrel, bat or bird, will eat its fill long before it consumes all of the insects in the area, leaving many survivors behind.
While periodical cicadas largely come out on schedule every 17 or 13 years, often a small group emerges four years early or late. Early-emerging cicadas may be faster-growing individuals who had access to abundant food, and the laggards may be individuals that subsisted with less.
If growing conditions change over time, having the ability to make this kind of life cycle switch and come out either four years early in favorable times or four years late in more difficult times becomes important. If a sudden warm or cold phase causes a large number of cicadas to make a one-time mistake and come out off-schedule by four years, the insects can emerge in sufficient numbers to satiate predators and shift to a new schedule.
Census Time for Brood X
As glaciers retreated from what is now the U.S. some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, periodical cicadas filled eastern forests. Temporary life cycle switching has formed a complex mosaic of broods.
Today there are 12 broods of 17-year periodical cicadas in northeastern deciduous forests, where trees drop leaves in winter. These groups are numbered sequentially and fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. In the Southeast and the Mississippi Valley there are three broods of 13-year cicadas.
Because periodical cicadas are sensitive to climate, the patterns of their broods and species reflect climatic shifts. For example, genetic and other data from our work indicate that the 13-year species Magicicada neotredecim, which is found in the upper Mississippi Valley, formed shortly after the last glaciation. As the environment warmed, 17-year cicadas in the area emerged successively, generation after generation, after 13 years underground until they were permanently shifted to a 13-year cycle.
A member of Brood X laying eggs in 2004. Chris Simon / CC BY-ND
But it's not clear whether cicadas can continue to evolve as quickly as humans alter their environment. Although periodical cicadas prefer forest edges and thrive in suburban areas, they cannot survive deforestation or reproduce in areas without trees.
Indeed, some broods have already become extinct. In the late 19th century, one brood (XXI) disappeared from north Florida and Georgia. Another (XI) has been extinct in northeast Connecticut since around 1954, and a third (VII) in upstate New York has shrunk from eight counties to one since mapping first began in the mid-1800s.
Climate change could also have far-reaching effects. As the U.S. climate warms, longer growing seasons may provide a larger food supply. This may eventually change more 17-year cicadas into 13-year cicadas, just as past warming altered Magicicada neotredecim. Large-scale early emergences occurred in 2017 in Cincinnati and the Baltimore-Washington metro area, and in 1969, 2003 and 2020 in the Chicago metro area – potential harbingers of this kind of change.
Researchers need detailed high-quality information to track cicada distributions over time. Citizen scientists play a key role in this effort because periodical cicada populations are so large and their adult emergences only last a few weeks.
Volunteers who want to help document Brood X's emergence this spring can download the Cicada Safari mobile phone app, provide snapshots and follow our research in real time online at www.cicadas.uconn.edu. Don't miss out – the next opportunity won't come until Broods XIII and XIX emerge in 2024.
John Cooley is an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut.
Chris Simon is a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut.
Disclosure statement: John Cooley has received funding from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic. Chris Simon receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Kendra Klein
Biden's election has boosted hopes that scientific integrity will be restored in the federal government. To make good on that promise, the administration will need to take action to safeguard against the risks of an entirely new type of pesticide, one developed by genetic engineers rather than chemists.
These pesticides will broadcast "gene silencing" agents across our farm fields — resulting in an open-air genetic engineering experiment. Among the concerns that scientists have raised are threats to bees and other beneficial insects essential to food production. Others have called out potential impacts on human health, including for some of our most essential frontline workers — farmworkers — and rural communities.
Farmers across the U.S. could soon fill their pesticide spray tanks with a substance known as interfering RNA (RNAi). (RNA is a molecule similar to DNA.) Insects that are exposed to it — either by eating crops sprayed with the substance or by landing on a crop and absorbing it through their bodies — would be genetically modified right there in the field. The pesticide would trigger a process inside the insects' cells to switch off or "silence" genes that are essential for survival — like those needed to make new, healthy cells — thus killing them.
At least one product has already been submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval. But unless Biden's administration takes action, companies will be able to commercialize these new RNAi pesticides without submitting meaningful health or environmental risk assessments.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide rules were written fifty years ago, long before regulators could imagine a class of pesticides that could genetically modify living organisms. Perhaps most concerning is that once gene-silencing agents are released into the environment, there's no clean-up process when things go awry. Evidence shows that RNAi-related genetic modifications could be passed on for up to 80 generations in some cases.
What could go wrong? Quite a bit, according to scientific research summarized in a report from Friends of the Earth.
RNAi and the "Insect Apocalypse"
There is little reason to believe that this novel technology would be able to target only the "bad" insects and not the plethora of insects that are vital to farming, like pollinators. Bayer and other companies developing RNAi pesticides assert that they can target specific insects. But the genetic story of an ecosystem is one of interconnection — independent researchers warn that thousands of insect species have genetic sequences that are matching or similar enough that they could be unintentionally modified in a way that results in their death.
A 2017 study indicating that honeybees could be harmed by RNAi pesticides raises a red flag since we rely on pollinators for one in three bites of food we eat. Insects form the basis of the food webs that sustain all life on the planet. We are already in the midst of what scientists call an "insect apocalypse" — forty percent of insect species face extinction in coming decades. This is a loss so severe that it could cause a "catastrophic collapse of nature's ecosystems" according to leading researchers.
It's not just insects that may be harmed. While there are gaping holes in the research about potential human health impacts, what we do know raises concerns. Research indicates that naturally occurring RNAi that we consume in our food could regulate genes in our bodies. This suggests that synthetic RNAi could affect our gene expression, causing unforeseen problems. And medical research investigating therapeutic uses of RNAi has been hampered because some participants in clinical trials have experienced adverse immune reactions in their bodies.
Entrenching a Failed Paradigm
The pesticide industry is pitching RNAi pesticides as a solution to a problem the industry itself created: weed and pest resistance. As Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring, her groundbreaking book about pesticides in the 1960s, our "relentless war" on insect life will inevitably fail because nature "fights back." Indeed, over 540 species of insects and over 360 types of weeds have evolved to resist the deadly effects of commonly used pesticides. Despite drastic and costly increases in pesticide use, some analyses show that farmers are losing more of their crops to pests today than they did in the 1940s.
It is foolish to continue down this same path and expect a different outcome. Research already shows the potential for pests to develop resistance to RNAi pesticides.
But pesticide giants like Bayer and Syngenta need new products to sell. A significant portion of their income is tied to pesticides that pose serious hazards to health and the environment. And as the scientific evidence mounts, the industry is facing increasing regulatory, legal, and market pressures.
Not only could RNAi pesticides provide a lucrative new suite of products, companies appear to be using them to extend their ownership over nature in an unprecedented way. Manufacturers are filing patents that claim property rights to the organisms exposed to RNAi pesticides as well as to their progeny.
Farming With Nature — a True Solution
The science shows clearly that pesticide-intensive agriculture is a disastrous dead end. Decades of data point to the same conclusion: we must rapidly shift to ecological farming methods in order to continue to produce food for generations to come.
Ecological farming offers a true solution to pest management with additional benefits. Practices like cover cropping, composting, and rotating crops build healthy soils that strengthen plants' defenses against pests and fungi while disrupting pest cycles and fostering biodiversity. These same methods, which underpin the success of organic farming, are also the lynchpins of regenerative agriculture, the idea that farmland can serve as a carbon sink.
Follow the Science
Biden has already signaled that he is likely to shy away from making the bold changes we need by appointing Tom Vilsack as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
But as he rebuilds the scientific backbone of the federal government, advocates hope that he will take steps to update our decades-old pesticide regulations, such as those outlined in this recently introduced bill. In addition, specific criteria need to be added to ensure a science-based approach to regulating RNAi pesticides. Risk assessments of this novel technology should include genome analyses of beneficial organisms in the regions where they will be sprayed to see if bees and other critical species could be harmed, assessments of the hereditary impacts across generations of organisms, evaluations of how long the pesticides will remain active in ecosystems, and rigorous toxicity analysis to understand potential impacts on human health.
If Biden's EPA does not take these measures, we will soon embark on an open-air genetic experiment, the consequences of which may be felt for generations to come.
Reposted with permission from Food Tank.
A new study published in Science on Thursday looked at three different data sets that cover the last 40 years of butterfly populations across more than 70 locations in the Western U.S. They found that butterfly populations had fallen by 1.6 percent per year, and that this was linked to warmer weather during the fall.
"That so many of our butterflies are declining is very alarming," Dr. Tara Cornelisse, an entomologist and senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in response to the findings. "These declines are a wake-up call that we need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases to save these beautiful and beloved butterflies, as well as our very way of life."
In recent years, scientists have raised the alarm about a worldwide decline in insects. A study published last spring found that the number of land-based insects was falling by about nine percent per decade. However, it has been difficult to tease out the causes of this decline, since factors like land-use change, pesticide use and climate shifts may all contribute, Gizmodo's Earther pointed out.
To investigate the role of climate change, the researchers chose to focus on the Western U.S. because it has seen general warming and drying trends covering a wide variety of ecosystems and land uses. They looked at 450 species in 11 states, from Washington to California to New Mexico to Montana, and compared population data with temperature trends.
They found that butterfly populations actually increased with summer temperatures, probably because the warmth meant more nectar and larval bugs as food for butterflies and caterpillars. However, the warmer autumns caused their populations to fall again, likely because plants cannot survive the extended warmth and the population of predators increases. Because the declines occurred in a variety of ecosystems, including protected areas that are less impacted by pesticides, the researchers thought climate change was to blame.
"Out there, removed from those factors, we see a shifting climate as the main driver of declining butterfly numbers," University of Texas in Reno biologist and lead study author Matthew Forister told Earther in an email.
University of Connecticut ecologist David Wagner, who was not involved with the study, said it was notable because it included protected areas.
"[T]his is one of the first global cases of declines occurring in wildlands, away from densely populated human-dominated landscapes, and the rate of 1.6 percent is calamitous," he told The Washington Post.
Examples of species in decline include the iconic monarch butterfly, the common cabbage white butterfly and the vulnerable Edith's checkerspot. Forister told The Washington Post that both widespread and rare species were impacted.
The findings have important implications for conservation, because they show that simply protecting one habitat is not sufficient in the context of climate change.
"We need a multi-prong approach to conserve insects. This new study adds to the evidence that in addition to habitat protections and pesticide reform, that approach must include swift and bold climate change policy," CBD's Cornelisse said.
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At first glance, you wouldn't think avocados and almonds could harm bees; but a closer look at how these popular crops are produced reveals their potentially detrimental effect on pollinators.
Turns out, bee labor is required to produce most avocados and almonds in the U.S. Honeybees pollinate most fruits and vegetables in the country, The Washington Post reported. With native bee populations in sharp decline, there aren't enough of them to complete the job naturally or efficiently, The Post added.
Enter migratory beekeeping. Farmers truck beehives full of European honeybees across the country and into their fields so that the insects can pollinate crops during important fertile periods, The Post reported. Without this practice, farmers would lose about one-third of their crops, including broccoli, blueberries, cherries, apples, melons and lettuce, according to The Post.
The practice is so widespread that Tracy Reiman, a representative for PETA, said, "Average shoppers can't avoid produce that involves migratory beekeeping, any more than they can avoid driving on asphalt," Vegan Life reported.
In 2013, Scientific American estimated that California's booming almond industry used 31 to 80 billion migrant honeybees a year in order to achieve maximum pollination during almond trees' two-week bloom. California produces up to 80 percent of all the world's almonds, Scientific American noted, and could not achieve such scale without migratory beekeeping.
Migratory beekeeping involves trucking millions of bees across the U.S. to pollinate different crops, including avocados and almonds. Timothy Paule II / Pexels / CC0
According to From the Grapevine, American avocados also fully depend on bees' pollination to produce fruit, so farmers have turned to migratory beekeeping as well to fill the void left by wild populations.
U.S. farmers have become reliant upon the practice, but migratory beekeeping has been called exploitative and harmful to bees. CNN reported that commercial beekeeping may injure or kill bees and that transporting them to pollinate crops appears to negatively affect their health and lifespan. Because the honeybees are forced to gather pollen and nectar from a single, monoculture crop — the one they've been brought in to pollinate — they are deprived of their normal diet, which is more diverse and nourishing as it's comprised of a variety of pollens and nectars, Scientific American reported.
Scientific American added how getting shuttled from crop to crop and field to field across the country boomerangs the bees between feast and famine, especially once the blooms they were brought in to fertilize end.
Plus, the artificial mass influx of bees guarantees spreading viruses, mites and fungi between the insects as they collide in midair and crawl over each other in their hives, Scientific American reported. According to CNN, some researchers argue that this explains why so many bees die each winter, and even why entire hives suddenly die off in a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.
Adding pesticides to the picture, bees don't stand a chance. Many countries still use neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics), which are believed to kill bees. In Jan. 2021, the U.K. faced backlash after approving the emergency use of the toxin on sugar beets, despite pledging not to increase its usage in the wake of Brexit. Although restricted, this family of pesticides is still the most widely used in the U.S., and scientists warn that neonics' continued prevalence could be catastrophic for food supplies, honeybee populations and mass die-offs of native species. Neonics are a primary cause behind the massive honeybee and native bee losses each year, researchers and environmentalists argue.
In Columbia, mass bee deaths are being blamed directly on avocado farms, Phys.org reported. Avocado exports from Columbia skyrocketed from 1.7 tons in 2014 to 44.5 tons in 2019, and in 2021, Colombia became Europe's largest avocado supplier, Phys.org added. This boom has resulted in the increased use of neonic insecticide fipronil. Banned in Europe and restricted in the U.S. and China, fipronil is still used in Colombia to grow avocados and citrus for export. This has been bad for neighboring bees, which become contaminated as they buzz through pesticide-treated plantations looking for food.
"They bring this poison to the hive and kill everyone else," Abdon Salazar, a Columbian beekeeper, lamented to Phys.org after losing 800 hives and 80 million bees in the last two years.
Avocado and almond crops depend on bees for proper pollination. FRANK MERIÑO / Pexels / CC0
Salazar and other Columbian beekeepers described "scooping up piles of dead bees" year after year since the avocado and citrus booms began, according to Phys.org. Many have opted to salvage what partial colonies survive and move away from agricultural areas.
The future of pollinators and the crops they help create is uncertain. According to the United Nations, nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction, Phys.org reported. Their decline already has cascading consequences for the economy and beyond. Roughly 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops around the world depend on bees and other pollinators for free fertilization services worth billions of dollars, Phys.org noted. Losing wild and native bees could trigger food security issues.
Salazar, the beekeeper, warned Phys.org, "The bee is a bioindicator. If bees are dying, what other insects beneficial to the environment... are dying?"
Tiny Cacao Flowers and Fickle Midges Are Part of a Pollination Puzzle That Limits Chocolate Production
By DeWayne Shoemaker
It's almost impossible to imagine a world without chocolate. Yet cacao trees, which are the source of chocolate, are vulnerable.
I am a passionate chocolate lover and an entomologist who studies cacao pollination. The crop's sustainability currently appears to depend on several species of tiny fly pollinators, who are frankly struggling to get the job done.
Thousands of Flowers
Chocolate is derived from the seeds of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao L., which literally means "food of the gods." The plant originated in the Western Amazon region of South America and has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years in many parts of Central and South America. Today it's grown in equatorial regions around the world, including western Africa and several tropical regions in Asia.
A mature cacao tree can produce many thousands of flowers each year. These flowers are tiny, only a half inch or so in diameter (1-2 cm). The flowers typically grow in clusters directly from the trunk of the tree or off large branches.
Each flower requires pollination to successfully produce a nearly football-sized fruit – a pod containing 30-60 seeds, which can be processed to make chocolate.
It sounds straightforward but, in fact, successful cacao pollination is problematic in many regions. Only around 10% to 20% of the flowers produced by a cacao tree are successfully pollinated. The rest, up to 90%, never receive pollen – or do not receive enough pollen to create fruits.
Scientists don't fully understand cacao pollination, which is surprising given that over 50 million people worldwide currently depend on chocolate for their livelihood.
A Big Job for a Tiny Fly
The insects responsible for pollinating cacao's tiny flowers are, themselves, also tiny, in order to access the flower's reproductive structures. Biting midges from the Ceratopogonidae family and gall midges from the Cecidomyiidae family are among the most important known cacao pollinators worldwide.
The majority of cacao trees are what are known as self-incompatible, meaning they cannot pollinate themselves. Successful pollinators must pick up pollen from the male parts of a flower of one tree and deposit it on the female parts of a flower on another tree.
Cacao flowers are also short-lived, typically receptive to pollen for only one or two days. Flowers that do not receive ample pollen die and fall within 36 hours of opening.
Evidence suggests improving midge habitat can increase fruit yield. So, in some cacao-growing areas, current farming practices include developing and maintaining suitable ground habitat within and near cacao orchards in an effort to increase the number of midges capable of pollen transmission.
The success of artificial or hand pollination, which can more than double yields, shows cacao trees are capable of producing many more pods than they currently do.
It's hard not to wonder: Why aren't midges doing a better job of pollinating cacao flowers? Scientists think part of the answer might be that midges don't solely depend upon cacao flowers for their life cycle. Because they can get sugar from other plant sources, they are likely passive rather than active pollinators of cacao. Scientists also wonder if they are up to the task of flying the significant distances between wild trees.
All of which begs the question: Are there insects better designed for the job? And, if so, where did they go?
Most studies linking midges to cacao pollination were conducted in orchards, while the biology of wild cacao pollination is almost completely unstudied.
One exception is a study that looked at both cultivated and wild cacao in Bolivia. It found that midges represented only 2% of all insect visitors to wild trees. Other flies and tiny wasps were more common there.
These results are intriguing and raise the possibility that one or more unknown insects are the primary pollinators of cacao in the wild. Only additional study of wild cacao may reveal if this is the case. Such information could have far-reaching implications for the chocolate industry.
DeWayne Shoemaker is a professor and the department head of entomology and plant pathology at the University of Tennessee.
Disclosure statement: DeWayne Shoemaker works for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
If you've ever had a hard time thinking when a noisy truck rattles by, you're not alone.
A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B Wednesday found that traffic noises can impair the ability of songbirds to learn. In some cases, birds took twice as long to figure out new skills when listening to road sounds.
"While our expectation was that noise would reduce cognitive performance, I was a bit surprised by the extent of the effect we observed," study coauthor and Pacific University associate professor Christopher Templeton told i. "The degree to which simply hearing cars drive by impacted cognitive performance was really striking."
A growing body of research shows that noise pollution can have a major impact on non-human animals, BBC News reported. A study published in September 2020 found that the relative quiet of lockdown enabled male white-crowned sparrows in San Francisco to sing a higher quality song that was more attractive to females. Under the sea, shipping noises have been shown to stop humpback whales from singing. However, Wednesday's study was the first to show how noise pollution harms cognitive ability in animals, its authors told AFP.
To achieve their results, the researchers gave zebra finches a series of tasks that mimic the process of searching for food, BBC News explained. These included finding food beneath flipping lids designed to resemble leaves or figuring out how to access food in a cylinder. The researchers had the birds attempt the tasks without noise and also while a recording of traffic sounds played in the background. (The level of noise resembled road noise in a semi-rural area, AFP explained.)
They found that the background noise had a big impact on the birds' ability to complete the tasks.
"In some cases, we observed that it took animals more than twice as long to learn new skills when they heard road traffic played at natural sounds levels," Templeton told i. "For example, learning to remember the location of a hidden food reward took control birds about nine trials, but those exposed to traffic noise took on average 18 trials to learn the same task."
The birds' performance was also impaired on tasks that required them to control impulses, distinguish different colors and learn from each other. The only ability that was not impacted was their ability to link a color to a food reward.
"This has significant implications for how well they can get along in life," Templeton told AFP.
The zebra finch study was not the only research published this week that highlighted the dangers of road noise for wildlife. Another study published in Behavioral Ecology found that traffic noise impacted the mating success of the two-spotted cricket. Male crickets in this species sing by rubbing their wings together, and female crickets choose a mate based on the quality of their song. The researchers found that traffic and white noise lowered the crickets' mating success rate from 90 to 70 percent.
"Mate choice decisions can have strong implications on the success and viability of offspring," study lead author and University of Cambridge zoologist Adam Bent told AFP. "This could disrupt the evolution of this species."
Bent said there was not much research on the impact of noise on insects. His study adds more evidence that the sounds we make cause disruption across the animal kingdom.
"It's quite sad," Templeton told BBC News. "It's getting really, really difficult to find totally quiet environments not touched by human noise."
However, he said there were solutions, especially to the problem of traffic sounds.
"But we can change road surfaces, think about redesigning a vehicle's tyres. I think there's great scope for trying to reduce noise – we just have to be clever with our engineering," he said.
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By Tara Lohan
Fall used to be the time when millions of monarch butterflies in North America would journey upwards of 2,000 miles to warmer winter habitat.
But these days the iconic butterfly's numbers are dwindling. The western migratory population is down 97% since the 1980s — a survey this month found fewer than 2,000 — and the eastern population has slipped 80% in just the past 15 years.
Because of these grim numbers the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled in December that monarchs deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act, but it would still be several years before the butterflies were listed as threatened or endangered.
It's time the species may not have.
Halting the precipitous decline of North American monarch populations hinges, in large part, on milkweed. It's the sole plant the caterpillars eat and where monarchs lay their eggs. It's also quickly disappearing with increasing urbanization and pesticide use.
Since monarchs can't survive without milkweed, conservation efforts have focused on planting more milkweed. But it's not as simple as it sounds.
"We've learned a good bit in the past two or three years about how to create these types of habitats, but there's not a whole lot of evidence guiding the way we create the plantings," says Adam Dale, an assistant professor in entomology at the University of Florida. "For example, the diversity of plants in a garden, the specific plants that are used and their arrangement — all of those things matter for how the butterflies are able to locate the hosts and move from one to the next."
In a new study published in the journal Insects, Dale and his colleagues tried to identify whether more diversity of wildflowers in milkweed gardens would be a boon for the beleaguered butterflies or whether plots should contain only milkweed plants.
A monarch butterfly caterpillar feeds on common milkweed on Poplar Island in Maryland. Photo: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program, (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Biological diversity in ecosystems is usually a good thing, but a large body of research has shown that more diverse habitat may not be good for species like monarchs that are so specialized in what they eat.
"There's a potential for actually reducing monarch success by increasing the diversity of plants," in these conservation gardens, says Dale.
One reason is that a more varied garden can make it harder for the insects to find their host plants if they're obscured visually or chemically. A recent study from researchers at the University of Kentucky found that monarchs did better when milkweed was planted on the perimeter of gardens.
Another reason has to do with the "enemies hypothesis," where greater plant diversity means more natural enemies for specialist herbivores like monarchs. Increase the plant diversity and increase the chance of larvae being eaten.
That's why, Dale says, they were surprised by some of their findings.
In the study, areas where they planted a mix of native swamp milkweed and other wildflowers saw an increase in monarch eggs compared to areas planted with just milkweed. And even though there was an increase in the number of predatory insects, as suspected, it didn't have an effect on the number of monarch larvae that survived.
"So what we were concerned about didn't come through," he says.
While the study was done in Florida, Dale says in general the findings should be applicable to monarch populations in other places.
"Our main goal is to try to create conservation habitat in urban areas where we're replacing natural habitat with human habitat," he says. "So ultimately we're trying to figure out ways to integrate these types of gardens into our yards and green spaces, and just try to make them as good as they can be."
With monarchs teetering on the edge of extinction, Dale hopes applying what they've learned from research like this can help make conservation efforts more successful.
"I hope that people who are interested in conserving monarchs and other insects will see this because I think it provides a little more evidence that helps inform how people create these types of gardens," Dale says. "Whether that's a homeowner, a green-space land manager in an urban area, a golf course superintendent looking to create conservation habitat or anyone who's creating these spaces, I think they could use this to improve the condition of the habitat they're creating."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
Fifteen states are in for an unusually noisy spring.
Brood X, the largest and most widespread colony of cicadas in the U.S., is due to emerge from their 17-year hibernation, Michigan State University entomologist Gary Parsons explained. The bugs typically emerge as early as mid-May, and the sound of their mating can reach 100 decibels, Newsweek reported. And there will be lots of them.
"Densities can be as great as 1.5 million per acre. So, between Georgia and New York there will surely be trillions emerging," emeritus professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and Entomological Society of America fellow Michael J. Raupp told Newsweek.
The cicadas are due to emerge in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, DC for the first time since 2004. They will begin to emerge once the ground hits 64 degrees Fahrenheit, usually between mid-May and late June. They will be above ground mating and laying eggs for about five to six weeks, CBS News reported. Then the nymphs will dig into the ground to suck tree roots for another 17 years, Parsons explained.
The brood's large numbers and long hibernation period is part of an evolutionary strategy millions of years old.
"It is thought that by having the longlife cycles, cicadas have prevented predators from specifically targeting them for food. Then by emerging in the millions all at once, they are too numerous for any predators that do eat them from ever wiping them out. There are so many of them that lots of them will always survive," Parsons said.
In addition, the long hibernation times helped the cicadas avoid unseasonably cold summers, CBS News explained. In the Pleistocene Epoch, 1.8 million years ago, summers could be much colder in the Eastern U.S. But cicadas can't survive above ground for long if the temperature stays below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. So they evolved to emerge infrequently to reduce their chances of hitting a cold snap.
Brood X isn't the only cicada brood in the country. There are other broods with 13 or 17 year cycles, as well as annual cicadas with three to four year cycles, Parsons said. Many of them have been impacted by recent environmental changes.
"In the long ago past, it is likely the different broods were more widespread geographically," he said. "It is likely that urbanization, widespread commercial farming and other factors have reduced and limited them over the years. You take away the trees and shrubs in forests and they don't have the roots to feed on. Fortunately, they have adapted well to using street trees, parks and yard trees as their hosts and can still survive in urbanized areas."
This can be a nuisance for some and a dramatic sight for others, but the cicadas are not dangerous. They do not bite, spread disease or eat crops, CBS News pointed out. They also are not poisonous to pets, though sometimes dogs will eat so many of them that they get sick, Parsons said.
The one thing that they do harm is newly-planted trees.
"Don't plant next spring, because these trees are going to simply get hammered next year when those cicadas show up," Raupp told WTOP News in 2020.
Raupp said any trees planted in 2020 could also be in danger. If you did plant last year, Raupp said to protect the young tree with netting and not to use pesticides.
Once the trees are taken care of, Raupp encouraged people to enjoy the spectacle.
"[T]his is a wonderful opportunity for millions of people to witness and enjoy a remarkable biological phenomenon in their own backyard that happens nowhere else on the planet, truly a teachable moment," he told Newsweek.
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By Daniel Raichel
Industry would have us believe that pesticides help sustain food production — a necessary chemical trade-off for keeping harmful bugs at bay and ensuring we have enough to eat. But the data often tell a different story—particularly in the case of neonicotinoid pesticides, also known as neonics.
Despite being the most widely used family of pesticides in the United States, research has shown that the largest uses of these neurotoxic chemicals do little to nothing to help crop yields or farmers' bottom lines.
If we look closer, it's easy to see why: The vast majority of neonics are applied as coatings on seeds for crops like corn, soybean, and wheat — where they are most often used indiscriminately, rather than in response to specific pest problems. For many conventional seed varieties, farmers have no choice but to buy neonics-treated seeds, thanks to the near monopolies enjoyed by agrochemical giants, which manufacture both the seeds and the pesticides.
The result? Tens to hundreds of millions of acres are needlessly sown with bee-toxic seeds. And while these wasteful practices may spell good news for the profit margins of chemical manufacturers — to the tune of more than $3 billion per year — they are catastrophic news for the surrounding ecosystems.
That's because neonics are pervasive ecosystem contaminants. When coated on seeds, they're absorbed "systemically" as plants grow — up through the roots and into the nectar, pollen, and fruit itself — which then get eaten by other wildlife. What doesn't make it into the plant (usually more than 95 percent of the toxic seed coating) leaches out into the soil, where it can travel long distances, carried by rain and agricultural runoff into new soil, plants, and water supplies. Once in the ground, neonics are long-lived — building up in the soil over time and continuing to harm or kill bugs and other wildlife for years after application.
Unsurprisingly, our agricultural system is now 48 times more harmful to insect life than it was just two decades ago, with neonics accounting for more than 90 percent of that increase. That's why it's also no surprise that neonics have been recognized as a primary cause of the massive losses of U.S. honey bee colonies every year — the unfortunate new normal. Neonics are also linked to mass die-offs of native bees, birds, fish, and harm to other important insects and earthworms, which keep our soil healthy and nutrient-dense.
This contamination poses a clear ecological crisis but it's also a crisis for how we eat.
In a recent study out of Rutgers University, researchers looked at seven different crops in 131 commercially managed fields across North America to see how many crops were "pollinator-limited" — i.e., crops whose yields would be higher were there more pollinators.
Distressingly, five out of every seven crops they analyzed were pollinator-limited — including favorites like apples, cherries, and blueberries. "Honeybee colonies are weaker than they used to be and wild bees are declining, probably by a lot," said the paper's senior author, Rachael Winfree. "Fewer bees, in turn, mean less food, and more pressure on struggling honeybee populations to replace pollination from native bees."
As Winfree notes, this reliance on a single species is risky, "setting us up for food security problems." Worse yet, the study shows the likely impact of neonics on our food supply isn't decades away; it's already happening right now.
For the present, industries can use stopgap solutions—like breeding and shipping out more honeybees to make up for lost colonies — but these strategies may ultimately fail if we don't address the source of the vast and wasteful neonic contamination.
Looking into the future, low yields may mean that some of our favorite foods become far pricier or unavailable entirely — an outcome with high human and economic costs.
In the United States, the production of crops that rely on pollination is valued at more than $50 billion annually. Indeed, one in every three bites of food is reliant on pollinators. Food workers — an umbrella term for a behemoth industry that includes everyone from farm workers to restaurant cooks and servers to grocery store clerks — could experience increased job disruptions, too, should the markets for these foods become upended.
Recently, a group of local New York chefs — recognizing their reliance on bees and an abundant and diverse food supply to keep restaurants open, workers employed, and their food healthy and delicious—asked state legislators to rein in wasteful neonic use statewide.
Faced with rising food costs, more families may also struggle to put food on the table. Already, more than 10.5 percent of all U.S. families — or more than 35 million Americans — experienced food insecurity at some point in 2019. During the COVID-19 crisis, that number has ballooned. For those unsure where their next meal may come from, even moderate increases in food costs are felt acutely. Potentially significant changes to food costs or availability — particularly for our most nutrient-dense produce — would likely hit low-income families hardest.
The stakes are high, but the solution is simple: We must rein in needless neonic use that threatens our food supply and contaminates our land and water on a vast scale.
In the same turn, we must also support regenerative agriculture practices, which eliminate the need for synthetic pesticides like neonics. A more just and sustainable food system that protects workers, consumers, and the wild world also protects our food security — it's what we need and it's within reach.
Daniel Raichel is a staff attorney and a member of the Lands & Wildlife program, focusing on protecting our nation's bee populations from the ever-growing threats to their health and existence—in particular, the use of bee-toxic pesticides. Before joining the Wildlife team, Raichel was codirector of NRDC's Community Fracking Defense Project and an advocate for the cleanup of industrial pollution in the New York region. Prior to that, he was a member of the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic. Raichel holds a bachelor's degree in English from Cornell University and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. He works out of the Chicago office.
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