Say “No” to Neonicotinoids

MARCH 2024

For about as long as we have had agriculture, we have had agricultural pests—insects and other creatures who make their living off food we grow. We’ve been in an evolutionary showdown with these pests for centuries, adapting new technologies to better protect our food. The stakes of the back and forth increased dramatically with the advent of chemical pesticides. In the 1980’s, a specific class of pesticide was developed called neonicotinoids, or “neonics”. These are versatile chemicals that can be added to irrigation water, onto plant tissue, or treated on a plant’s seeds so they’re built into the plant as it grows. The chemical binds with receptors in insects’ central nervous systems, which leads to paralysis and ultimately death. They are the most widely used chemical insecticide in the world, accounting for roughly 25% of global pesticide use, and are in an estimated 99% of corn seeds in Vermont as well as most corn seeds in New York. In the scope of the tit-for-tat battle we’ve been engaged in with pests this may seem like a win for humans. But, as with all things in nature, pesticides do not exist in a vacuum—there are wide-ranging unintended consequences of neonics on ecological systems above and below the water. 

One of the most common concerns with neonics is their impact on non-target insects, specifically bees and other pollinators. Pollinators are critical to the function of entire ecosystems as well as to the food supply. Research indicates that since most neonics are applied by coating the seeds before they are planted, the whole plant becomes toxic to insects. This means pollinators are the victims of pesticides along with the pests, and neonics are one of the main drivers behind bee loss worldwide. Native bees, like various bumblebee species in the Lake Champlain watershed have experienced serious decline and extinction over the course of the past several decades. Honeybee colonies in the region have also seen population reductions, with beekeepers reporting increased incidence of colony collapse.

It’s not just charismatic bumblebees and hard-working honeybees that are harmed by neonics. Aquatic invertebrates such as mayflies and damselflies are particularly vulnerable to neonics as well. How can this be if the insects live in the water and don’t have direct contact with the treated plant? While coating seeds with neonics may seem like an efficient way to treat the entire plant, research indicates that only about two to five percent of the seed coating goes into the plant’s tissues, leaving about 95% of the chemicals in the soil. From there, neonics remain active and enter waterways through rain or irrigation, as they are highly water-soluble. Aquatic invertebrates are extremely sensitive to this class of pesticides—at low doses it impacts growth, reproduction, and emergence, and it does not take much of the pesticide to have lethal effects on invertebrates in the water.

Why should you care about the health of a mayfly? If aquatic invertebrates don’t give you warm fuzzy feelings on their own, consider the role they play in a broader context. These organisms comprise the base of the food web for aquatic ecosystems from tiny headwater streams in the mountains all the way down to Lake Champlain. When aquatic invertebrates are harmed, so too are the birds and fish that feed on them, with cascading effects throughout the entire system. A nationwide study in 2015 by the US Geological Survey found that over half of the streams in the country are polluted with neonics. This is a major concern for water quality and ecosystem health.

Neonics have been used for decades now prophylactically, which means they’ve become the norm as preventative measures against pests rather than in response to high rates of pestilence. As research continues to emerge on the harms that this class of chemicals has beyond their targets, we need to seriously reconsider this practice and stop using these pesticides.                                                                                                          

New York became the first state in the nation to ban their use statewide. In December 2023, Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Birds and the Bees Act, prohibiting the use of neonic treated corn, soybean, or wheat seeds and neonic pesticides for outdoor ornamental plants and turfs. “This law underscores our commitment to fostering a thriving ecosystem while we prioritize sustainable farming and agricultural practices,” said Governor Hochul in a December 22, 2023 press release announcing the measure. Quebec also placed stringent restrictions on neonics back in 2019. With these precedents, the availability of seeds not treated with neonics to farmers is expected to grow as demand increases in response to the bans.

The Lake Champlain Committee and other environmental organizations are working on a bill that would put in place a similar prohibition on neonics in Vermont as was done in New York. H.706 would ban the sale and distribution of soy, grain, corn and other seeds treated with neonics as well as ban the application of neonics on plants under certain circumstances, such as while in bloom. While the bill allows for exemptions under specific circumstances, testimony from farmers in Quebec with a few years of living with a neonic ban indicates that the transition to non-treated seeds will not lead to crop loss or major expense to farmers. H706 will likely be voted out of committee early the week of February 26 and be up for a vote by the full Vermont House of Representatives later in the week. If you live in Vermont, please contact your state representative to show support for H.706. You can find your legislator and contact information through this link.

Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is a bi-state nonprofit that uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship, and ensure recreational access. You can joinrenew your membership, make a special donation, or volunteer to further our work.