Exotic Pet Tales: The Pollinator Problem & Saving the Bees (and the Birds!)

Written on August 02, 2019 by Mike Corcoran, DVM, DABVP (R/A), CertAqV Hospital: Bulger Veterinary Hospital

bee or honeybee in Latin Apis Mellifera on flower

A few of the important roles played by veterinarians include helping with protection of endangered species, ensuring food safety, and animal advocacy. This month, those roles are compelling me to speak out on an important issue in the news and show some ways we can all help make the world a better place.

I’m talking about our wild pollinators.

Recently, the European Union has banned all pesticides that can harm bees. Unfortunately, here in the U.S. the EPA is doing the opposite. I will not pretend to have all the answers regarding this controversial decision, but I will put forth what information I have and discuss other issues facing pollinators with the goal to increase knowledge, increase awareness, and let you know what you can do to help.

Sulfoxator: What is it and how it affects the bees

The pesticide being cleared by the EPA is Sulfoxator. The good news is that this is not in the category with neonicotinoids that persist for the life of the plant. Neonicotinoids are currently banned in the US after a court ruling in May this year. This is the class just banned in the EU. Sulfoxator is currently in use in the EU. In that manner, we are in line on both groups.

The concern is the trends. Sulfoxator is still very toxic to bees, affecting reproduction, growth, ability to fight disease, memory development, coordination and ability to navigate. Additionally, “Sulfoxaflor also harms predatory insects like lacewings (Garzón et al., 2015) and produces secondary poisoning in predatory bugs of insect pests (Wanumen et al., 2016)…” (T Center; science direct reference below).

There are rules for mitigating damage, but some of these restrictions were just loosened by the EPA. For example, they could not be applied to flowering plants that have petals, they had to be applied 12 feet from other flowering plants outside the field, etc. These restrictions were just loosened by the new requirements even though there was concern that these restrictions were still allowing harm to pollinators. All the scientific studies I looked at indicate more needs to be known to understand how it persists in wild plants, how it affects other species, and how far it is carries with various application techniques. In the midst of this, the EPA is now considering the neonicotinoids for use with similar mitigations.

Importance of Pollinators

Why are pollinators so important? If you want my opinion, the fact they are living creatures is enough. Add to that, many of these animals are on the endangered species list.

It has been estimated that 75% of our crops depend on pollinators. In 2010, nearly $30 billion of crops were dependent on bees or other pollinators. Of that, it is estimated that $19 billion were dependent on bees. Worldwide, the figure is over $200 billion. If those crops are lost, there is not only the financial loss to consider, but the sustainability of human food sources. We have already seen a 60% decline in the number of bee hives since 1947.

The Birds and the Bees

Much of the focus is on bees, but remember that pollination also happens due to butterflies, bats, hummingbirds and some other insects. Pesticide residues are not always evaluated in these animals. Bees are often more of a focus because they make honey, making them a food-producing animal subject to regulation and a concern for drug residues.

Other animals may not be scrutinized as hard because there is no direct link to human health. Pesticide use is being evaluated as a contributor to hummingbird decline in British Columbia where pesticide residues have been detected in their urine. There is also some investigation being done to look at the potential for pesticides having some contribution to a fungal disease that is killing bats (White Nose Syndrome).

Other Factors

Keep in mind that pesticides are gaining a lot of attention now, but they are not the only factor causing decline in the populations of pollinators.

Habitat loss and climate change are two other major factors in the decline of these species.

Climate change is causing some plants to flower earlier than normal. Many migratory pollinators migrate to areas at specific times. When plants flower early, they may arrive too late to properly feed. Increasing urban sprawl and changing weather patterns are also leading to the extinction or decline of some of the plants that are important for pollinators.

What can you do?

Beecome a gardener!

Make a pollinator garden for you home and plant some pollinator-friendly plants. Replacing some of the grass space in your house with some native plants that are good for pollinators is not only great for them, but your yard will be more maintenance-free and beautiful. I even get fresh raspberries from mine- as long as I beat the birds and squirrels to the berries. See here for some good tips.

Bee involved in citizen science

Citizen science allows observations from your yard to be added to the body of scientific knowledge for pollinator species. The more information that can be brought into the body of scientific information, the better the future plans for the species can be formulated.

Bee politically active

The pollinators can’t speak for themselves. Participate in our government and help bee their voice. The EPA is still evaluating some of the pesticides for expanded use. Contact the EPA and you congressional representatives to make sure that all know how important this is to you as a voter. On a state level, contact your state representatives. States cannot change the labels use of pesticides, buy they can amend the use to add protections that are important locally. In local government, you can encourage cities to landscape public places for pollinators, avoid the use of pesticides in local parks and give your voice to town.

Bee a keeper

You can develop a new hobby and provide a home for some unique new pets. See here for local society information.

Keep a hummingbird feeder

A hummingbird feeder can provide food for pollinators and bring fun animals to your yard! Make sure you clean it and replace the food weekly to avoid the growth of fungus that will be detrimental to the health of the birds.

 

References for further information:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0430-6

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0264837717316642

https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2019/07/12/epa-allow-use-pesticide-considered-very-highly-toxic-bees/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0f7fcf070a73

https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/schedule-review-neonicotinoid-pesticides

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6359/109

https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/decision-register-new-uses-insecticide-sulfoxaflor

https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2012/05/insect-pollinators-contribute-29b-us-farm-income

https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/save-the-bees/

https://ornithologyexchange.org/forums/topic/34057-decline-in-hummingbird-population-linked-to-insecticide/

https://www.audubon.org/conservation/how-climate-change-affects-hummingbirds-feeding-behavior

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2018/08/03/honeybees-pollinator-really-going-extinct/#.XSo3BJjYrnE

https://e360.yale.edu/features/declining_bee_populations_pose_a_threat_to_global_agriculture

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/27/eu-agrees-total-ban-on-bee-harming-pesticides

https://sustainablepulse.com/2019/05/21/us-epa-cancels-registration-of-12-neonicotinoid-pesticides-after-pollinator-legal-battle/#.XSpXK5jYrnE

https://www.hbvc.org/

https://www.fws.gov/northeast/ecologicalservices/ecissues/wns.html

 

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