Neonicotinoids. Say what? The problem with chemical names is that only scientists think they make sense, but luckily, when broken down by syllables, normal humans can usually figure out how say the word.
Breaking it down, neonicotinoid means: neo = new; nicotin = nicotine; oid = similar to, but not the same. It’s a relatively new breed of nerve poison insecticide that resembles nicotine, chemically speaking. Like nicotine, in small doses neonicotinoids stimulate an insect’s nervous system, but in high doses, they over-stimulate the nerves, leading to paralysis and death.
This class of pesticides includes specific chemicals that are equally fun to sound out, including: acetamiprid, clothianidin, nitenpryam, nithiazine, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam, and the most widely used insecticide in the world, imidicloprid. Collectively, they are often referred to as neonics (knee-oh-nix).
First introduced to the United States in 1994 by Bayer, neonics are now used by the major pesticide companies in everything from home and garden products to agricultural seed treatments and sprays. Neonics are water soluble so that plants can absorb them. A systemic type of pesticide, they are present in all parts of the plants, affecting any insect that feeds on the plant, including the pollen and nectar.
The heavy hitters in ag chemicals say that neonics are harmless to humans and fall within Environmental Protection Agency regulations for all classes of toxicity and aquatic persistence. Many scientists and environmental activists aren’t so sure neonics are harmless beyond their intended use.
University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey recently published research showing contamination of prairie wetlands due to leaching of neonics. Morrissey’s research studied hundreds of wetlands at various times of the year and showed 80 to 90 percent were contaminated. Some had three to four times the concentration of neonics tolerable to insects.
Thus far, it appears neonics have high persistence rates in prairie soils, and due to their water-soluble nature, they run off into wetlands during snow melt and rain. Soil and wetland persistence of neonics hasn’t been determined, but it is expected to be months to years. That wetlands have shown high concentrations after ice-out and prior to spring planting spells trouble for waterfowl that feed on wetland invertebrates during the breeding season.
Despite being relatively new on the market, according to a recently published government study in Iowa, use of neonics has tripled over the past decade. Morrisey estimated almost half the cropland in prairie Canada – tens of millions of acres – was treated with neonics. If the Center for Food Safety’s estimates are accurate and over 99 percent of corn and more than 75 percent of soybeans are treated with neonics, the United States land area treated with neonics would be staggering as well.
There are several possibilities as to how neonics may harm insect and wildlife populations.
One is by interrupting the food web. If neonics are contaminating wetlands at a high rate during the spring and summer, it’s likely they could eliminate the invertebrates depended upon by breeding waterfowl and their offspring. Seed-eating birds may reach toxic levels after consuming neonic-treated seeds in crop fields.
Also under scrutiny is the possibility neonics play a role in the collapse of pollinator colonies. Given neonics are present in all parts of the plant, bees and butterflies feeding on the pollen and nectar may succumb to the pesticide, even if indirectly.
Neonics may not kill bees outright, but DNR pollinator specialist Crystal Boyd said, “There is solid evidence of sub-lethal effects on bees. It may disrupt their ability to find their way back to the hive or cause them to forget how to forage.”
Neonics can be applied as sprays, which are prone to wind drift, but there is evidence that even the dust resulting from air-seeded corn may drift to adjacent plants visited by bees. Several colony collapses have coincided with corn seeding.
In December 2013, the European Union issued a 2-year moratorium on neonics to further study their impacts. So far, efforts to restrict neonics in the United States, including federal legislation and a lawsuit against the EPA, have failed. However, the national wildlife refuge system recently announced neonics will be phased out and prohibited beginning in January 2016.
As research continues, look for neonics to become a hot topic in agricultural and environmental circles. The phrase “silent spring” and comparisons to DDT are ramping up and will be hitting the mainstream before year’s end.