By Scott Smith, Communications Director
As a late Baby Boomer growing up in the Midwest, summer vacations meant piling into the station wagon and driving—to Florida for the beaches, to Minnesota for the lakes, to Nebraska for visits to our grandparents’ farm.
On these family road trips long ago, the pit stops were frequent, and my job always was to clean the windshield. It was a task I enjoyed—squeegees were a recent invention—and one that I took seriously. Interstates were few and far between, so most of our travel was on state highways through open countryside. Every time we stopped, the windshield would be pockmarked with the stains and carcasses of bugs. Flying insects of every stripe and color, from butterflies and moths with their powdery wings, to big fat grasshoppers, to bees and little black bugs of all kinds. On some trips, especially to the grandfolks’ corn and milo farm between the Platte and Little Blue rivers, the bugs were so thick I’d also have to scrub the front grill and take a hose to the radiator.
This June, I drove from Florida to my home in Connecticut; my father, who no longer drives, had gifted his car to my 21-year-old son. I stopped a number of times on the two-day, 1,100-mile drive, most of it through rural areas of farms, tidal marshes and woodlands. Never once did I have to clean the windshield.
Worse, the bug apocalypse followed me home. Despite a lushly planted pollinator garden free of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, exactly one monarch has alighted on the milkweed flowers so far this season. No Mow May turned into No Mow June, but still the bees have been noticeably absent from the white clover blossoms that dot the lawn. Even the big bumble bees that always lumber about the vegetable garden have gone missing this year.
The ongoing global collapse of insect populations has been a long time coming, despite ever-growing evidence of how humans are causing it and what’s needed to prevent the crisis from becoming even worse. A recent study published in Nature suggests that the number of flying insects is declining by an average of 34% per decade. This finding backs up research published in 2017 showing that in German nature preserves, 75% of flying insect biomass had been lost. Indeed, a citizen-science project in the UK measuring insect splats per mile on license plates found a 65% decline in such strikes in England from 2001 to 2021.
As much as we may welcome fewer mosquito bites on the back porch or no cockroaches scurrying about the kitchen, the rapid, worldwide decline of insects has huge implications. Insects represent 70% of all animal species on the planet; the quintillions of bugs add up to fully half of all animal biomass. Insects pollinate 75% percent of all food crops and comprise the base of many food chains and webs, some of which are also now collapsing. In 2019, Science published a landmark study documenting the loss of 2.9 billion birds in North America since 1970. That’s nearly one in four birds. And while habitat loss, pollution and the climate crisis are seen as causes, many ornithologists point the finger at the rampant use of toxic pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, which are now applied to nearly all corn grown in the U.S. “Grassland birds, the group that may be most directly exposed to agricultural pesticides, have declined by more than half since 1970,” reports writer and researcher Scott Weidensaul in a widely shared article published June 24, 2022 on Cornell Labs’ All About Birds website.
The prescient Rachel Carson was presented as a hero to my grade-school science class; it was her pioneering research into the deadly perils of DDT that sparked the first bans on synthetic pesticides and protections for the raptors who were falling victim to the insidious insecticide.
The 1972 ban on DDT may have saved eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey from extinction but it also led to the development of equally pernicious pesticides, starting with a new class of insecticides rushed to market in the 1970s, organophosphates. Developed as nerve gas agents for military use, organophosphates were reformulated for agricultural pest control and also used everywhere from hospitals to schools, public parks and playing fields, as well as for mosquito control. You may recognize this toxic chemical in the form of chlorpyrifos, malathion, and diazinon. All are deadly to bees and other non-target organisms. Human exposure to organophosphates increases the risk of reduced IQs, memory and attention deficits, and autism for prenatal children, among other hazards found only after the Environmental Protection Agency permitted decades of use.
The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 put limits on the use of organophosphates for agriculture and residential use—and led the industry to develop even more powerful poisons. These included a new class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, that interfere with an insect’s nervous system, causing paralysis and death. Brought to market in 1994, neonics are roughly 7,000 times as toxic to insects as DDT, says Weidensaul, who adds, “They are, in a phrase I heard repeatedly from the scientists to whom I spoke, ‘exquisitely’ toxic to insects.”
“Over the last three decades, neonics have become utterly ubiquitous,” Weidensaul writes. The neonic “Imidacloprid is the most commonly used insecticide in the world; it and other neonics are used not just in agriculture but in many residential turf and garden products, and even home pet treatments for fleas and lice.”
Absorbed into every part of the growing plant, from its roots and stem to its windblown pollen, systemic insecticides like neonics make the entire plant toxic to any insect that nibbles it. The single biggest use of neonicotinoids is as a coating on seeds, especially with corn and soybeans. If swallowed, a single kernel of corn treated with neonic is enough to kill a jay-sized songbird. Yet because of a loophole in federal pesticide regulations, seed coatings are not even considered “pesticides,” and their use is neither tracked nor directly regulated by the EPA.
Most neonics have been banned for farm use in European countries because they are highly persistent in the environment. “They are increasingly ubiquitous in many rivers, streams, and lakes, harming populations of emergent insects on which aerial insectivores like swallows, swifts, and flycatchers depend,” reports bird expert Weidensaul.
Frustrated by the EPA’s inaction on the federal level, a number of states and municipalities are moving to restrict the use of this latest toxic scourge. In early 2022, New Jersey classified all neonicotinoids as restricted-use pesticides available only to licensed applicators and banned them for residential use and on commercial properties, including golf courses. In Connecticut, after the city of Stamford passed one of the country’s strictest bans on the use of synthetic pesticides on public property, in June 2022, the neighboring City of Norwalk passed an ordinance that will ban toxic synthetic pesticides on public properties in favor of safer, organic land care practices by the end of the year.
“Safer, organic alternatives may take more effort initially, or may be a little more expensive, but these considerations will be outweighed by knowing the city will no longer be posing a health risk to people, pets or pollinators or all the wildlife uniquely vulnerable to pesticide exposure,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, based in Darien, CT.
Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, all 30 are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, 26 are deadly to bees, and 22 are toxic to birds. Responding to human health concerns about controlling ticks and mosquitoes without toxic synthetics, Drew Toher, community resource and policy director for Beyond Pesticides, a non-profit based in Washington, DC., acknowledged the need for effective measures but pointed to a study that showed a group of Connecticut residents suffered the same number of ticks on their bodies whether or not a pesticide was used. A wide range of effective organic solutions and practices to control pests such as ticks and mosquitoes or plants like poison ivy may be found at beyondpesticides.org.
Friends of Animals, along with a range of animal advocacy and environmental groups active in Connecticut, intends to continue efforts to enact a statewide ban on toxic pesticides. “It’s high time that we connected people and conscientious lawmakers—linking municipal pesticide bans to the interests of animal advocates, gardeners and conservationists, so that the hazards and risks of using pesticides both informs residents and changes public policies and practices,” said FoA’s Feral.