The Eugene City Council voted recently to ban the use of a class of insecticides on all city property, including parks. While Eugene uses a vanishingly small percentage of the world’s supply of these chemicals, the unanimous vote was an important display of leadership. The insecticides targeted by the council’s resolution pose a serious threat to bees and other pollinators, and the city’s action could be a disproportionately effective response to the threat.
The insecticides are neonicotinoids. Developed in the 1980s, neonicotinoids were the first major class of insecticides to be introduced in 50 years. As they came into use in the 1990s, neonicotinoids were welcomed as being highly effective in controlling insect pests while presenting little threat to wildlife. One type of neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, is now the most widely used insecticide in the world.
A problem with any effective insecticide, however, is that it is toxic to harmful and beneficial insects alike. Bees may be particularly susceptible to neonicotinoids. The insecticides are systemic, meaning they are absorbed and distributed to all parts of a plant, accumulating in its pollen and nectar, both of which are gathered and spread by bees. A study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found that neonicotinoids disrupt bees’ immune systems, making them vulnerable to viral infections.
Bees of all kinds – wild and domestic, solitary like bumblebees and social like honeybees – are in trouble, with population declines of 50 percent reported in some parts of the world. Neonicotinoids are far from the only source of stress on bee populations, but this relatively new type of chemical may be aggravating a decline that has far-reaching consequences. Researchers at Cornell University estimated that insect pollinators, mostly bees, added $29 billion to the U.S. agricultural economy in 2010. Many fruit and nut crops could not be produced unless they were pollinated by bees. Declining bee populations could have landscape-altering effects on botanical diversity.
The European Union voted last year to ban the use of three neonicotinoids, citing an unacceptably high risk to bees. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, is sponsoring the Save American Pollinators Act, which would ban four neonicotinoids, including those banned by the EU. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is examining the safety of neonicotinoids, but its review will not be complete for several years.
The city of Eugene was right not to wait for federal action. The council recognized that it had an opportunity to respond in a way that acknowledges a special responsibility to protect pollinators.