Save New Jersey’s bees: Reduce use of ‘neonics’

By Michele S. Byers

New Jersey is still the “Garden State,” famous for blueberries, peaches, tomatoes, corn and other delicious fruits and veggies.

But these valuable crops will not grow without the services of honeybees, wild bees like bumblebees, and other insect pollinators. Together, they pollinate nearly $200 million worth of produce a year.

Bees are disappearing at an alarming rate and mounting evidence points to insecticides known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics” for short. Chemically related to nicotine, neonics are neurotoxins that kill by attacking the nerve cells of insects.

Neonics are often applied as a “drench” to plant roots or as a coating on seeds. The toxin dissolves in water and is soaked up by plants as they grow, spreading through the tissues to all parts of the plant, including the nectar and pollen.

It kills insect pests, but that is not all. Bees and other beneficial pollinators feed on the contaminated nectar and pollen as they buzz from flower to flower.

Neonics also persist in soil for a long time and wash into streams and water supplies. The levels applied can be so high that plants remain toxic to insects for years.

Reducing neonics in the environment is the goal of the state Legislature’s “Save the Bees Bill,” which would eliminate non-agricultural uses of neonics. If passed, the bill would be one of the strongest in the nation to reduce widespread pollution from these neurotoxic chemicals.

In recent years, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland and Vermont have passed legislation to remove pesticide products containing neonics from retail stores and to allow their use by only licensed pesticide applicators for lawn care or on turf, trees, shrubs and gardens.

New Jersey’s law would go farther, taking neonics out of lawn care businesses and off store shelves.

Sponsored by senators Bob Smith and Kip Bateman, and Assemblyman Clinton Calabrese, the bipartisan bill (A-2070/S-1016) was passed by the Senate in 2020. It is now awaiting a vote by the full Assembly.

Restricting the use of neonics is critical. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found in a 2020 study that most neonic use comes from lawn treatments for insect pests.

Certified applicators, including landscapers, applied nearly 30,000 pounds of neonics to New Jersey lawns in 2016. This is overkill.

According to a Cornell University report, neonic treatments on lawns and ornamental plants are unnecessary and can easily be replaced with less harmful alternatives.

New Jersey must protect its bees and by extension the entire food web of this state we’re in.

Domesticated honeybees are a $7 million industry in New Jersey and beekeepers report having lost between 40% to 50% of their colonies every year for most of the last decade. Wild bees are just as vital in pollinating crops and are also in serious declines.

After reviewing many scientific studies, the Natural Resource Defense Council has concluded that neonics are a leading cause of massive bee die-offs around the globe that threaten food security, agricultural economies and the environment.

For that reason, most neonics are banned in the United Kingdom and Europe. Bees at risk in the United States include both domesticated honeybees, which are not a native species, and more than 4,000 native bee species.

Neonics are also linked to bird population declines, the collapse of fisheries, birth defects in white-tailed deer and a variety of potential health issues in other mammals, including humans.

For its 2020 study on neonics, the DEP collected more than 250 samples of surface water and groundwater at 123 sites throughout the state. They found neonics in more than half the water samples and neonic concentrations in most samples are above federal benchmarks for harm to wildlife.

The proposed targeted restrictions on neonics would not only protect New Jersey’s bees, but also drinking water and ecosystems.

“This would help lessen the poisoning of pollinator populations that the entire ecosystem food web, including our food crops, depend upon,” says Dr. Emile DeVito, Manager of Science and Stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Take action; you can help. It’s time for New Jersey to get smart and save our pollinators and our environment.

Please ask Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to post the Save the Bees Bill, A-2070, for a vote without further delay, and urge your Assembly representatives to vote yes on the bill.

To find your representatives, go to https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp

To learn more about the Save the Bees Bill, go to https://www.njlcv.org/news/broad-coalition-environmental-groups-urges-immediate-passage-save-bees-bill

To read the DEP study, go to https://www.nj.gov/dep/dsr/wq/neonicotinoid-insecticides-rps.pdf

To learn more about neonics, go to https://www.nrdc.org/experts/daniel-raichel/ten-things-you-always-wanted-know-about-neonics

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org