Sunday, January 12, 2014

Are Neonicotinoids hurting wild insects and the birds that eat them?

Black-necked Stilt on a slough on a farm near Kendal, Sask--one of many beautiful bird species who deserve aquatic ecosystems free of contaminants like Neonicotinoids

When colony collapse disorder began to gain public attention a couple of years ago with beekeepers around the northern hemisphere reporting sudden die-offs in their honeybee colonies, our first worry was that agricultural pollination might be placed at risk. Perhaps because I had kept beehives in the past, I was disturbed as anyone at the prospect of a world with fewer honeybees. In fact, it was the mystery of colony collapse disorder that persuaded me to start beekeeping again. We have a relatively remote piece of prairie with no other hives nearby and nothing but natural landscapes and native grassland on all but one corner of our property. Whatever was hurting honeybees might be in lower concentrations on our property. Three years later, we have produced a lot of honey and some mead, and so far the only colony collapse has been me after a day of carrying supers full of honey and cranking the extractor handle to spin out the frames.

a look at one of our honeybee frames in spring

But, like others, I have begun to wonder if the pathology that is killing honeybees might also be killing other insects and therefore affecting ecology up the food chain. The honeybee, because it is an agricultural species that generates profit and GDP, is the one insect we keep a close eye on. Who would know if there was a similar die-off happening among midges, flies, and mosquitoes?

Once researchers began to link colony collapse disorder to the family of seed-coating pesticides known as Neonicotinoids (lets just call them "neonics" from here on), however, it was only a matter of time before a smart biologist would start the important work of finding out whether neonics are remaining in the environment and hurting wild insects and the creatures who depend on them for food.

Enter Dr. Christy Morrissey.

Dr. Christy Morrissey, image courtesy of

A week ago, CBC ran an excellent story on research being done by Dr. Christy Morrissey at the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability. Morrissey is in the middle of a four year project researching several angles on the affects of neonics in the environment--their persistence in water, as well as problems they are causing for aquatic insects that live in contaminated agricultural wetlands and for the birds that depend on those insects for food. With a team of graduate students and some NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) funding, Dr. Morrissey is doing some very important work that may some day help us to convince the Federal Government to ban neonics.

Last year the American Bird Conservancy published a report on bird decline and neonics produced by Dr. Pierre Mineau, a Canadian and one of the world's most respected environmental toxicologists and experts on pesticide effects. Recently retired from Environment Canada, which is now under seige by the science-silencing barbarians in control of Ottawa (did you watch "The Silence of the Labs" on Fifth Estate on Friday? See it here online), Mineau did the work that led to the de-registration of granular Carbofuran and has done much to demonstrate that we need to overhaul the way we register and regulate pesticides in North America.

In the American Bird Conservancy study, Mineau and his co-author examined existing research including the studies done to register neonics in the United States, to see if there could be any links between these contaminants and bird decline. The 100 page report, entitled "The Impact of the Nation's Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds" is available online. Using Freedom of Information provisions to get a look at the registration studies done by the chemical companies and then reviewing several other studies, Mineau discovered that the chemical corporations were not required to come up with any way of diagnosing  poisoned wildlife or measuring exact impacts during their registration process.

What's more, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in the States (and no doubt our Pesticide Management Review Agency in Canada) appears to have ignored all the peer-reviewed studies that would have warned them of the powerful toxicity of several neonics. Instead they grossly underestimated the environmental outfall caused by the chemicals that are now being sold around the world, and used on canola, corn and wheat.

Dr. Morrissey's ongoing studies of wetlands, insects and insectivorous birds in agricultural landscapes contaminated with neonics will no doubt contribute further to the evidence that these products are persistent and serious contaminants that we must ban as soon as possible. Our insectivorous birds, all in rapid decline over the past decade and more, depend on the Canadian public--you and I--to take the next step and see that that ban happens. Science can only take us so far. The rest is up to citizen action and public policy.

Here is a petition begun by Canada's Green Party calling for a ban of neonics. Sign the petition, but spread the news too and tell your Member of Parliament you have had enough. Canada's farmland is not a dumping ground for Bayer's and CropLife's misbegotten chemicals. It is time to reform the PMRA and our system for approving pesticides so that these egregious registration debacles do not happen. We should not have to be constantly fighting rear-guard actions to get rid of toxic farm chemicals that should never have been approved in the first place. It happened with the Carbofuran that was killing grassland and farmland birds in the 1980s and now it is happening all over again with neonics.

Like many people who own land in farm country, I have seen our barn swallow and tree swallow populations drop at Cherry Lake over the past decade, despite no apparent change in the habitat. To prove a link would take some testing of spring runoff, the water in our creek, lake and upland sloughs, and some work on the insects that hatch out of those waters, but we are not seeing the great spiraling pillars of chironomids that we once saw rising like smoke near the lake and I can't remember the last year we were seriously bothered by mosquitoes. Bugs are part of a prairie summer and if we lose our abundant insects, the birds and other creatures who depend on them will fade away too.

four of the five swallow species recorded at Cherry Lake: from left, Bank, Cliff, Barn, and Tree Swallows. All of these birds depend on insects that hatch out of water


  1. Hello Trevor, I'm a filmmaker and are currently editing a documentary on the decline of songbirds...
    we have a section in the doc on Christy Morrissey. She's fantastic. Hopefully someday we will be in Sask to screen the film (when we are done) but in the meantime, here is our website
    Love your writing. Best, Su Rynard

  2. thanks Su--sorry for the ridiculously late response. Having trouble with the comments system notifying me. Anyway, yes, Christy is doing terrific work--very grateful for what she does. Let me know if you need anything to get the screening together in Saskatchewan--really looking forward to it.


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