NY debates pesticide ban to protect bees

A bee alights on a crocus blooming in a Saranac Lake yard, sipping nectar and spreading pollen Thursday, March 25. (Provided photo — Joe Poliquin)

In the last three weeks of legislative session, some state lawmakers are talking about the birds and the bees.

Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the Senate and Assembly, are pushing to advance the Birds and Bees Protection Act, or bill No. S699B/A7429, to prohibit the sale of neonicotinoid or “neonics” pesticides, insecticides and coated seeds.

The bill, which lawmakers say will move before the end of session June 10, would restrain the use of neonics on coated seeds, including corn, soybean and wheat.

Beekeepers in the state have lost more than 40% of their bee colonies almost every year over the last decade, said bill sponsor Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan.

“A growing body of scientific study links these colony collapses to the use of a pesticide called neonicotinoids,” Hoylman said Thursday during a virtual news conference held by the Natural Resources Defense Council about the measure. “…The toxic pesticides are linked to massive losses of pollinators and bees around the world.”

The bill has 15 co-sponsors in the Senate, Hoylman said during a virtual news conference about the bill Thursday. The Birds and Bees Protection Act remains in each chambers’ Environmental Conservation Committee.

Neonics, an environmentally damaging pesticide, harms bees, birds, fish, pollutes the water supply and can pose health risks, according to a 2020 Cornell University report on state neonicotinoid insecticides.

If passed, the Birds and Bees Protection Act would provide targeted, science-based restrictions by banning the direct application of neonic pesticide on ornamental plants and turf in 2023 and banning the sale of neonic-treated seeds for corn, soybean and wheat crops in 2024 and giving the state Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to regulate neonic-treated seeds and implement additional regulations on the pesticide users that harm pollinators, bees or birds.

The bill would also direct the DEC and Cornell University to study alternatives to neonicotinoids for state farmers to use.

“Some research showed that neonics are so harmful they can even decrease crop yields by killing off insect predator populations making those crops more vulnerable to pests,” Hoylman said. “At its core this bill is about making sure every New Yorkers, those of us who have legs and those of us who have wings can lie in a safe, healthy environment.”

Loss of pollinators estimated $440 million annually in pollination services, allowing apples, cherries and other popular New York crops to thrive.

Neonics contains enough toxic ingredients to kill more than 250,000 bees from one corn seed, said Dan Raichel, acting director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Pollinator Initiative.

The pesticide is designed to permeate plants, making their roots, leaves, nectar and pollen toxic to insects. The toxins are often absorbed by growing plants as they mature.

About 2% to 5% of the active ingredient gets into the plant. The other 95% of the toxic active ingredient remains in the soil, and can remain for many years after rainwater carries the contaminants to other soil.

“If there’s a water source nearby, it will become contaminated,” Raichel said.

The Birds and Bees Protection Act does not have bipartisan support, Hoylman said.

“Unfortunately, at this point, we do not have bipartisan support — we wish we did,” Hoylman said. “There’s probably nothing more nonpartisan than protecting the environment, and the species such as pollinators, which are so crucial to our economy … I would think Republicans would be keen on doing that, but at this stage, we don’t have support from any of them.”

Hoylman expressed confidence the measure will pass in both houses of the Legislature by the end of session.

The state largest neonic users provided little to no economic benefit and can be replaced with safer alternatives, such as organic or minimum-use pesticides that are much less toxic to bees, birds and people.

Neonic-treated seeds do not provide a net income to farmers, Raichel said.

Raichel said the concentration of the monopoly power from large agribusiness companies is largely at fault.

“Some of these large companies, the folks making the corn and soybean seeds are making the pesticides that come on the seeds, and they come at a premium, so I think that might have something to do with it,” he said.

Twelve organizations, including members and volunteers, recently met with 20 state senators and assemblymembers to advocate for the bill’s passage.

Several activist groups participated in Thursday’s lobby day for the measure, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Audubon NY, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Clean and Healthy New York, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Earthjustice, Environmental Advocates NY, Friends of the Earth, the Good of the Hive, Physicians for Social Responsibility — New York, Sierra Club — Atlantic Chapter and Northeast Organic Farming Association — New York.


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