Trying to understand why honeybees have been dying off at astonishing rates, researchers tagged free-ranging honeybees with tiny microchips and tracked them gathering and returning to their hives.
Next, they gave a group a less-than-lethal dose of a pesticide, thiamethoxam, and found that the treated bees were two to three times more likely to die while away from their hives; the pesticide apparently interfered with the bees’ legendary ability to navigate home.
This study, the first in a natural open-air environment, confirms what beekeepers have long suspected: a link between common pesticides and the drop in honeybee populations. Losing half the honeybees in the past 25 years threatens bee-pollinated crops like tomatoes, beans, apples and strawberries. Bees pollinate at least a third of our staple foods.
Pesticides are intentionally toxic and can do subtle, insidious damage in ways that still are being uncovered.
Homeowners use up to 10 times more pesticides per acre than farmers use on crops, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With around 30 million acres of lawns, that means around 80 million tons of pesticides are poured into our environment each year.
That’s in addition to the billion pounds of pesticides sprayed into fields and orchards.
Telling what’s in all this stuff is no simple matter. The EPA allows more than 200 different pesticides to be used for lawn care. Often these are mixed together and marketed as different combinations. Only pesticides licensed for food uses are tested for their chronic health effects.
Common lawn and garden pesticides have been associated with birth defects, mutations, adverse reproductive effects and cancer in laboratory animals.
The EPA has tested only a fraction of registered pesticides for their effects on the developing nervous system; six of the nine tested were more harmful to young animals than adults, according to Environment and Human Health Inc., a non-profit made up of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts committed to the reduction of environmental health risks to individuals.
Spring garden center display bags and bottles contain 90-95 percent “inert” ingredients, many more toxic than the active ones. Some are suspected carcinogens, while others have been linked to central nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage, birth defects and some short-term health effects.
There is no “away” for pesticides. They lurk on yards and playgrounds, fall on water surfaces, seep into groundwater and are readily absorbed and stored in living creatures — including 96 percent of fish sampled from rivers and streams. And our children: A 2001 study found organophosphorus pesticide residues in 99 percent of Seattle schoolchildren.
How can you help? Consider making your yard, garden or farm a wildlife habitat. Even a patch of ground outside a commercial building or an apartment balcony can be transformed into a garden that attracts a parade of wild visitors. All they need is food, water and a safe place to hide.
Leaving dead trees in your yard creates a place for birds, bats, squirrels and chipmunks to rest and nest. Just make sure that any upright snags don’t threaten your home or the neighbor’s garage. A brush pile can shelter quail and other ground-feeding birds and small critters.
Add native plants your wild visitors will recognize. These hardy plants generally require less watering, care or fuss.
No need for lawn mowing; you’ll save time and money and enjoy bird songs, not roaring, smelly mowers and blowers.
The National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org, offers scads of information on wildlife gardening, including school yard projects and a certification program. Now 39 years old, this program has certified nearly 150,000 homes, in addition to businesses, places of worship, schools and entire communities, adding around 300,000 acres of meaningful habitat.
Certification makes a difference. A research study found 51 species of birds, mammals, butterflies and other animals in certified habitats, compared with 14 species in adjacent yards and 21 at homes chosen randomly.
Replacing a useless lawn with a backyard refuge will offer a sanctuary to bees, butterflies and countless other creatures, and nurture your soul, too.
Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Reach her at www.DianaSomerville.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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