honey beesIn 2013, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) banned certain bee-killing pesticides, specifically those containing neonicotinoids. Developed about 20 years ago, neonicotinoid pesticides are used to kill aphids, mealybugs, lace bugs, and other pests.  Particularly when applied to blooming plants, neonicotinoids are deadly to pollinators, including bees.

The ODA ban followed high bee deaths beginning in the winter of 2006 and 2007, when certain Oregonian beekeepers reported losing 30-90% of their hives, a shockingly high failure rate. The mass deaths in the state’s bee populations worried environmentalists and farmers alike. Without bee pollination, about a third of food crops cannot be grown. Like all pollinators, bees facilitate plants reproduction, as they bring pollen from one plant to another.

Oregon is not the only location to experience massive bee deaths. The 2006 season saw such widespread bee die-offs that a new term, colony collapse disorder, was coined. Across Europe and North America, bee colonies have continued to fail at extremely high rates in the interim years. While mites, beekeeper retirement, urbanization, and other factors contribute to the overall decline of bee populations since the 1970s, 2013 literature review research found neonicotinoids to be harmful to bees, and responsible for many colony collapses.

Neonicotinoids are chemically similar to nicotine. They bind to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in nervous system cells. These receptors are responsible for the stimulation of muscles via the nervous system. With normal stimulation, these receptors assist with muscular functioning. Neonicotinoids over-stimulate the nAChRs, blocking them. This, in turn, causes paralysis and eventually death.

Neonicotinoids are ubiquitous across the globe—indeed, they made up 24% of the worldwide pesticide market in 2008. Because neonicotinoids are water-soluble, they break down very slowly in the environment, and can continue to operate as a pesticide while the plant grows. Neonicotinoids are therefore applied throughout the growth cycle.

They are especially popular as a seed treatment. For example, 90% of America’s corn seeds are coated with neonicotinoids. When neonicotinoid-coated seeds are planted, up to 95% of the pesticide runs off into the soil. Scientists continue to research how these pesticides could be affecting aquifers. Studies suggest that bird and aquatic insect deaths can also be traced to neonicotinoids. Most alarmingly, research from Harvard University found neonicotinoids on 72% of fruit and 45% of vegetables in Boston grocery stores. Because neonicotinoids enter every cell of the plant, you can’t wash them off. And growing evidence points to nervous poisoning pesticides as a primary cause of nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism.

Despite the new law, Oregon honeybee colonies have continued to fail in 2014. The cause is unclear. Some say that mislabeled insecticides have caused accidental application. Others say that farmers are simply unaware of the new law. Or it could be that farmers are aware of the law, but also keenly aware that they are dependent on pesticides in order to turn a profit. The state’s tree nursery industry is especially reliant on bee-killing pesticides. In mid-June, a massive bee die off near a Eugene apartment complex was traced to neonicotinoid pesticide sprayed on blooming linden trees. Around the same time, five separate bee colonies in the Clackamas area suffered sudden deaths.

When state or federal agencies ban chemicals, hazardous waste protocols shift. Waste disposal companies must therefore stay abreast of any restricted substances, and how to safely handle them. When picking up old out-of-date inventory, such as neonicotinoid pesticides, hazardous waste firms must first inventory the chemicals slated for removal. Technicians must be well versed in chemistry, to understand how to stabilize, package, and ship off all forms of chemical concoctions, including pesticides. Proper waste disposal is regulated by several agencies, including the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. To legally transport and dispose of noxious chemicals, technicians must provide detailed documentation of their actions, according to disposal regulations. As farmers and landscaping companies remove neonicotinoid pesticides from their shelves, Oregon’s waste disposal companies will step up to safely, legally dispose of these bee-killing chemicals.

[Photo by: Paul Rollings, via CC License]